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Abstract Karousou, Katis & Stambouliadou

The Very Emergence of Words: Methodological and Theoretical Issues in its Description

An extensive range of theoretical and empirical work has been concerned with the development of the early lexicon. However, focus upon what Vihman & McCune (1994) have described as the “ragged beginnings of words” is more limited, perhaps because of the methodological difficulties in studying a transitional phase of sparse, uneven and ambiguous use of protowords and words. Diaries and parental reports need to be supplemented by research relying on more objective methods of direct naturalistic observation. This seems especially true since once popularized impressions about this early phase have at times proved misguided, above all the supposition of a sharp discontinuity between babbling and the first words (Jakobson 1941) as well as the abrupt emergence of the symbolic use of words (McShane 1979).

Continuity has instead been emphasized in the transition from the preverbal to the verbal period as well as in subsequent developments (e.g. Halliday 1975; Bates et al. 1979; Vihman & McCune 1992; Woodward 2004). It is at the same time acknowledged that continuity enhances the problems of description. These include in particular the very identification of which vocalizations might be words even if in a primitive sense, but also what more mature aspects of word usage might be.

In this paper we trace minute developmental changes in the production of the early (proto)words of one girl learning Greek as her first and only language, on the basis of weekly video recordings from 8 to 20 months. In identifying parameters of development, we build upon previous attempts to specify various formal, functional and contextual factors, which seem to interlock in the development of words. More specifically, we trace the form of early productions (e.g. phonetic and prosodic shape), their use (e.g. referential or not) as well as aspects of interaction (e.g. imitated or not). We argue that the data support the uneven and gradual emergence of early words and its dependence upon various interlocking factors. It also reveals how complex the methodological and theoretical issues of description can be.



Bates, E., Benigni, L., Bretherton, I., Camaioni, L. & Volterra, V. (1979). The Emergence of Symbols: Cognition and Communication in Infancy. NY: Academic Press.

Halliday, M.A.K. (1975). Learning How to Mean: Εxplorations in the Development of Language. London: Edward Arnold.

Jakobson, R. (1941/1968) Child language aphasia and phonological universals. A.R. Keiler, Trans. The Hague: Mouton.

McShane, J. (1979). The development of naming. Linguistics: An Interdisciplinary Journal of the Language Sciences, 17, 879-905

Vihman, M.M. & McCune, L. (1994) When a word is a word? Journal of Child Language, 21, 517-542.

Woodward, A.L. 2004. Infants’ use of action knowledge to get a grasp of words. In D.G. Hall and S.R. Waxman (eds), Weaving a Lexicon, 148-171, Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.