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Using metaphors as modifiers: children's production of metaphoric compounds

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  01 October 1997

Occidental College


Although much research has investigated children's use of metaphoric language, methodological concerns raise questions about the conclusions, and it remains unclear whether preschoolers can produce metaphors. These studies employed a new methodology to test children's ability to produce metaphors incorporated into metaphoric compounds. In two studies, 59 children aged 2;8–4;3, 63 children aged 4;4–6;1, and 34 adults participated in elicited production tasks. In Study 1, subjects in the COMPOUND condition corrected a puppet's incorrect compound labels for pictures that had metaphoric resemblances to other objects (e.g. ‘leaf-bug’ for a bug shaped like a stick). Subjects in the NON-METAPHORIC condition heard incorrect compounds describing pictures without obvious metaphoric resemblance (e.g. ‘leaf-bug’ for a round black beetle). Children in the REVERSAL condition heard compounds with nouns reversed (e.g. ‘bug-leaf’ for the stick-bug) to discover whether children distinguished between the literal and metaphoric labels. Study 2 provided an additional test of children's metaphoric–literal distinction. Results showed that children as young as 3;0 produced intentional, appropriate metaphors incorporated into compound nouns when the stimuli and puppet's labels primed recognition of metaphoric similarity and compound production. Moreover, children showed evidence of a distinction between literal and metaphoric labels. The data show that preschool children have an early ability to use metaphoric language but that significant developmental change occurs between the ages of 3;0 and 5;0 as well as beyond 5;0. Additionally, metaphoric language in preschoolers is not limited to single-word renamings.

Research Article
1997 Cambridge University Press

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Experiment 1 was supported by a predoctoral fellowship and a dissertation/thesis grant from the Horace H. Rackham School of Graduate Studies at the University of Michigan and was presented at the 1995 Biennial meetings of the Society for Research in Child Development, Indianapolis. I thank Susan Gelman, Marilyn Shatz, Henry Wellman, and Karen Van Hoek for support and encouragement. I am also grateful to the U-M Language Lab, especially Gil Diesendruck, for helpful comments at various stages of the research. The studies presented here could not have been conducted without the assistance of the parents, the staff, and especially the children from the University of Michigan Children's Center and Center for Working Families, the Child Development Laboratory at the University of Illinois, Urbana–Champaign, Children's Playspace, Jack and Jill Preschool, the Ann Arbor YMCA Child Care Center, St Thomas Elementary School, Oak Trails Montessori and Children's House, the Washtenaw County Jewish Community Center, the U-M Hospitals Child Care Center, the Occidental College Child Development Center, the Children's Center at Caltech, and the B'nai Simcha Preschool. I also thank Stacy Taranto, Leslie Moore, Amanda Filkin and John Kauffman for assistance with data collection and coding and Bill Merriman for suggesting Experiment 2.