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The moustache sits down first”: on the acquisition of metonymy*

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  19 January 2016

University of Oslo
Stanford University
Stanford University
E-mail address:


This study investigates preschoolers’ ability to understand and produce novel metonyms. We gave forty-seven children (aged 2;9–5;9) and twenty-seven adults one comprehension task and two elicitation tasks. The first elicitation task investigated their ability to use metonyms as referential shorthands, and the second their willingness to name animates metonymically on the basis of a salient property. Although children were outperformed by adults, even three-year-olds could understand and produce metonyms in certain circumstances. Our results suggest that young children may find it easier to produce a metonym than a more elaborate referential description in certain contexts, and that metonymy may serve as a useful strategy in referring to entities that lack a conventional label. However, metonymy comprehension appeared to decrease with age, with older children tending to choose literal interpretations of some metonyms. This could be a result of growing metalinguistic awareness, which leads children to overemphasize literal meanings.

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This research was supported by a postdoctoral fellowship from the Research Council of Norway (project no. 205513), awarded to the first author, and by a Beatriu de Pinós postdoctoral fellowship from Generalitat de Catalunya (2010 BP-A 00149), awarded to the second author. We would like to thank the children and staff (especially Chia-wa Yeh and Jennifer Winters) at Bing Nursery School, Stanford; this research would not have been possible without them. We thank Megan O'Neil and Marisa Casillas for all help with the data collection. Also special thanks to Petter Laake and Ewart Thomas for statistical advice, and to Robyn Carston, Eduard Hovy, Georg Kjøll, Brian MacWhinney, Agustín Vicente, and in particular Deirdre Wilson for insightful comments and discussion on earlier drafts. We would also like to thank two anonymous reviewers whose helpful comments on previous drafts substantially improved the paper. Marta Recasens is currently at Google Inc.


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