Wishes before ifs: mapping “fake” past tense to counterfactuality in wishes and conditionals

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Counterfactuals express alternatives that are contrary to the actual situation.In English, counterfactuality is conveyed through conditionals (“If pigs had wings, they could fly”) and wish-constructions (“I wish pigs hadwings”), where the past tense morpheme marks non-actuality rather than past temporal orientation. This temporal mismatch seemingly complicates the already challenging task of mapping abstract counterfactual meaning onto these linguistic expressions during first language acquisition. In this paper, we investigated the role of linguistic transparency on the acquisition of different counterfactual constructions with a corpus study on the spontaneous production of English-speaking children between the ages of 2-to-6. We extracted wish-utterances from 52 corpora available on CHILDES to compare children’s wish productions with those of adults, and additionally extracted counterfactual conditional utterances for 6 children to provide a comparative longitudinal overview of counterfactual wishes and conditionals. Our results support the idea that complexity of form-to-meaning mapping influences the emergence of counterfactual language. First, we observed a substantial number of productive errors in children’s speech, where they produce counterfactuals with present tense marking instead of past. These errors are consistent with a stage where children have yet to figure out that the past tense is an obligatory component of English counterfactual constructions signaling a present non-actuality, rather than a past event on the timeline. Second, our results show that wish-constructions, which are linguistically more transparent than counterfactual conditionals, generally emerge before counterfactual conditionals in children’s speech. This suggests that in English, counterfactual wishes might be easier to acquire than counterfactual conditionals. 

Keywords: corpus, counterfactuals, form-to-meaning mapping, first language acquisition, English

How to Cite: Tulling, M. A. & Cournane, A. (2022) “Wishes before ifs: mapping “fake” past tense to counterfactuality in wishes and conditionals”, Language Development Research. 2(1). doi: