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Young children's understanding of markedness in non-verbal communication*


Speakers often anticipate how recipients will interpret their utterances. If they wish some other, less obvious interpretation, they may ‘mark’ their utterance (e.g. with special intonations or facial expressions). We investigated whether two- and three-year-olds recognize when adults mark a non-verbal communicative act – in this case a pointing gesture – as special, and so search for a not-so-obvious referent. We set up the context of cleaning up and then pointed to an object. Three-year-olds inferred that the adult intended the pointing gesture to indicate that object, and so cleaned it up. However, when the adult marked her pointing gesture (with exaggerated facial expression) they took the object's hidden contents or a hidden aspect of it as the intended referent. Two-year-olds' appreciation of such marking was less clear-cut. These results demonstrate that markedness is not just a linguistic phenomenon, but rather something concerning the pragmatics of intentional communication more generally.

Corresponding author
[*]Address for correspondence: Kristin Liebal, Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology – Department of Developmental and Comparative Psychology, Deutscher Platz 6, Leipzig D-04103, Germany. E-mail:
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Journal of Child Language
  • ISSN: 0305-0009
  • EISSN: 1469-7602
  • URL: /core/journals/journal-of-child-language
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