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The origins of lexical-category-to-meaning links : the case of count nouns and proper names Belanger, Julie

Abstract

When and how do infants learn the distinction between count nouns (CNs) and proper names (PNs)? In a seminal study, Katz, Baker, and Macnamara (1974) found that 17-month-old girls restricted a novel PN to a labeled doll but generalized a novel CN to a second doll contrasting in colour. Recent studies have replicated the original finding using identical-looking dolls, but no younger than 20 to 23 months (e.g., Hall, Lee, & Bélanger, 2001; Bélanger & Hall, 2006). Experiments 1 and 2 sought to clarify this age discrepancy by examining 14-, 17-, 20-, and 23-month-olds’ interpretations of CNs and PNs in a task involving either contrasting or identical-looking dolls. Infants heard a novel CN or PN for a doll. The labeled doll was paired with another contrasting or identical doll, and infants were asked to select a referent of the label. Results indicated that by 17 months, infants showed an understanding of the CN/PN distinction when the dolls looked different. It was only at 23 months that infants reliably mapped a PN onto an individual doll when it was paired with an identical-looking doll. What kinds of cues do infants use to learn the CN/PN distinction? In previous research, children interpreted a PN appropriately if it labeled a doll or familiar stuffed animal but not an artifact or unfamiliar animal. Yet questions remain about infants’ understanding of proper-nameable things. In Experiment 3, the same task was used to teach 23-month-olds a PN for a doll, stuffed rabbit, toy airplane, or novel monster. Results indicated that 23-month-olds used animate/human properties and familiarity of a labeled object when interpreting a novel PN. They interpreted the label as a PN when the object was an animate surrogate and familiar object (doll, stuffed rabbit), but not when it was an inanimate surrogate or unfamiliar object (toy airplane, novel monster). Together, these experiments document the emergence of infants’ understanding of the CN/PN distinction and reveal some cues that infants might use to learn PNs as distinct from CNs. A discussion of how the findings constrain theorizing about the developmental origins of the CN/PN distinction is presented.

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