It is very common to hear two- and three-year-olds in English saying "I falled down," "She gived me it," etc. And the frequency of a verb form is inversely related to the age at which one is likely to master it, indeed to the point where past tenses such as "lay" and "shone" are becoming archaic in most dialects of NA English.

What does the journey of a child's acquisition of verb (or noun/adjective) forms look like in a heavily inflected language, such as

  • Tundra Nenets, which inflects for subject, object, tense, and sixteen moods?
  • Basque, which only has ten or fifteen inflected verbs, but they can have a thousand forms?
  • Attic or Epic Greek, with its hundreds of forms and countless manifestations of suppletion and deponency? (Obviously there would be little data on L1 acquisition here, but a language with similarly many irregularities?)
  • Koyukon Athabaskan (Alaska), with classificatory verbs specifying "the shape, material, consistency, size, location, arrangement, and number of their nominal arguments"?
  • Polysynthetic languages, such as Mohawk?

I'm looking in particular for an analysis of which categories start to be incorporated correctly at what age, and what children do beforehand to express the same ideas. (For example, do they speak an inflected language as if it were more agglutinative?) Even a narrative of one child's journey in learning the grammar would be most welcome.

  • I remember one of the posters on Language Log mentioning that some speakers of the highly synthetic North American languages don't master their verbal systems until the late teens. I don't recall them mentioning what was uesd until then, though. Nov 18, 2014 at 11:00
  • About a half of the Russian speakers cannot correctly decline numerals and never bother about it, even the news readers on the state Russian TV.
    – Yellow Sky
    Nov 19, 2014 at 13:03
  • @YellowSky: Once the ratio is "about a half" you're actually looking at language change rather than language acquisition, especially in a language which doesn't lack any vitality. Nov 20, 2014 at 6:50

1 Answer 1


Here is a classic reference on the topic:

Mithun M. 1989. The acquisition of polysynthesis. J Child Lang. 16(2):285-312.

In the paper, she gives five case studies of children learn Mohawk, a famously complex polysynthetic language spoken in New York and Quebec. Her tentative conclusion is that for very young speakers phonology is more important than morphology: children start with stressed syllables and work outward from there.

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