The Ontogeny of Grammatical Variation

The Language Variation and Change Working Group is having an invited guest lecture next Tuesday, October 13th (3PM – 3:45PM PST, followed by Q&A and general discussion) by Dr. Naomi Shin of the University of New Mexico.

The abstract for Naomi’s talk, entitled “The Ontogeny of Grammatical Variation“, appears below.

Kindly email Annie Helms ( ) for the Zoom link and/or to be added to the group’s bCourses site. We look forward to seeing you there!

The Ontogeny of Grammatical Variation

Dr. Naomi Shin (Linguistics, Spanish and Portuguese)

University of New Mexico

Child language acquisition involves learning both categorical and variable grammatical patterns. Categorical patterns are invariable; language users do not deviate from them. For example, English determiners always occur before nouns, as in the computer rather than after nouns, as in *computer the. In contrast, variable patterns are characterized by optionality; speakers can choose from more than one form to express the same basic meaning. For example, speakers of English can express or omit complementizer that, as in ‘I think (that) Gabriel is nice’. Similarly, in Spanish and many other languages speakers have the option of expressing subjects or omitting them.

Patterns of grammatical variation are highly systematic among adults (Labov 1994, Poplack 2018, Tagliamonte 2012, among others). Nevertheless, we still know very little about how such patterns develop during childhood. In this talk, I present Shin and Miller’s (under review) four-stage developmental pathway for the acquisition of morphosyntactic variation, according to which children must first override the tendency to regularize variable input (Stage 1) and then override the tendency to assign different meanings to different forms (Stage 2). Development then proceeds in a piecemeal fashion such that children first alternate between variable forms in contexts for which there is abundant evidence for variation in the input (Stage 3), and over time they vary between constructions in more contexts (Stage 4).

I will also discuss the emergence of linguistic constraints on variation. Studies of school-age Spanish-speaking children’s subject pronoun expression and subject-verb ~ verb-subject word order indicate that linguistic factors that constrain variation emerge over time, with discourse factors emerging earlier than morphological or verb class factors (e.g. Shin 2016; Shin, forthcoming). The results from these studies also suggest that some patterns of variation emerge first with frequent items and only later with infrequent ones, which supports the interpretation that high frequency items provide more evidence for learning variable patterns (Erker & Guy 2012).


Erker, Daniel, & Gregory Guy. 2012. The role of lexical frequency in syntactic variability: Variable subject personal pronoun expression in Spanish. Language 88(3), 526-557.

Labov, William. 1994. Principles of linguistic change: Internal factors. MA: Blackwell.

Poplack, Shana. 2018. Categories of grammar and categories of speech: When the quest for symmetry meets inherent variability. In N. Shin & D. Erker (Eds.), Questioning Theoretical Primitives in Linguistic Inquiry (pp. 7–34). Amsterdam: John Benjamins.

Shin, N. (2016). Acquiring patterns of morphosyntactic variation: Children’s Spanish subject pronoun expression. Journal of Child Language 43(4), 914–947.

Shin, N. (forthcoming, accepted). Acquiring constraints on variable morphosyntax: SV-VS word order in child Spanish. In M. Díaz-Campos (Ed.), Handbook of Variationist Approaches to Spanish. Routledge.

Shin, Naomi & Karen Miller. Under review. Children’s acquisition of morphosyntactic variation.

Tagliamonte, Sali. 2012. Variationist sociolinguistics: Change, observation, and interpretation. Malden, MA/West Sussex: Wiley-Blackwell.