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MALT: Maltese plurals: phonotactics, variation and the structure of the mental lexicon

Principal Investigator

Research Assistant

Jessica Nieder M.A.


The first phase has shown that Maltese speakers rely on their lexicon to generalize the complexities of the singular-plural mappings to novel words. Their generalizations depend on the phonotactics of singular words they know and the accompanying plural forms. Such complex mappings can only be achieved with a large lexicon: The smaller the cohort of similar words for a singular-plural mapping for a new word, the smaller the degree of confidence for a generalization. Another important finding is that adults treat sound plurals different from broken plurals. What is not clear, though, is whether this is evidence for a model in which generalizations concerning sound plurals are the result of rule application and generalizations concerning broken plurals are the result of pattern associations.

We will study the acquisition of singular-plural mappings in order to better understand this problem. The growing lexicon of children will provide us with excellent data to test whether they rely on analogies alone or on rules and analogies. Should children rely on analogies, we expect there to be effects of frequency and phonotactics across all ages. Should they rely on rules and analogies, we expect there to be some generalizations that are independent of the frequencies of words in their lexicon and others that do rely on the frequency of words in their lexicon.

The present project will test these expectations by studying the acquisition of 3-year-olds, 5-year-olds, 7-year-olds and 9-year-olds. The intuitions of children concerning the singular-plural mappings are then expected to change with a growing lexicon—in other words, with age.  We will complement our experiments by modelling the results of our acquisition studies in different computational models to test specific hypotheses about the nature of the generalizations and the processing that underlies them.

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