Learning and Interpreting Words for Kinds: Adults' and Children's Understanding of Generic Language.
Author(s)Hollander, Michelle A.
Full recordShow full item record
AbstractMany languages distinguish generic utterances (e.g., ???Tigers are ferocious???) from non-generic utterances (e.g., ???Those tigers are ferocious???). Generic sentences refer to kinds rather than to specific individuals. Thus, generics pose a problem of induction even more striking than that of individual reference. Three studies examined how generic language specially links properties and categories. In Study 1, I assessed comprehension of generics vis-??-vis the quantifier terms ???all??? and ???some???. Generic utterances are distinct in that they are generally true, unlike indefinites (e.g., ???Bats live in caves??? is generic; ???I saw some bats in the cave??? is indefinite), but need not be true of all category members, unlike universal quantifiers (e.g. ???all???). Four-year-olds and adults appropriately distinguished ???some??? (e.g. ???Do some girls have curly hair????) from ???all??? (e.g., ???Do all girls have curly hair????), from generic (e.g., ???Do girls have curly hair????), although 3-year-olds did not. Three-year-olds did distinguish appropriately among category-property pairings of wide-scope (e.g., ???Are fires hot????), of narrow-scope (e.g. ???Do books have color pictures????), and of irrelevant-properties (e.g., ???Do garages sing????), but interpreted sentences with ???all??? and ???some??? just as they, and the older participants, treated generics. In Study 2, I used a novel-word extension task to ask if 4- to 5-year-old children and adults distinguish between generic and specific language, and judge that predicating a property of a depicted novel animal using generic language (e.g., ???Bants have stripes???), rather than non-generic language (e.g., ???This bant has stripes???) implies a more kind-relevant connection between category and property. Participants were asked to endorse an extension of the label taught to a novel animal matching the target instance on either overall similarity or the mentioned property. Wording was found to have a significant effect on responses for both age groups. Study 3 replicated and extended Study 2 in a more stringent test of the pull of generic language away from shape as a dimension along which to judge category membership. Altogether, the results of these three studies suggest that the generic is a default interpretation for young children, who may instead need to learn the semantics of specific and set-theoretic expressions.