Proceedings if the Linguistic Society of America
Two-part s-possessives such as the dad’s kid’s bike admit at least two distinct interpretations: the dad has a kid who has a bike, or the dad has a bike that is made for kids. We propose that the former interpretation derives from recursively embedding DP-possessives, whereas the latter derives from representing kid’s bike asa generic NP-possessive. Accordingly, in the right context, two-part s-possessives are fully ambiguous for adults between ‘recursive’ and ‘generic’ readings. These readings can be disambiguated syntactically. Consider the difference in meaning when we insert a relative clause and extract the constituent kid’s bike—the kid’s bike that is the dad’s—versus when we extract the head noun bike—the bike that is the dad’s kid’s. Our story-based experiment demonstrates that 4-7-year-olds (N=79) and adults (N=68) strongly favor (~80%) the generic interpretation of phrases like the kid’s bike that is the dad’s, as the A-over-A constraint blocks the extraction of a DP-possessive out of a recursive DP.1 Similarly, adults show a strong preference (~80%) for recursive interpretations of phrases like the bike that is the dad’s kid’s, as the A-over-A constraint blocks the extraction of the head noun bike out of the generic NP-possessive kid’s bike. However, 4-5-year-olds admit generic readings of these recursive phrases 54% of the time; it is not until 6 or 7 years that children show an adult-like preference for the recursive interpretation (~80%). These data support two complementary claims. First, that recursive possessives are acquired late on account of their syntax, and second that children, like adults, represent generic possessives under a different syntactic node than regular possessives. Not all languages permit recursive prenominal possessives, and there is variation in the node (NP, DP, POSS, K)hosting the phrase. As a result, young children faced with two-part s-possessives may default to generic interpretations, which involve universal NP modification, until they recognize possessive recursion is a part of their grammar.
possessives, recursion, generics, syntax-semantics interface, A-over-A Principle, acquisition
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Poisson, Tyler; de Villiers, Jill; Kyuchukov, Hirsto; Weinand, Bea; Young, Lilly; Morales, Sofia; and Aniceto, Laisha, "Generic interpretations of Possessive Recursion in English-Speaking Children" (2023). Philosophy: Faculty Publications, Smith College, Northampton, MA.