Acquisition as a window on the nature of NPIs


  • Jing Lin
  • Fred Weerman
  • Hedde Zeijlstra


Dutch modal verb hoeven ‘need’ is a negative polarity item (NPI) (Zwarts 1981, Hoeksema 2000), which survives in all anti-additive, and some but not all downward entailing (DE) contexts. The aim of the paper is to explore the reason why Dutch hoeven is not allowed in all DE-contexts – as observed for NPIs such as any-terms. We answer this question by looking at acquisition. The reasoning is straightforward: the analysis underlying a linguistic phenomenon is a product of children’s acquisition of it. Data collected from a total of 132 monolingual Dutch children (2;09–5;10; M = 4;04; SD = 9.3 months) in an elicited imitation task demonstrate a learning path of hoeven in which children start with two lexical frames [HOEF NIET] ‘NEED NOT’ and [HOEF GEEN] ‘NEED NO’ and switch to an abstract analysis of it later on: [HOEF NEG] ‘NEED NEG’. Given this abstract analysis, emerging as a result of language acquisition, we argue that hoeven is an NPI because of its lexical dependency with the abstract negation NEG (cf. Postal 2000). This in turn explains the distribution of the Dutch NPI restricted to some but not all DE-contexts: hoeven is only allowed in those DE-contexts that incorporate the abstract negation NEG.


How to Cite

Lin, J., Weerman, F., & Zeijlstra, H. (2019). Acquisition as a window on the nature of NPIs. Proceedings of Sinn Und Bedeutung, 20, 462–479. Retrieved from