When prosody fails to cue syntactic structure: 9-month-olds' sensitivity to phonological versus syntactic phrases

Lou Ann Gerken, Peter W. Jusczyk, Denise R. Mandel

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

122 Scopus citations


According to prosodic bootstrapping accounts of syntax acquisition, language learners use the correlation between syntactic boundaries and prosodic changes (e.g., pausing, vowel lengthening, large increases or decreases in fundamental frequency) to cue the presence and arrangement of syntactic constituents. However, recent linguistic accounts suggest that prosody does not directly reflect syntactic structure but rather is governed by independent prosodic units such as phonological phrases. To examine the implications of this view for the prosodic bootstrapping hypothesis, infants in Experiment 1 were presented with sentences in which pauses were inserted either between the subject noun phrase (NP) and verb or after the verb. Half of the infants heard sentences with lexical NP subjects, in which prosodic structure is consistent with syntactic structure. The other half heard sentences with pronoun subjects, in which prosodic structure does not mirror syntactic structure. In a preferential listening paradigm, infants in the lexical NP condition listened longer to materials containing pauses between the subject and verb, the main syntactic constituents. However, in the pronoun NP conditio, infants showed no difference in listening times for the two pause locations. To determine of other sentence types containing pronoun subjects potentially provide information about the syntactic constituency of these elements, infants in Experiment 2 heard yes-no questions with pronoun subjects, in which the prosodic structure reflects the constituency of the subject. Infants listened longer when pauses were inserted between the subject and verb than after the verb. Taken together, our results suggest that the prosodic information in an individual sentence is not always sufficient to assign a syntactic structure. Rather, learners must engage in active inferential processes, using cross-sentence comparisons and other types of information to arrive at the correct syntactic representation.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)237-265
Number of pages29
Issue number3
StatePublished - Mar 1994

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Experimental and Cognitive Psychology
  • Language and Linguistics
  • Developmental and Educational Psychology
  • Linguistics and Language
  • Cognitive Neuroscience


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