Beyond Names for Things: Young Children's Acquisition of Verbs

Beyond Names for Things: Young Children's Acquisition of Verbs

Beyond Names for Things: Young Children's Acquisition of Verbs

Beyond Names for Things: Young Children's Acquisition of Verbs


Most research on children's lexical development has focused on their acquisition of names for concrete objects. This is the first edited volume to focus specifically on how children acquire their early verbs. Verbs are an especially important part of the early lexicon because of the role they play in children's emerging grammatical competence. The contributors to this book investigate:

• children's earliest words for actions and events and the cognitive structures that might underlie them,

• the possibility that the basic principles of word learning which apply in the case of nouns might also apply in the case of verbs, and
the role of linguistic context, especially argument structure, in the acquisition of verbs.

A central theme in many of the chapters is the comparison of the processes of noun and verb learning. Several contributors make provocative suggestions for constructing theories of lexical development that encompass the full range of lexical items that children learn and use.


Patricia Smiley Pomona College

Janellen Huttenlocher University of Chicago

Our purpose in this chapter is to explore the nature of early concepts by examining the nature and order of emergence of children's word meanings. Word meanings are often used as an index of concepts, but as we argued elsewhere (Huttenlocher,Smiley, &Ratner, 1983), the meanings children assign to words may reflect children's conceptual development, the ways parents use words, or both of these factors. In order to evaluate the relative influence of conceptual development on lexical acquisition, we examine both child word meanings and parent use of words. In particular, we examine the extent of correspondence between children's and parents' use of words for events, objects, and people in the single-word and early multiword periods. These comparisons allow us to make inferences about the nature of children's earliest event, object, and person concepts and about change in the nature of these conceptual categories over time.

We are especially interested in the acquisition of words for events. In the adult language, events are encoded by verbs that express the various relations that hold among entities. Many of these verbs encode the intentional causation of movement or change by people. In child language, however, verbs are not among the first words acquired (Gentner, 1982; Goldin- Meadow ,Seligman, &Gelman, 1976; Huttenlocher,Smiley, &Charney, 1983). Several studies, including ours, indicate that children encode events early but they employ a variety of words, including many nonverbs, to do so. Our method--examining the development of child word meanings over time in the context of parent input--allows us to address some important issues in word learning and in the early conceptualization of events. We . . .

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