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The role of animacy in children's understanding of ‘move’

  • SUSAN A. GELMAN (a1) and MELISSA A. KOENIG (a2)

Abstract

Animals are distinctive in that they are the causal agents of their own actions (e.g. a dog moves itself), whereas artifacts generally are not (e.g. a marble doesn't move itself). We examined whether children make use of this conceptual link between animacy and agency when interpreting the verb ‘move’ in English. Specifically, we hypothesized that the semantic interpretation of ‘move’ would differ, depending on whether the subject noun refers to an animal or to an inanimate object. We hypothesized that, for inanimates, children would allow ‘move’ to have a patient subject (e.g. ‘the marble moved’ could mean ‘the marble was moved by someone else’) but not so for animates (e.g. ‘the dog moved’ could not mean ‘the dog was moved by someone else’). In two studies, 65 three-year-olds, 57 five-year-olds, and 74 adults viewed video clips of animals or inanimate objects being transported by a person. For each clip, the child was asked whether the animal or object was moving. A ‘yes’ response would indicate acceptance of a patient subject (e.g. ‘the dog/marble moved’ means ‘the dog/marble was moved by someone else’). Both five-year-old children and adults more often reported that the toys were moving, than that the animals were moving. However, three-year-olds showed no animacy effects. Thus, between the ages of three and five, children begin to link animacy and agency in language. These findings suggest that children's language use is guided by similar conceptual constraints as those of adults, and/or that children are sensitive to distributional information linking form and meaning in the input language.

Copyright

Corresponding author

Please address correspondence to: Susan A. Gelman, Department of Psychology, University of Michigan, 525 E. University Ave., Ann Arbor, MI 48109-1109, USA. e-mail: gelman@umich.edu

Footnotes

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Support for this research was provided by NICHD Grant R01-HD36043 to the first author. A report of this research was presented at the 1999 Biennial Meetings of the Society for Research in Child Development, Albuquerque, NM. We thank Jonathan Flukes, Elizabeth Kohn, and Cristina Bares for their able research assistance, and Dedre Gentner for comments on an earlier presentation of the work. We are grateful to the children who participated in the research, and to the University of Michigan Children's Center for their support. We also wish to thank Catherine Echols for generously allowing the authors to use her laboratory facilities.

Footnotes

The role of animacy in children's understanding of ‘move’

  • SUSAN A. GELMAN (a1) and MELISSA A. KOENIG (a2)

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