Self-reference and pronominal reversals: becoming a speaker through the other’s voice

Abstract : According to Elizabeth Bates, the grammar of our natural languages is so permeated with personal reference that their acquisition requires self-awareness. Scientists may therefore use their observations on the acquisition of person markers in order to understand the emergence of self-awareness and identity in children (Bates, 1990 : 165). English and French speaking children do not always use adult pronominal standard forms (I / je or moi-je ) to refer to self as grammatical subject. In their verbal productions about themselves (as agents, experiencers or themes…) they could omit the subject, use a filler syllable during a period of transition or later use their name, 2nd, or 3rd person pronouns as well as 1st person pronouns. The use of non-standard forms is part of each child’s specific pathway into language. Some forms could be considered as proto-forms, others as marks of the child’s creativity with unconventional form-function pairings in the appropriation of the adult system. As shown by Budwig (1995) and Author 2 (2006) each form is usually associated to a particular function in context. In order to retrace how children acquire the linguistic system, we can try to tease apart what is due to what they borrow from adult language and what they recreate on their own. It is therefore particularly interesting to focus on the various forms of self-reference used in their first productions and to relate them to reference to self and other in their input. Children assimilate the representations of themselves and of others that adults use in their verbal productions and reformulate them in their own discourse. The non standard forms uses are a window unto this assimilation process. It is therefore particularly interesting to study their forms of self-reference, which enable them to express their own positioning in dialogue, and to focus on the temporary pronominal reversals some children typically produce during their third year for a few months. In this paper we present an overview of the forms used as subject first person reference by Léonard, a French little boy, from 1;08 to 3;03 (Paris corpus), Naima, an American little girl from age 1;6 to 3;06 (Providence corpus) and their mothers. We will then study the children’s use of their name and third person pronouns to refer to themselves (Author 2 2011, Author 1 2012; Demuth 2011), and relate them to their mother’s use of third person reference to refer to themselves and their child. The analysis of the conditions under which these reversals appear and disappear can shed some light on how children are able to differentiate their own self from the other and to construct their identity. All the situations that enable the child to enter language as apprentice-speaker are given in their interactions with more experienced language users. As they take up and replay the scripts they have participated in again and again, they can internalize (Vygotsky, 1934) and appropriate these forms in order to become fully responsible for their own speech.
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Stéphanie Caët, Aliyah Morgenstern. Self-reference and pronominal reversals: becoming a speaker through the other’s voice. AEREF, Oct 2013, Paris, France. ⟨halshs-01424059⟩

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