LINGUIST List 14.2187

Tue Aug 19 2003

Diss: Semantics/Lang Acq: Gualmini: 'The Ups and ...'

Editor for this issue: Naomi Fox <>


  1. gualmini, The Ups and Downs of Child Language

Message 1: The Ups and Downs of Child Language

Date: Mon, 18 Aug 2003 18:40:33 +0000
From: gualmini <>
Subject: The Ups and Downs of Child Language

Institution: University of Maryland at College Park
Program: Linguistics
Dissertation Status: Completed
Degree Date: 2003

Author: Andrea Gualmini 

Dissertation Title: The Ups and Downs of Child Language

Linguistic Field: 	Semantics
			Language Acquisition 

Subject Language:	English (code: ENG )

Dissertation Director 1: Stephen Crain

Dissertation Abstract: 

Downward Entailment is a semantic property common to many linguistic
expressions across natural languages (Ladusaw, 1979). This
dissertation takes downward entailment as a yardstick in assessing
children's semantic competence. First, downward entailment is used as
a case study for several alternative models of language acquisition,
including those recently proposed by Tomasello (2000) and by Pullum
and Scholz (2002). According to these researchers, children are
initially conservative, and tend to (re)produce linguistic expressions
that they have experienced in the input. Even at later stages, when
children form generalizations, children's linguistic generalizations
are directly tied to the input, based on domain general learning
mechanisms. These models are contrasted with one based on the
principles and parameters of Universal Grammar.

In an experimental study using the Truth Value Judgment task (Crain
and Thornton, 1998), these alternative models are put to a test by
investigating a phenomenon that displays a mismatch between the data
available to the child and the semantic competence the child acquires,
namely the interaction between downward entailment and c-command. In
particular, we report the results of an experiment investigating
children's interpretation of the disjunction operator
'or' in sentences in which that operator is c-commanded by negation,
such as "Winnie the Pooh will not let Eeyore eat the cookie or
the cake," and in sentences in which disjunction is only preceded
by negation, as in "The Karate Man will give the Pooh Bear he
could not lift the honey or the donut."

	Second, children's knowledge of downward entailment is
investigated in order to assess children's knowledge of
quantification. Beginning with Inhelder and Piaget (1964), children
have been reported to have problems in interpreting sentences
containing the universal quantifier 'every.' These findings have
recently been interpreted as showing that children fail to distinguish
between the restrictor and the nuclear scope of the quantifier 'every'
(see Philip, 1995; Drozd and van Loosbroek, 1998) A Truth Value
Judgment task was designed to evaluate this assumption. The findings,
together with the results of previous research, show that children's
knowledge of quantification runs deeper than is anticipated either by
recent linguistic accounts of children's non-adult responses to
universally quantified sentences or by input driven models of language

	Children's adult-like knowledge of downward entailment and of
the negative polarity item 'any' stands in contrast with their
non-adult interpretation of the positive polarity item 'some' in
negative sentences, e.g., "The detective didn't find some guys" (see
Musolino, 1998). To address this contrast, an experiment was conducted
drawing upon the observation that negative statements are generally
used to point out discrepancies between the facts and the listener's
expectations, and that this felicity condition was not satisfied in
previous studies. The experimental findings show that children's
interpretation of indefinites in negative sentences is fully
adult-like when the felicity conditions associated with negative
statements are satisfied. The same picture emerges from the findings
of a final experiment investigating children's interpretation of
sentences containing multiple scope bearing elements, as in "Every
farmer didn't clean some animal."

In sum, the experimental findings suggest that even in the domain of
semantic competence, there is no reason to assume that child language
differs from adult language in ways that would exceed the boundary
conditions imposed by Universal Grammar, as maintained by the
Continuity Assumption (Crain and Thornton, 1998; Pinker, 1984).
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