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The acquisition of subordinate nouns as pragmatic inference: Semantic alternatives modulate subordinate meanings


Word learning is characterized by a bias for mapping meanings at the “basic”-level such as apple, as opposed to a subordinate-level like red apple (Markman, 1990). The fact that learners nevertheless acquire subordinate nouns has been attributed to properties of the referential world that co-occur with the word (e.g., Xu and Tanenbaum, 2007b; Spencer et al., 2011). However, learners may also make inferences about the informativity of labels as intentional linguistic acts. We investigated whether learners exploit information about semantic contrast to generalize word meanings beyond the basic level. Experiment 1 found that the introduction of a labelled alternative at the subordinate level (green apple) eliminated the basic-level bias. Experiment 2 found that the presence of the alternative exemplar without a label merely suppressed the bias. We propose that the acquisition of subordinate-level meanings is facilitated by expectations of informativity which allow learners to enter the relevant alternatives into consideration.

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