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Open Access Publications from the University of California

"Most" is easy but "least" is hard: Novel determiner learning in 4-year-olds


Some linguistic features are more readily learned than others, and are thereby more likely to be maintained in diachronic language change, giving rise to typological universals. Less readily learned features may give rise to typological gaps. We consider an apparent typological gap—that a morphologically superlative determiner (e.g., gleebest in "gleebest of the cows") with a negative meaning is cross-linguistically unattested—and ask whether it reflects an underlying learning bias. We find 4-year-olds know that such determiners indicate quantity (replicating Wellwood, Gagliardi, & Lidz, 2016), but only when positive (‘most’), but not negative (‘least’). Importantly, the observed bias is not specific to the apparent typological gap: same-age children showed difficulty learning the negative meaning of a non-superlative determiner, though such meanings are attested. The data thus suggest that children are generally biased against negativity, consistent with much prior work on conceptual bias and language learning/processing.

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