The grammar of imperatives and the imperatives of grammar (GIIG)

Imperatives like Go away! or Don’t touch that! are the linguistic expressions that humans use to get other humans to do, or not do, certain things (like going away or not touching something). Although imperatives are very prominent in child-directed speech (Newport et al. 1977, Vogt et al. 2015), research to date has not systematically probed their significance for language acquisition, i.e. as cues that allow the language-learning child to establish core properties of the grammar of her language. This is a peculiar omission: imperative structures are typically short, and—in child-directed contexts at least—transparently addressee-oriented (Eat your vegetables! = “YOU eat your vegetables!”), two properties that should facilitate processing by the child. Moreover, imperative structures are strikingly grammatically rich, showcasing properties that are key in determining the grammars of the associated languages.

The GIIG-project will address this gap in the literature, by conducting an empirically based investigation into the following research hypothesis:

(1) Central research hypothesis of the GIIG-project: The grammar of imperatives is pivotal in fixing core aspects of a language’s grammatical character.

We explore this hypothesis via three case studies, each focused on the interaction between a particular type of imperative on the one hand, and a core aspect of the grammatical system on the other. In addition, each case study will be comparative in nature, focusing on different varieties of Dutch and Afrikaans. This language pair (in combination with their non-standard varieties) provides the ideal testing ground for the hypothesis in (1): on the one hand, they share many of their core grammatical properties (roughly, all the characteristic non-English West Germanic word-order patterns), while on the other there exists a lot of morphosyntactic variation both within and across these languages (see e.g. Barbiers et al. 2005, 2008, de Vos 2009, Cavirani-Pots 2020). If imperatives are really pivotal in signaling the grammatical properties of a language, they should be able to express both the fundamental commonalities between Afrikaans, Dutch, and their varieties, and the striking differences between them.

Read the full project description.