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The role of input frequency and semantic transparency in the acquisition of verb meaning: evidence from placement verbs in Tamil and Dutch*


We investigate how Tamil- and Dutch-speaking adults and four- to five-year-old children use caused posture verbs (‘lay/stand a bottle on a table’) to label placement events in which objects are oriented vertically or horizontally. Tamil caused posture verbs consist of morphemes that individually label the causal and result subevents (nikka veyyii ‘make stand’; paDka veyyii ‘make lie’), occurring in situational and discourse contexts where object orientation is at issue. Dutch caused posture verbs are less semantically transparent: they are monomorphemic (zetten ‘set/stand’; leggen ‘lay’), often occurring in contexts where factors other than object orientation determine use. Caused posture verbs occur rarely in Tamil input corpora; in Dutch input, they are used frequently. Elicited production data reveal that Tamil four-year-olds use infrequent placement verbs appropriately whereas Dutch children use high-frequency placement verbs inappropriately even at age five. Semantic transparency exerts a stronger influence than input frequency in constraining children's verb meaning acquisition.

Corresponding author
Address for correspondence: Bhuvana Narasimhan, Department of Linguistics, Hellems 290, 295 UCB, University of Colorado, Boulder, CO 80309-0295, USA. tel: 303-492-8456; email:
Marianne Gullberg, Centre for Languages and Literature, Lund University, PB Box 201, 221 00 Lund, Sweden. tel: +46-46-222 0389; email:
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We gratefully acknowledge the cooperation of the teachers and students of the Ramakrishna Mission Tamil Medium School (Chennai, India) and Kindercentrum Dribbel (Molenhoek, the Netherlands). We are also grateful for funding from the Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics. We wish to express our thanks to Judith Bindels, Pauline Chew, Bregje Esmeijer, Anke Jolink, Femke Uijtdewilligen, Arna Van Doorn, Shanmugam Mohan and R. Devi for help with the data collection and analysis, and Melissa Bowerman, Asifa Majid and Leah Roberts for comments on the design and analysis of the study. Our thanks also go to the reviewers of this paper who provided us with valuable suggestions. Any remaining errors are solely ours.

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Journal of Child Language
  • ISSN: 0305-0009
  • EISSN: 1469-7602
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