Meaning from syntax: Evidence from 2-year-olds

Sudha Arunachalam, Sandra R. Waxman

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


When toddlers view an event while hearing a novel verb, the verb's syntactic context has been shown to help them identify its meaning. The current work takes this finding one step further to reveal that even in the absence of an accompanying event, syntactic information supports toddlers' identification of verb meaning. Two-year-olds were first introduced to dialogues incorporating novel verbs either in transitive or intransitive sentences, but in the absence of any relevant referent scenes (see Yuan & Fisher, 2009). Next, toddlers viewed two candidate scenes: (a) two participants performing synchronous actions, (b) two participants performing a causative action. When asked to "find mooping", toddlers who had heard transitive sentences chose the causative scene; those who had heard intransitive sentences did not. These results demonstrate that 2-year-olds infer important components of meaning from syntactic structure alone, using it to direct their subsequent search for a referent in a visual scene.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)442-446
Number of pages5
Issue number3
StatePublished - Mar 2010


  • Language acquisition
  • Syntactic bootstrapping
  • Word learning

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Experimental and Cognitive Psychology
  • Language and Linguistics
  • Developmental and Educational Psychology
  • Linguistics and Language
  • Cognitive Neuroscience


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