Acquisition of past tense in Albanian: implications for morphological processing and representation

2012
Author: 
Dorina Strori

This study examines the acquisition of past tense in Albanian, which is a highly inflectional language, especially with respect to its verbal system. The past tense depicts a rather complex picture, involving several components and discrepancies. This process is realized via mandatory suffixation (two suffixes available for the third person singular: ‘-i’ and ‘-u’), accompanied by the different combinations of two other inflectional dimensions: stem extension (four available affixes for the third person singular: ‘-v-’, ‘-t-’, ‘-jt-’, ‘-r-’), and stem change. Unlike English, Albanian doesn’t offer a clear distinction between ‘regular’ and ‘irregular’ inflection, and a ‘default-like’ past tense process. Rather, it involves several discrepancies between verbs’ past tense formation and their phonological structure, such that verbs belonging to the same phonological prototype diverge with respect to their past tense formation. Also, it is one of a limited number of languages that offers the possibility to observe paradigmatic relations and discrepancies between a verb’s inflected instances. The present study deals with production data, collected from 64 monolingual Albanian-speaking children divided into three age groups (age range: 2;8 – 5;8). A picture-cued elicitation technique was used to elicit children’s production of the verbs’ present and past tense forms, of which only the past tense productions were coded and statistically analyzed. Verbs from different phonological neighborhoods were included, where special attention was paid towards including verbs for each different past tense process, and verbs from the same phonological prototype, that diverged with respect to their past tense formation. The findings reveal a pronounced tendency of children, regardless of age, to overapply the ‘-v-’ stem extension affix, which is consistently present in the first and second person singular past tense instances of the related verbs, to the third person singular, an instance which is never observed in adult language. This phenomenon suggests effects of paradigmatic analogy. Another major pattern observed was the overgeneralization of a past tense process to verbs that actually employ another past tense formation process. This pattern occurred with verbs whose present tense forms belong to the same phonological neighborhood, therefore indicating effects of phonological similarity on children’s processing of the past tense. The results are discussed with particular attention paid to the accumulating evidence on paradigmatic effects and the analogy between words sharing morphophonological and / or semantic properties. We conjecture that the ‘v-stem extension overgeneralization’ pattern displayed by the Albanian-speaking children is a peculiar phase during their acquisition of the past tense, which promotes their transition to the adult level of processing and representation of this challenging morphological process. Our findings favor morphological processing models in which analogy to other exemplars and intrinsic relations between words play a crucial role.