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Individual differences in early vocabulary development: redefining the referential-expressive distinction*

  • Elena V. M. Lieven (a1), Julian M. Pine (a2) and Helen Dresner Barnes (a3)


The existence of stylistic variation between children in the early stages of language acquisition has been most frequently studied using Nelson's 0973) referential—expressive distinction. While the use of this distinction has generated a great deal of interesting research, there are a number of major problems associated with it. The present study presents a simple scheme, based on formal categories, for coding stylistic variation in the early lexicon. When applied to the first 50 and 100 words of 12 children collected between 0; 11 and 2; 3, the major dimensions of difference are found to be the relative proportion of common nouns and the relative proportion of frozen phrases. Moreover, the proportion of frozen phrases is also found to be significantly positively related to children's early productivity, suggesting that, rather than being a ‘deadend’ in early language development, the acquisition of frozen phrases may provide an alternative route into multiword speech.


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Department of Psychology, Manchester University, Manchester Mi3 gPL, UK.


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We would like to thank all the families who took part in this study and to acknowledge the assistance of Tameside Regional Health Authority in collecting the sample.



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Individual differences in early vocabulary development: redefining the referential-expressive distinction*

  • Elena V. M. Lieven (a1), Julian M. Pine (a2) and Helen Dresner Barnes (a3)


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