Lexical and structural biases in the acquisition of motion verbs

Abstract

It is well known that languages differ in how they encode motion. Languages such as English use verbs that communicate the manner of motion (e.g., climb, float), while languages such as Greek often encode the path of motion in verbs (e.g., advance, exit). In two studies with English- and Greek-speaking adults and 5-year-olds, we ask how such lexical constraints are used in combination with structural cues in hypothesizing meanings for novel motion verbs cross-linguistically. We show that lexicalization biases affect the interpretations of motion verbs in both young children and adults across different languages; furthermore, their scope of application is larger than previously thought, since they also extend to the domain of caused motion events. Crucially, we find that the language-specific effects of such biases interact with universal mappings between syntactic structure and semantic content. Finally, we demonstrate that the combined effects of lexical and structural cues shift non-linguistic biases observed during event categorization: even though speakers of English and Greek share non-linguistic preferences in categorizing spontaneous and caused motion, they focus on different components of motion events when building hypotheses about the meaning of novel motion verbs.

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