Morphosytactic Development in Inuktitut

How do children learn a morphologically complex language? We investigate this question in our studies of the acquisition of Inuktitut, an indigenous language of northern Canada with over 35,000 native speakers. Most Inuit children in northeastern Canada learn Inuktitut as their native language.

The morphosyntactic structure of Inuktitut is different in many ways from languages typically reported on in the acquisition literature. It is polysynthetic with complex morphosyntax, has agglutinative morphology including some 400 derivational morphemes and 1000 verbal and nominal inflectional morphemes, has ergative case marking, and exhibits frequent argument omission. Many concepts that appear as individual words in English (e.g. prepositions, negation) occur as morphemes in Inuktitut, and many structures that are realized in the syntax in English (e.g. desideratives, causatives) are realized through morphology in Inuktitut.

Our studies over the past thirty years include argument structure (passives, causatives, noun incorporation), verbal inflection, ergativity, and argument realization. Analyses are based on original spontaneous speech and elicited narrative data collected in small Inuit communities in northern Quebec. This work not only provides useful descriptive information for caregivers and speech-language pathologists, but also provides unique insights into theoretical questions relevant to our understanding of the universal process of language development.
Representative Publications
Allen, S.E.M. (2017). Polysynthesis in the acquisition of Inuit languages. In Fortescue, M., Mithun, M. & Evans, N. (Eds.), Handbook of polysynthesis (pp. 449-472). Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Allen, S.E.M. (2013). The acquisition of ergativity in Inuktitut. In E.L. Bavin & S. Stoll (Eds.), The acquisition of ergative structures (pp. 71-105). Amsterdam: Benjamins.
Allen, S.E.M, Crago, M.B. & Pesco, D. (2006). The effect of majority language exposure on minority language skills: The case of Inuktitut. International Journal of Bilingual Education and Bilingualism 9(5), 578-596.
Swift, M.D. & Allen, S.E.M. (2002). Verb base ellipsis in Inuktitut conversational discourse. International Journal of American Linguistics 68(2), 133-156.
Crago, M.B. & Allen, S.E.M. (2001). Early finiteness in Inuktitut: The role of language structure and input. Language Acquisition 9(1), 59-111.
Crago, M.B. & Allen, S.E.M. (1998). Acquiring Inuktitut. In O. Taylor & L. Leonard (Eds.), Language acquisition across North America: Cross-cultural and cross-linguistic perspectives (pp. 245-279). San Diego, CA: Singular Publishing Group.
Allen, S.E.M. (1998). Categories within the verb category: Learning the causative in Inuktitut. Linguistics 36(4), 633-677.
Allen, S.E.M. (1996). Aspects of argument structure acquisition in Inuktitut. Amsterdam: John Benjamins.
Allen, S.E.M. & Crago, M.B. (1996). Early passive acquisition in Inuktitut. Journal of Child Language, 23(1), 129-155.