Rule and Order
Acquiring ordinals in Dutch and English
Using novel comparative acquisition data (from a total of 250 children aged 2;08–
6;04), this first book on ordinal learning presents an acquisition pattern that is
unlike any other. At first sight, the data seem straightforward: both learners of
Dutch and English acquire irregular ordinal numerals (such as Dutch derde ‘third’
or English second) after regular ones (such as vierde ‘fourth’ and seventh), and
even after analytic ordinal forms (hoofdstuk vijf ‘chapter five’). This holds for both
comprehension and production.
What makes this process crucially different from familiar patterns in numerical
and morphological development is that there is no evidence for an initial lexical
learning stage. Children acquire the first cardinals (one, two, three, four) sequentially
before they can count productively. In morphological development, productive
rules usually follow storage of individual forms. In the ordinal case, however,
children start out with a rule (informally: cardinal + suffix = ordinal, or for analytic
forms: cardinal after a noun = ordinal). Though exceptions are acquired lexically,
they come in after overgeneralization errors, rather than before; ordinal acquisition
is not u-shaped.
The main claim is that children use morphosyntactic structure to acquire ordinal
meaning. By combining insights from linguistics, developmental psychology and
numerical cognition, this work not only provides an account for how linguistic
rules can be the driving force behind ordinal acquisition, but also for why ordinals
are so different in the first place. Put simply, not all rule-learning is equal, in part
because not all storage is equal.