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Departmental Colloquium: Linguistic and event representations in early verb learning

Laurel Perkins
Wednesday, July 21, 2021, 5:00 pm – 6:30 pm

In order to learn the meanings of new verbs, children relate their linguistic representations of the sentences containing those verbs, and their conceptual representations of events in the world. To determine how they do this, we need to understand (1) how young children view particular events, independent of language, (2) how they represent the structure of particular sentences they hear, and (3) how they expect linguistic and event structure to correspond to each other.

In this talk, I'll discuss a series of studies investigating the correspondence principles that drive some of the earliest stages of verb learning in infancy. Specifically, we ask whether infants primarily expect one-to-one correspondence between clause arguments and event participants, or whether they more flexibly link particular argument and participant relations, e.g. transitive subject to agent and object to patient. I will show that 20-month-olds (1) allow a transitive sentences with only 2 arguments to describe a 'taking' event that they perceive as having 3 participants, (2) represent wh-questions with fronted objects as transitive when relating them to events, and (3) draw different inferences from intransitive sentences. Taken together, these results suggest that learners' clause structure representations are able to support sophisticated inferences about verb meanings early in development, and that these inferences may privilege the thematic content above the number of arguments in a clause. I'll end by discussing plans to extend this work to potential 4-place event predicates, such as 'trading.'