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Interference effects in the production of wh-questions in early Italian

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Italian wh-questions represent a peculiar object of investigation in that they display the same order of elements both in subject and object questions: Wh V DP , as shown in (1a) and in (1b) respectively, being the position for subjects in Italian wh-questions postverbal.

1a. Chi insegue i cavalli?

Who chases the horses?

1b. Chi inseguono i cavalli?

Who chase-pl the horses?

It is agreement on the verb that disambiguates between the two options: a subject question if the verb agrees with the wh- trace, an object question if the verb agrees with the postverbal subject.

My presentation, based on an elicited production experiment of wh-questions administered to Italian children and adults, capitalizes on two main findings:

although Italian children master wh-questions very early (Guasti, 1996), object questions are significantly more difficult than subject questions (see De Vincenzi et al. 1999 for similar results on comprehension); children partly resolve the difficulties posed by object questions by producing object questions not displaying the expected Wh V DP order but using different legitimate strategies sharing one crucial feature: the subject DP occupies a preverbal position (with one exception).

Capitalizing on the work by Franck et al. (2006) we propose that the difficulties children experience in the production of wh- object questions result from the intervention of the object copy on the Agree relation between the postverbal subject and the verb. The strategies children adopt are a mean to get rid of the interference effect and to strengthen the Agree relation between the verb and the subject by raising the latter to a preverbal position.

These findings have implications for the analysis of some facts concerning Icelandic, lack of number agreement when a dative quirky subject intervenes (Holmberg and Sigurdson, 2008).

This talk is part of the RCEAL Tuesday Colloquia series.

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