Thematic content, not number matching, drives syntactic bootstrapping
Laurel Perkins, Tyler Knowlton, Alexander Williams, Jeffrey Lidz
June 2024

Children use correlations between the syntax of a clause and the meaning of its predicate to draw inferences about word meanings. On one proposal, these inferences are underwritten by a structural similarity between syntactic and semantic representations: learners expect that the number of clause arguments exactly matches the number of participant roles in the event concept under which its referent is viewed. We argue against this proposal, and in favor of a theory rooted in syntactic and semantic contents— in mappings from syntactic positions to thematic relations. We (i) provide evidence that infants view certain scenes under a concept with three participant relations (a girl taking a truck from a boy), and (ii) show that toddlers do not expect these representations to align numerically with clauses used to describe those scenes: they readily accept two-argument descriptions (“she pimmed the truck!”). This argues against syntactic bootstrapping theories underwritten by mappings between structural features of syntactic and semantic representations. Instead, our findings support bootstrapping based on grammatical and thematic content. Children’s earliest inferences may rely on the assumption that the syntactic asymmetry between subject and object correlates with a difference in how their referents relate to the event described by the sentence.
Format: [ pdf ]
Reference: lingbuzz/006679
(please use that when you cite this article)
Published in: in press, Language Learning and Development
keywords: language acquisition, syntactic bootstrapping, verb learning, event representations, semantics, syntax
previous versions: v2 [January 2024]
v1 [June 2022]
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