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Abstract McCune & Herr-Israel

Pre-language Cognition, Motion Event Semantics and the Transition from Single Words to First Sentences

Our theoretical and empirical findings demonstrate that the meanings of children’s first verbs at the beginning of multiword speech can be traced to sensorimotor cognitive understandings of the motions of objects over time and space. Talmy’s (1983) motion event proposals allowed us to demonstrate continuity from first words expressing dynamic change (dynamic event words) to the first general purpose verbs (primal verbs).

Relational word and verb use was examined in five English-learning children video-recorded monthly from 14 to 24 months. Age of multiword onset and MLU at 24 months (respectively) ranged from 17-20 months and 1.50 - 3.88. The children produced an average of 560 combinations during the study.

Dynamic event words express the following categories of meaning: (1) Spatial Direction or Path in the vertical plane (e.g., up, down) or the “deictic plane” (e.g., here used in exchange; there accompanying placing actions); (2) Spatial Relations between Entities (Figure/Ground), including reversible aspects of containment (open, close, out), as well as additional meanings related to reversible aspects of temporal and spatial event sequences which will later be syntactically encoded.

Consideration of Talmy’s analyses of the motion-event structure underlying linguistic meanings provides a conceptual bridge between infants’ “logic of motion” and the motion-event basis of semantic understandings expressed in sentences. For example the children used the verbs put, take and give specifying deictic path; close, find, and hide specifying figure/ground. They expressed pure agentive action with the verbs can, do, and go. Such general purpose primal verbs can provide a bootstrap to broader semantic categories of verbs (e.g., frequent use of the verb put predates linguistic expression of a range of verbs referring to placement in a location).



Talmy, L. (1983). How language structures space. In H. Pick & L. Acredolo (Eds.), Spatial orientation: Theory, research, application (pp. 225-282). New York: Plenum Press.