1 Introduction

More and more evidence accumulates indicating that children with hearing impairment who communicate exclusively in spoken language, and who did not receive sufficient language input during the critical period for first language acquisition (neither oral nor signed) show syntactic difficulties. An especially vulnerable construct is syntactic movement. Studies in various languages showed that many of these children have a deficit understanding and producing certain sentences derived by A-bar movement, including relative clauses, Wh questions, and topicalized sentences (English: Quigley, Smith & Wilbur 1974a; Quigley, Wilbur & Montanelli 1974b; Berent 1988; 1996; de Villiers 1988; de Villiers, de Villiers & Hoban 1994; Hebrew: Szterman & Friedmann 2003; 2007; 2014a; b; 2015; Friedmann & Szterman 2006; 2011; Friedmann et al. 2010; Arabic: Haddad-Hanna & Friedmann 2009; 2014; Friedmann et al. 2010; Friedmann & Haddad-Hanna 2014; French: Delage & Tuller 2007; and Italian: Volpato & Adani 2009).

Some of these children also show difficulties in the production of verb movement to C in Hebrew (Szterman & Friedmann 2015; 2017), a deficit that may relate to difficulties in head movement, but may also be the result of a structural difficulty in the syntactic tree: a deficit in properly constructing the CP layer (Szterman & Friedmann 2014b). Other studies report considerable difficulties with accusative clitics (Tuller & Jakubowicz 2004; Delage & Tuller 2007; Volpato 2008), which may be related to a difficulty in clitic movement, which has been assumed to include a step of head movement (Belletti 1999, and references cited there).

In the current study we use a novel window from which we can look at movement abilities in this population: the production of construct state nominals (henceforth: CSN). In turn, we hope to draw from the performance of these individuals novel neuropsychological evidence bearing on the formal analysis of the CSN. CSNs are common and productive in Hebrew (Danon 2017), even for pre-school children (e.g., Berman 1978; Ravid 1997; Berman 2009), and are the focus of considerable interest for linguists who worked on understanding their syntactic properties (Borer 1988; 1999; Ritter 1988; Siloni 1996; 1997; Shlonsky 2004; Danon 2008; 2012; 2017; see Doron & Meir 2013, for a summary). One line of analysis of CSNs in Hebrew claims that it crucially involves the movement of the N head to D (Ritter 1988; Siloni 1996; 1997; Borer 1999).1

Such movement analysis (see Figure 1) is able to explain the surface manifestation in the complementarity between D and N in the CSN: a definite article can introduce the complement of the head noun of a CSN, whereby the CSN is interpreted as definite, but not the head noun itself. This is because the head noun occupies, after the movement, the position in D.2 This analysis generates a prediction: if a person with syntactic difficulties does not move the N to D, possibly as a consequence of a more general difficulty with head movement, D remains available to be realized as a determiner (along the lines of Longobardi’s 1994a analysis of the syntax of proper names; See also Siloni’s 2001 discussion of Longobardi’s 1994b related work). Therefore, in this study we analyzed the hearing-impaired children’s incorrect production of definite articles before heads of CSNs, as an indicator of their (head) movement ability.

Figure 1 

The syntactic structure of Hebrew CSNs, exemplified with the CSN rosh ha-smixut (‘head the-CSN’, “the head of the CSN”).

Another relevant feature of CSN for examining the movement of N to D is that the CSN head in Hebrew often undergoes a morpho-phonological change that marks it as the head of a construct state. The morpho-phonological change is ascribed to the change in stress position: the head and its complement constitute a prosodic word with one primary stress, which is on the complement (Siloni 2001; Doron & Meir 2013). Some nouns do not undergo the morpho-phonological change, for phonological reasons, and in these cases, the free and construct forms of the noun are identical. The morpho-phonological changes include changes such as vowel deletions and reductions, which are often unmarked orthographically (e.g., bayit, ‘house’, in the free form becomes beit as a head of CSN, both spelled identically), and changes in the suffixes (specifically, the feminine singular suffix -a and the masculine plural suffix -im in the free form become -at and -ey respectively in the construct state), which also show in the orthography. Thus, many nouns in Hebrew have two forms: the construct form, which is used in the head of construct state nominals, and the absolute or free form, which is used in any other context.

We assume that the morpho-phonological change is a PF outcome of the N to D movement (arguably connected to the fact that the final landing site of the noun is a functional position, D). If this is the case, failure to produce the morpho-phonological change may indicate that moving the noun to D failed (or that the PF reading of the structure failed).

Thus, assuming that the derivation of CSN involves N-to-D movement, and the hearing impaired population has a problem with movement, then, if the participants with hearing impairment to have difficulties in N-to-D movement in CSN, this should be manifested in incorrect production of a determiner before the head of the definite CSN (because the N has not moved there and therefore the D position is available), and in failure to produce the morpho-phonological change on the head, which marks it as a CSN head rather than a free N.

2 Experiment

2.1 Participants

The participants were 32 Hebrew-speaking children with hearing impairment. They were 16 boys and 16 girls, aged 9;1–12;2 years (M = 10;6, SD = 0;9) in 4th to or 5th grade with moderate to severe hearing loss. All of them were monolingual speakers of Hebrew and were trained in oral language exclusively, without sign language. At the time of testing, they were studying in primary schools in regular classes with hearing children, with inclusive schooling using oral education, and each of them received additional support from a special teacher of the deaf, 2–4 hours a week. All the participants consistently wore binaural hearing aids (15 children) or used cochlear implants (17 children, 4 of them used two cochlear implants). All the participants passed a hearing screening test in which they were asked to repeat 10 sentences that included sibilants and were read to them by the experimenter with her lips concealed. During the hearing screening test, as in the rest of their everyday routine and during the testing for the current study, they were wearing their hearing aids/implants. (See Appendix for background information on the participants.)

A control group of hearing children included 18 typically developing children (4 boys and 14 girls) in 4th and 5th grade aged 8;10–10;7 (M = 9;11, SD = 0;5), from similar schools as the hearing impaired children, in the same area in the center of Israel.

2.2 Procedure

We assessed the status of CSN in these children by examining their reading aloud of paragraphs that included CSNs. The participants were asked to read the paragraphs aloud, and their reading was transcribed while they read. We also recorded their reading so we could complete and correct the transcription after the session.

2.3 Materials

Each participant read 10 paragraphs, 5–8 sentences per paragraph, with a total of 831 words. Five of the paragraphs included sentences with A-bar constructions (wh-questions, relative-clauses, and topicalized constructions involving A-bar movement) and sentences in which the verb appears as the second element, before the subject (involving V-to-C movement). The other 5 paragraphs did not include any sentence with these structures. The 10 paragraphs included a total of 63 CSNs, all of which were grammatical, so in particular none of them contained a determiner before the head noun.

We examined the participants’ tendency to (incorrectly) add a determiner before the head noun in two contexts. One in which it is orthographically obvious that the head noun is not preceded by any determiner, the other in which it is not transparent, and the reader needs to decide whether the head should be read with or without a definite marker according to the syntactic structure. For this we used a special property of the Hebrew orthography. Some of the Hebrew prepositions are orthographically bound to the following NP, and are fused with the definite article ha-. For example, the preposition be- (‘in’) before the definite determiner ha- (‘the’) becomes ba- (‘in-the’). The preposition le- (‘to’) before the definite determiner ha- (‘the’) becomes la- (‘to-the’). The crucial point for this task is that this phonological change is not reflected in the written word, because of the underspecification of vowels in the Hebrew orthography. Thus, whereas the pronunciation of be- and ba- is clearly distinct, their spelling is identical, both with the letter bet, ב. The same is true for the preposition le (‘to’ preceding an indefinite) and la (‘to the’), both spelled with the letter lamed, ל.

For example, the word עץ (ec, ‘tree’), can be preceded by the definite article ha- (creating ha-ec), or when it is indefinite it appears without the definite article (ec) (Hebrew has no indefinite article). When the head noun appears after the bound preposition marked with the letter ב (b), creating the word בעץ (bec),3 it can be read either without the determiner, as be-ec (‘in-tree’), or with the determiner, as ba-ec (‘in-the-tree’). Hence, when these prepositions precede the head of a CSN, to pronounce them correctly, the reader has to choose whether the head is preceded by the definite determiner or not. As we explained above, when the word ec appears as the head of a CSN, it is never preceded by the definite article, and therefore the construct head + the preposition b- will always have to be read as be-ec. Thus, the way participants read the homographic preposition letter would indicate whether they add a determiner before the head noun or not.

The texts included a total of 63 CSNs per participant. Of these, 46 CSNs were of the crucial condition: definite CSNs, so that their complement was preceded by a definite article: 37 of the definite CSNs were such that if there were a definite article preceding the head noun, it would have been written before the head noun (but as explained above, because these are CSN heads they would not appear with a determiner). Of these 37 CSNs, 28 were with bare head nouns, and 9 started with the bound preposition me- or the bound complementizer še-,4 which precede the determiner ha-, and in which the determiner is not fused with them but remains phonologically and orthographically present. Nine other CSNs started with a homographic bound preposition (b-, l-) with which the determiner fuses and does not appear orthographically, so that both a definite and an indefinite noun after these prepositions look identical. (See Table 1 for the various definite CSN conditions).

Condition # of items Hebrew target Form of the definite free head Transliteration Phonological transcription Gloss Translation

Types of preceding element
Bare head 28 חבורת הילדים החבורה
xbort hildim xavurat ha-yeladim group the-children the children’s group
A bound preposition (b-, l-) that fuses with the determiner (so the determiner is not orthographically marked for definiteness) 9 לכלוב הקופים לכלוב
lqlob hkopim le-kluv ha-kofim to-cage the-monkeys to the monkeys’ cage
A bound complementizer or preposition (še-, me-) that does not fuse with the determiner 9 שילדי החבורה שהילדים
šildi hxborh She-yaldey ha-xavura that-children the-gang that the gang’s children

Types of morpho-phonological change on the head
Orthographically-marked morpho-phonological change on the head: letter omission 12 תושבי השכונה התושבים
tošbi hšqonh toshavei ha-shxuna residents the-neighborhood the neighborhood’s residents
Orthographically-marked morpho-phonological change on the head: letter substitution 7 קבוצת המטיילים הקבוצה
kboct hmtiilim kvucat ha-metaylim group the-hikers the hikers’ group
No change on the head noun 27 תושב השכונה התושב
tošb hšqonh toshav ha-shxuna resident the-neighborhood the neighborhood’s resident

Table 1

Types of definite construct state nominals that were included in the various conditions.

The heads of 19 of the 46 definite CSNs included a morpho-phonological change that identified the head as the head of a CSN, all of which were orthographically marked for the change, and in the other 27 CSNs the head was morphologically and orthographically identical to the free form.

Additional 16 CSNs in the text were indefinite (i.e., their complement appeared without a definite article). Four of these CSNs were double CSNs (of the structure head-head-complement); for 7 of the 16 indefinite CSNs the morpho-phonological change of the head was marked orthographically, and the 9 others were not.

3 Results

The children with hearing impairment made a total of 72 errors of adding a definite determiner to the head of a definite CSN. Namely, even though they were reading aloud, and there was no definite determiner before the head noun, they still read a definite determiner before the head noun (in addition to the determiner preceding the complement), as shown in example (1). Whereas Hebrew speakers sometimes place the determiner before certain lexicalized CSNs instead of before the complement, the children with hearing impairment produced a determiner both before the head and before the complement (and for non-lexicalized CSNs), something that hearing Hebrew speakers almost never do.5

Almost all of these determiner additions (71 of the 72) occurred in the definite CSNs (in which the complement appeared with a definite determiner). Only one determiner addition occurred in the indefinite CSN condition. This means that once the children identified the CSN as definite they marked it with a determiner before both the head noun and the complement.

An additional indication that these children can compute the definiteness of the CSN is that they never omitted the object cases marker et before the definite CSNs. The object case marker only appears before definite object DPs, and therefore, the fact that they produced it before the definite CSNs means that they correctly interpreted them as definite.

    1. (1)
    1. Target sentence:
    1. xavurat
    2. gang(construct form)
    1. ha-kofim
    2. the-monkeys
    1. hiftiaa
    2. surprised
    1. et
    2. ACC
    1. kvucat
    2. group(construct)
    1. ha-metaylim.
    2. the-hikers
    1. ‘The monkeys’ gang surprised the hikers’ group.’
    1. Participants 18 and 20 read it:
    1. ha-xavurat
    2. the-gang(construct)
    1. ha-kofim
    2. the-monkeys
    1. hiftiaa
    2. surprised
    1. et
    2. ACC
    1. ha-kvucat
    2. the-group(construct)
    1. ha-metaylim.
    2. the-hikers

They made comparable rates of determiner additions in the bare definite CSN not introduced by a preposition (47 determiner additions, an average of 5.2% of the CSNs of this type) and in the CSNs that started with a preposition that fuses with the determiner (19 determiner additions, average of 5.9%, t(31) = 1.04, p = .30).

Even when the CSN was preceded by a bound complementizer or preposition which forms an orthographic and phonological word with the construct noun, they added (six) determiners before the noun. Interestingly, in these cases, they placed it between the complementizer/preposition and the noun (i.e., in the correct syntactic position for a determiner, if a determiner were allowed before the construct head noun, see example 2), and never before the complementizer or the preposition preceding the whole CSN. This clearly suggests that they were inserting the determiner in the D position, not just in the initial position before the whole CSN.

    1. (2)
    1. Target sentence:
    1. ha-kabaim
    2. the-fire-fighters
    1. še-tošavey
    2. that-residents
    1. ha-šxuna
    2. the-neighborhood
    1. hizminu
    2. invited
    1. la-aruxa
    2. for-dinner
    1. samxu.
    2. rejoiced
    1. ‘The fire fighters that the neighborhood’s residents invited for dinner were happy.’
    1. Participants 17 and 20 read it:
    1. ha-kabaim
    2. the-fire-fighters
    1. še-ha-tošavey
    2. that-the-residents
    1. ha-šxuna
    2. the-neighborhood
    1. hizminu la-aruxa
    2. invited for-dinner
    1. samxu.
    2. rejoiced

These errors of adding a definite determiner to the head came mainly from 10 hearing impaired participants who made 3 or more such errors (ranging between 3 and 11 definite determiner additions to the head of the CSN for each of these 10 participants) in reading the CSNs.

The performance of these 10 children with hearing impairment was significantly poorer than that of the control group of hearing children, who made very few errors in reading the CSNs: only two of the hearing children made any error at all in reading the head of the CSN, each of these two made a single error of adding a definite determiner to the head. This difference between the error rates in the (whole) hearing impaired group (ranging between 0–24%, see Table 2) and the control group (M = 0.2%, SD = 0.7) was significant, t(48) = 3.10, p = .001.

Participant Total definite determiner addition to the head Definite determiner addition to the Reading the head as a free noun

head + preposition (out of 9) bare head (out of 37)

17 11 1 10 3
20 9 3 6 1
1 8 5 3 1
19 7 2 5 1
15 5 1 4 1
14 4 0 4 0
18 4 0 4 0
5 3 2 1 0
16 3 0 3 1
2 3 2 1 0
9 1 0 1 3
22 1 0 1 2
13 2 1 1 1
4 2 1 1 1
6 2 0 2 0
8 2 0 2 0
25 2 1 1 0
7 1 0 1 0
26 1 0 1 0
3 1 0 1 0
21 0 0 0 1
31 0 0 0 1
10 0 0 0 1
23 0 0 0 1
11 0 0 0 0
12 0 0 0 0
24 0 0 0 0
27 0 0 0 0
28 0 0 0 0
29 0 0 0 0
30 0 0 0 0
32 0 0 0 0
Hearing controls M (SD) 0.11 (0.33) 0 0.11 (0.33) 0.05 (0.24)

Table 2

Definite article additions to the head of the CSN for each HI participant; last line presents the average and SD in the control hearing group.

Dark shaded cells – 3 or more determiner additions on the head of the CSN, or two or more reading of the construct head as a free noun. Lightly shaded – marginal impairment.

Table 2 summarizes the number of definite article additions to the head of the CSN for each of the participants with hearing impairment (and the average and SD of these errors in the control hearing group).

In a total of 19 CSNs, the children with hearing impairment read the construct head as if it was a free noun (see Table 2). In contrast, there was only one instance of incorrect reading of the head in the control group, and even this could not be decisively classified as changing a construct form to a free form.6 This difference between the groups was significant, t(48) = 2.66, p = .005. This between-groups difference can also be seen in that 14 of the 32 hearing-impaired children but only 1 of the 18 hearing control children read the head noun as a free noun (44% vs. 6% respectively, χ2 = 8, p = .005). In one additional case, a participant added a possessive clitic to the head, again a form that is not grammatical in the head of a CSN. Finally, there was only a single error of insertion of the genitive marker/preposition šel (‘of’) to introduce the complement of the head noun. In all other cases, even when the children pronounced the head in the free form, they did not add the genitive marker šel, which is always required in genitive phrases with a free form head.

Given that hearing typically-developing children in the same age almost never made errors on the head of the CSN in this task (as shown in Figure 2), the pattern of errors of definite determiner addition and reading of the head as a free noun can be taken as an indication for the difficulty the hearing-impaired children have in moving N to D.

Figure 2 

The performance of the children with hearing impairment who showed impaired reading of the CSN (the first group in Table 3) in comparison with the hearing control group: rate of adding a determiner before the CSN head (in addition to a determiner before the complement), and rate of failing to make the morpho-phonological change on the head that identifies it as a head.

Participant Total definite determiner addition to the head Reading the head as a free noun V-C Object A-bar movement

Children with impairment in CSN

17 11 3 impaired Impaired
20 9 1 impaired Impaired
1 8 1 impaired Impaired
19 7 1 impaired Impaired
15 5 1 impaired Impaired
14 4 0 impaired Impaired
18 4 0 impaired Impaired
5 3 0 impaired Impaired
16 3 1 impaired Impaired
2 3 0 impaired Impaired
9 1 3 impaired Impaired
22 1 2 impaired Impaired

Children with marginal or mild difficulty in CSN

13 2 1 Marginally impaired Impaired
4 2 1
6 2 0 Impaired
8 2 0 impaired
25 2 0 impaired
7 1 0 a
26 1 0 impaired Impaired
3 1 0
21 0 1 impaired
31 0 1 impaired
10 0 1 impaired
23 0 1

Children with intact reading of CSN

11 0 0
12 0 0
24 0 0
27 0 0
28 0 0
29 0 0
30 0 0
32 0 0

Table 3

The performance of the participants in object A-bar and V-C movements.

Shaded cells – impaired reading of the CSNs: 3 or more determiners added on the head of the CSN, or 2 or more readings of the construct head in its free form.

✓ – unimpaired performance; impaired – failed in two or more out of 4 tests of this structure.

a This only reflects her performance in tasks in which the sentences were presented to her in writing.

3.1 The relation between errors in CSNs and other movement-related syntactic difficulties

We further examined whether the participants who had difficulties with N to D movement in CSN could understand and produce structures with verb movement to C, and whether they could understand and produce structures with object A-bar-movement (the relevant data on the performance of these participants on these movement-derived structures are taken from Szterman & Friedmann 2017).7

The results, summarized in Table 3, indicate that all the 12 children with hearing impairment who had significant difficulties with the reading of CSNs arguably as a consequence of a deficit in N to D movement – who made three or more additions of a determiner before the head of a CSN or two or more reading the head as a free noun – were also impaired in V to C movement and in object A-bar dependencies. The 8 children who showed intact reading of CSN, with no addition of a determiner before the head, and with no change of the construct form to free form, all showed good V to C movement and object A-bar movement abilities. Twelve other children did make one or two errors in reading the CSN heads, so we could not safely classify them as having a deficit in CSN or not, some of these children also had difficulties in V to C or in object A-bar structures, and some did not.

4 Discussion

In this study we used a new window through which we could examine syntactic movement in individuals with hearing impairment. We used CSN, a structure that involves movement of the noun to D (in the form of head movement, Ritter 1988; Siloni 1996; 1997; Borer 1999; or of a “small phrasal movement” in the sense of footnote 2, Cinque 2000; Shlonsky 2004). When this N to D movement is intact, the D position is filled by the noun, so a determiner cannot appear before the head noun. Therefore, we took the addition of a determiner before the head of CSN, which creates an ungrammatical structure in Hebrew, to indicate impaired N to D movement.

We tested this by asking children with hearing impairment to read aloud paragraphs that included CSNs, and examined whether they incorrectly added a determiner before the head noun of definite CSNs, in addition to the determiner preceding the complement. The results were unequivocal – whereas hearing typically developing children almost never added a determiner on the head noun of the CSN, in addition to the determiner preceding the complement, many of the hearing-impaired children did. Even when there was clearly no determiner before the head, and they were reading the CSN, they added a determiner before the head noun, in addition to the determiner before the complement. This happened even when they pronounced the noun in the construct form. In other cases they failed to make the morpho-phonological change that marks the head noun as a construct head even though it was orthographically marked as such, which we take as another indication for a failure of N to D movement.

These two types of errors – the addition of the determiner to the head and the lack of morpho-phonological change of the head – were the most important findings of this study: they indicate that these children did not move N to D.

The finding that the children with hearing impairment added determiners in specific syntactic positions is also informative about the nature of their impairment. One could think that they do not hear phonologically weak elements and therefore ignore them. The fact that they actually added the phonologically weak article indicates that this was not the case. Moreover, the finding that they added the article in a position immediately preceding the noun (and not, for example, before the preposition or the complementizer) suggests that they were sensitive to the basic positional properties of such a weak element.

Additionally, it is not the case that they followed a superficial generalization according to which a determiner should appear before every noun: as we reported above, each of the 32 children with hearing impairment read 16 indefinite CSNs in the texts, and there was only a single case in which they added a determiner before the indefinite CSN head. Moreover, such a generalization would not account for their errors of reading the construct form as a free form. By contrast, a selective deficit in N-to-D movement accounts for all these findings.

These considerations suggest that it is not the structure of the functional layer of D per se that is impaired in these participants, but rather that the factors involved in triggering movement or the computation of movement are impaired.8

In earlier studies (Szterman & Friedmann 2014b; 2017), these children were also tested on the manifestation of other syntactic abilities involving movement dependencies, including V to C movement, as an instance of head movement, and phrasal A-bar movement to the left periphery. This allowed us to evaluate the relations between difficulties in the various movement types. Here, we could detect a clear connection between the addition of a determiner before the head of the CSN and other syntactic difficulties: the hearing-impaired children who had a deficit in N to D and added a determiner before the head noun or pronounced it as a free noun, also showed impairments in V to C and in object A-bar movement in other tasks of sentence comprehension, repetition, and production. Those who read the CSN correctly also showed normal V to C and object A-bar movement abilities. Whereas this does not allow us to use these data to shed light on the exact nature of N to D movement in construct states (i.e., whether it is an instance of head movement or of “small phrasal movement”), it definitely indicates that the distribution of determiners in construct states is syntactic in nature. As such, difficulties with determiners on the CSN may be taken as an indicator of problems in syntactic movement.

These results also shed light on the formal analysis of linguistic constructs. The finding that individuals who have impairments in syntactic movement also show difficulties with CSNs support movement accounts for the derivation of CSN.

Additional File

The additional file for this article can be found as follows:


Background information on the hearing impaired participants. DOI: https://doi.org/10.5334/gjgl.674.s1