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Complex WH questions and universal grammars: New evidence from the acquisition of negative barriers

Lamya M Al-Abdulkarim, University of Massachusetts Amherst


Four comprehension experiments tested the development of negative barriers in complex embedded WH questions in 40 typically developing female and male 3–6 to 7–0 (year-month) year-old Standard American English speaking children. The purpose was to test acquisition assumptions derived from linguistic theory of barriers to long distance WH movement. Syntactic theories of Relativized Minimality and scope marking or partial WH movement helped to account for negative and WH barriers in child language. Further, evidence of Universal Grammar appeared when negation prevented both long distance WH movement (e.g., “Why did the girl not tell her mom she went to the zoo? =/=> Why-went”) and medial WH answers (e.g., “When did the girl not tell her mom how she broke her bike? =/=> How-[tell]-broke”). Negative barriers to children's non-English medial answers supported the use of underlying structures observed cross-linguistically. Such structures are part of universal defaults, or non-specific rules, in child grammar. Before the target grammar is fully set for the specific adult rules, a child uses multiple grammars, some of which are universal defaults which get eliminated in the target adult grammar throughout the course of language development. Measures of Theory of Mind and production of complex embedded clauses predicted the development of aspects of embedded WH questions and negative barriers. Results indicated the interrelatedness of the development of complex sentences.

Subject Area

Linguistics|Speech therapy

Recommended Citation

Al-Abdulkarim, Lamya M, "Complex WH questions and universal grammars: New evidence from the acquisition of negative barriers" (2001). Doctoral Dissertations Available from Proquest. AAI3012107.