Kristen Syrett of Rutgers University (https://sites.rutgers.edu/kristen-syrett/) will present “Playing with semantic building blocks: Acquiring the lexical representations of verbs and adjectives” in ILC N400 Friday Feb. 22 at 3:30. All are welcome!
ABSTRACT: Early lexicons and initial child productions reflect a preponderance of object-denoting lexical items (nouns), while those that denote properties of objects or events (adjectives and verbs) lag behind. If nouns are the “Marsha” of the Brady Bunch, adjectives and verbs compete for the role of “Jan.” In many ways, this asymmetry privileging nouns makes sense: it’s much easier to track event participants than to track ephemeral events and the properties of those participants, which are much less stable, and both verbs and adjectives require nominal elements both syntactically and semantically. But the process of language acquisition is rapid, and within a matter of a few years, the child fairly quickly achieves proficiency, enough so to appreciate polysemy or word play. Given this state of affairs, we might ask two questions about the acquisition of these predicates: (1) What strategies or information sources do children recruit to pin down the lexical meaning of verbs and adjectives?, and (2) When they enter into the lexicon, how rich is children’s semantic knowledge of these words? In this talk, I provide one answer to (1), showcasing the role of the linguistic context. I then highlight a set of examples in response to (2), illustrating children’s early command of selectional restrictions for both categories. In doing so, I also demonstrate that once these words are established as part of the children’s receptive and productive vocabulary, there are certain advantages afforded to the language learner—although here, we uncover an asymmetry between verbs and adjectives implicating other aspects of the grammar and the context. Together, what this body of work reveals is the complex, interrelated process of acquiring and assembling the semantic building blocks of language.