LINGUIST List 14.262

Fri Jan 24 2003

Review: Psycholinguistics: Wittek (2002)

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  1. Johannes Reese, Learning the Meaning of Change-of-State Verbs

Message 1: Learning the Meaning of Change-of-State Verbs

Date: Fri, 24 Jan 2003 00:39:13 +0000
From: Johannes Reese <>
Subject: Learning the Meaning of Change-of-State Verbs

Wittek, Angelika (2002) Learning the Meaning of Change-of-State Verbs:
A Case Study of German Child Language. Mouton de Gruyter, viii+233pp,
hardback ISBN 3-11-017304-2, Studies on Language Acquisition 17.

Announced at

Johannes Reese, Seminar fuer Allgemeine Sprachwissenschaft [General
Linguistics Department], Universitaet Zuerich, Switzerland


The book deals with how children learn the meaning of causative
change- of-state verbs in German. It consists of seven chapters.

The first chapter covers the literature in the field of
change-of-state (Aktionsart) and language acquisition. She bases her
thoughts on the aspect/aktionsart literature derived from Vendler
(1967), which has been extended by Dowty (1979) -though she does not
cite the latter, and used by different other researchers, some of
which are cited in her work. Wittek mentions the lexical decomposition
scheme invented by Dowty. She also drops a few words on the role
arguments play in that circumstance.

More relevant seems the link to Talmy's 1985 work on the typology of
motion verbs. The lexical decomposition approach is used as a tool for
language acquisition theory in order to explain differences in
argument marking and conceptualization deviances among young children
like marking the object with 'throw' earlier than with 'read' or
mistaking the words buy and sell for give and take; the Semantic
Feature Hypothesis is the anchor between language acquisition theory
and this theory of the lexicon. In recent theories of grammatical
development and lexical structure, the causative
change-of-state-verbs, the topic of the book, are considered to be
basic, and thus easy to learn. Language acquisition research, on the
other hand, has shown that this is not the case. At least certain
phases of these verbs are often understood very late. This paradox
forms the challenge for Wittek.

Curiously, Wittek presents the structuring of the book and the
acknowledgments at the end of her Chapter One, after having described
the main theoretical background.

The second chapter deals with the language acquisition research. In
the chapter, some non-acquisitional issues are touched as well. E.g.,
a distinction is made between manner verbs and result verbs.

In the one-word stage, children tend to content themselves with the
expression of completions of events. In satellite-framed languages,
they use the verbal particles rather than the verbs. They also tend to
use preterite forms with completive verbs and present forms with non-
completive ones. On the other hand, as another research has shown,
children (apparently English-speaking ones, at this point, language
specifics are dropped from attention) have the more difficulties to
understand the end-state component of a change-of-state verb the
younger they are (Manner Bias). Other (newer) research, however, came
to different results, they found no or only a slight Manner Bias.

She poses this scheme as the basis for her main idea: testing if the
Manner Bias is a typological one; she does so by opposing complex
predicates (with both result satellites and manner verbs) to mere
result verbs. If children have more problems with the latter than with
the former, the Manner Bias would turn to be a typological one,
according to her (Transparent Endstate Hypothesis). She uses German as
target language instead of English due to the stronger Romance
influence on English.

In Chapter 3, this first experiment is presented. The chapter begins
with a deeper explanation of what she wants to test. Fully transparent
satellite constructions as opposed to semi-transparent or non-
compositional ones are for her constructions with a manner verb and a
satellite that can by itself serve (with a copula) as the predicate of
the end state. Those constructions should be more reluctant to
negligence of the end state than mere verbs containing an end state, a
kind of a deviation to the satellite frame.

After that, she gives a very detailed description of her experiment
settings, which seem quite sophisticated - as do all of the following
ones. Her results were that it is possible to reproduce to a limited
degree the findings that lead to the Manner Bias Hypothesis, but these
are due rather to ''learners' problems in interpreting certain form-
meaning mappings'', e.g. a focal saliency bias, than to a general
predisposition to learn manner verbs easier than result verbs.

In Chapter 4, she reconsiders the results of Chapter 3 in more detail;
she presents some of the interviews in order to get a deeper insight
into why the children acted as they did. Apparently, the children
consider the endstates as an entailment of a verb's meaning. It is the
starting point for a brilliant and well-informed discussion of
Aktionsarten. There is a aspectual gap in the system of the children
that makes them treat ''perfective'' telic verbs as conative. She
cites research from other languages (Japanese, Chinese, Tamil), where
result verbs do not necessarily entail the result to be
achieved. That's the system of the young children, too. They turn out
to be a class of verbs that pragmatically favor the achievement of an
endstate, but do not necessarily entail them, similar to the weak
endstate verb languages. In English and German, there is such a class
within manner verbs.

She then discusses several approaches as to the question how children
finally learn the correct entailments of change-of-state verbs in
Germanic languages. Forgetting about some hints from chapter one (as
to different morphological role marking) she states that children
don't distinguish between different roles due to different Aktionsart
and argues that there wouldn't even be any overt cues for them.

Chapter 5 tries to solve this question. It adds another idea to
aspectological theory as well, using modifiers (i.e. adverbs) as a
test. She presents the Adverbial Modification Cue Hypothesis, using
the adverb 'again', which can, in one reading, refer to restitution of
a previous state and shows thus in due case that the end state is
connected to the verb's meaning (indefeasible). German children are
aware of this reading; therefore Wittek argues that they can defer the
relevance of the end state by this adverb. Again, she supposes a
Transparency bias, i.e. that verbs with the result as a satellite
would be used more easily than simple verbs in combination with
'again', at least in German. That is what corpus studies told her. She
then tests this hypothesis empirically. Her prediction proved to be

In Chapter 6, Wittek examines her hypothesis further. She presents an
experiment testing if children can learn novel verbs by the clue of
the adverb 'again' in restitutive reading. As a result, Wittek managed
to teach children the change-of-state component of novel verbs by the
cue of the adverb 'again'. They learnt the new verbs as
change-of-state verbs more often than in the control groups.

Chapter 7 is summary of the whole book. The settings are presented in
more detail as appendices.


The merit of the book is based on two fundaments. At first, the overt
structure is very comfortable. Every chapter ends with a summary, and
there is an overall summary at the end of the book as Chapter 7. This
makes the book very good to read.

At second, the research presented is very sophisticated. It is based
on another two fundaments: Aktionsart theory and language acquisition
research. In the former, there is the almost one and only critical
remark to be made: she tends not to cite the ''inventors'' of a tool,
but works who used it: example: there is no hint to Davidson (1967),
but she mentions his event argument. Nevertheless, her reflections
don't cover a wide range of Aktionsart literature (cf. e.g. Sasse
2002), but the ones she decided for are came out in a research very
fruitful to aspectual and Aktionsart theory. And she uses useful hints
from other languages. Her deep (Aktionsart research based) reflections
helped her detect mistakes in other language acquisition based works.

Summing up, the book is a step forward not only in language
acquisition research, but as well in Aktionsart theory. It is worth
reading also for people without any interest in both German and
language acquisition. One of the key merits for them is her discussion
of pragmatically favored endstate verbs.

I have especially liked the fact (though it is of course only partly
or not at all determined by her will) that some of the experiments
failed; although it forced her to do more experiments, it was a step
(or she made it look like a step) towards finding the points that
aspectologists are interested in.

One final critical remark: end notes are a nuisance.


Davidson, Donald (1967): The Logical Form of Action Sentences. In:
Rescher, N. (ed.): The Logic of Decision and Action. Pittsburgh:
University of Pittsburgh Press. 81-95

Sasse, Hans-Juergen (2002): Recent activity in the theory of aspect:
Accomplishments, achievements, or just non-progressive state?
Linguistic Typology 6.2(2002), 199-271


Johannes Reese is a research fellow at the Universitaet Zuerich,
Switzerland. He is currently writing his dissertation on aspect in
Moroccan Arabic. His main interests include above all fields relevant
for facilitating language learning, currently especially aspect,
genericity, focus, and formal semantics.
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