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Syntax gives kids attitude (verbs!)
Syntax gives kids attitude (verbs!)
WhenFriday, Feb. 7, 2020, 3:30 – 5 p.m.
Campus locationGowen Hall (GWN)
Campus room201
Event typesAcademics, Lectures/Seminars
Event sponsorsUW Linguistics

linguistics.washington.edu

Monica Cohn lingadmn@uw.edu

206-6857467
Description

Kaitlyn Harrigan (College of William & Mary) explores the role of syntactic distribution in children’s acquisition of attitude verbs, such as think, want and hope, which refer to the mental state of the subject of the sentence. Attitude verbs are a classic example of the “poverty of the stimulus” problem—they refer to invisible events, and thus their meanings are closed to observation. Drawing on findings from the syntax, semantics, and pragmatics literatures, she capitalizes on the reported relationship between syntactic distribution and meaning in subclasses of attitude verbs. She will present findings supporting a syntactic bootstrapping hypothesis—children utilize syntactic information to hypothesize the meanings of novel attitude verbs.

Previous research shows differing trajectories of acquisition for different subclasses of attitude verbs. When acquiring belief verbs, children make a classic “false belief” error—they are lured by reality when there is a mismatch between the subject’s belief and reality until at least age 4. This same reality error is not observed in the acquisition desire verbs, such as want. Attitude verb subclass is also reflected in syntactic distribution—belief verbs take finite complements, desire verbs take non-finite complements. In a series of 4 experiments, children are presented sentences with novel attitude verbs. Findings show that children are sensitive to the syntactic frame in which the verb is presented: they are lured by reality when the complement is finite, but not when the complement is non-finite. The strength of children’s hypothesis is mediated by prior experience with the verb, suggesting that while syntax guides meaning, syntactic distribution alone may not be enough. These findings contribute to our understanding of verb learning, as well as providing evidence for the deep connections between syntactic distribution and verb meanings.

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