If children’s early words or word-like “phrasemes” have any meanings at all,
then it should be possible to study and analyse their meanings. But how can
early words and meanings be rigorously studied and analysed? In examining
naturalistic production data from forty-seven subjects acquiring Mandarin
during the first four years, this innovative study takes a radical, semantic
approach to words and their meanings in child Mandarin i.e. the Natural
Semantic Metalanguage (NSM) (e.g. Goddard and Wierzbicka 2002).
Amongst our findings, lexical exponents of sixty-one or so semantic “primes”
posited in NSM are present in child Mandarin before the end of the fourth
year. Many of these are among the earliest and the most frequent words that
children produce. In addition, combinatorial properties of these lexical
exponents also support hypotheses advanced about universal syntax within
the NSM framework, despite challenges posed by a certain few exponents.
Early vocabulary comprises a great many semantically complex i.e. “non-
prime”, words. Before an NSM prime acquires a lexical exponent, it may first
be conceptually present as core semantic elements in the meanings of
common non-prime words. This phenomenon is termed “latency” (following
Tien 1999): a semantic prime is considered “latent” when it is first
represented conceptually and expounded lexically only later in development.
On the whole, in adopting a representational system which is the NSM and
which is commensurable with the adult system, this study has demonstrated
that there is, in fact, developmental continuity between “the young child’s
semantic system” and “the adult’s system” (Goddard 2001: 219).
Adrian Tien is an Assistant Professor at the National University of Singapore.
His research and teaching areas have included semantics, language
acquisition, intercultural and intracultural communication; relationship
between language, music and culture; and, English-Chinese and Chinese-
English translation studies.