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Love is hard to understand: the relationship between transitivity and caused events in the acquisition of emotion verbs*


Famously, dog bites man is trivia whereas man bites dog is news. This illustrates not just a fact about the world but about language: to know who did what to whom, we must correctly identify the mapping between semantic role and syntactic position. These mappings are typically predictable, and previous work demonstrates that young children are sensitive to these patterns and so could use them in acquisition. However, there is only limited and mixed evidence that children do use this information to guide acquisition outside of the laboratory. We find that children understand emotion verbs which follow the canonical CAUSE–VERB–PATIENT pattern (Mary frightened/delighted John) earlier than those which do not (Mary feared/liked John), despite the latter's higher frequency, suggesting children's generalization of the mapping between causativity and transitivity is broad and active in acquisition.

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The authors wish to thank Timothy O'Donnell for assistance with the corpus analysis, as well as Alfonso Caramazza, Susan Carey, Steve Pinker, Mahesh Srinivasan, Nathan Winkler-Rhoades, Melissa Kline, Hugh Rabagliati, members of the Language and Cognition workshop, and three anonymous reviewers for comments and discussion. This material is based on work supported by a National Defense Science and Engineering Graduate Fellowship and a Ruth L. Kirschstein National Research Service Award to JKH and a grant from the National Science Foundation to Jesse Snedeker (0623845).

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Journal of Child Language
  • ISSN: 0305-0009
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