German children's productivity with simple transitive and complement-clause constructions: Testing the effects of frequency and variability

Silke Brandt, Arie Verhagen, Elena Lieven, Michael Tomasello

    Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


    The development of abstract schemas and productive rules in language is affected by both token and type frequencies. High token frequencies and surface similarities help to discover formal and functional commonalities between utterances and categorize them as instances of the same schema. High type frequencies and diversity help to develop slots in these schemas, which allow the production and comprehension of novel utterances. In the current study we looked at both token and type frequencies in two related constructions in German child-directed speech: simple transitive and complement-clause constructions. Both constructions contain high frequency verbs, which potentially support the development of verb-specific schemas. However, only the frequent verbs in the transitive constructions occur with a variety of subject types, which also supports the development of a slot in the subject position. We then used an elicited production task to compare 4- and 5-year-old German-speaking children's productivity with simple transitive constructions and complement-clause constructions. The children were prompted to change the subjects of high and low frequency simple transitive verbs, such as essen 'eat' and naschen 'nibble', mental-state complement-taking verbs, such as denken 'think' and vermuten 'presume', and communication complement-taking verbs, such as sagen 'say' and berichten 'report'. In accordance with earlier findings, children had less difficulty producing new utterances with high frequency transitive verbs than with low frequency transitive verbs. For the other verb classes, however, we found either reverse frequency effects or no frequency effects. For these verb classes, children's productivity can be determined by diversity rather than simple token frequency. We discuss how token frequency interacts with diversity, discourse function, semantic complexity, and syntactic complexity. © 2011 Walter de Gruyter GmbH & Co. KG, Berlin/New York.
    Original languageEnglish
    Pages (from-to)325-357
    Number of pages32
    JournalCognitive Linguistics
    Issue number2
    Publication statusPublished - May 2011


    • complement clause
    • discourse function
    • diversity
    • Frequency
    • productivity
    • transitive


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