Linguistics colloquium: Merle Weicker

20/03/2018 - 14:00 - 15:30

Merle Weicker, Goethe University Frankfurt

Title: The influence of semantic complexity on the acquisition of adjectives


Adjectives have been classified according to different criteria such as notional properties (e.g., color, dimension, physical property; Dixon 1982/2004), entailment properties (intersectivity, subsectivity; Kamp & Partee 1995) or gradability properties (non-gradable, absolute gradable, relative gradable; Kennedy 2007, Rotstein & Winter 2004, Toledo & Sassoon 2011). I propose a classification of adjectives that incorporates entailment and gradability properties and argue that the resulting adjective classes differ in semantic complexity. Taking as a starting point that an accepted definition of formal semantic complexity is missing (cf. Matthewson 2014), I suggest that semantic complexity can be defined in terms of the adjective’s length of description, i.e., the number of arguments that the adjective takes, and the complexity of the adjective’s semantic type. Adjectives of the same semantic type can be further distinguished by taking lexical properties into account, which contribute to the adjective’s meaning but are predicted not to affect the compositional mechanisms involved in adjective-noun combinations, e.g., dimensionality or subjectivity.

Regarding the acquisition of adjectives, the account proposed here predicts that the order of acquisition is determined by the semantic complexity of the respective adjective classes: less complex adjectives classes should not be acquired after more complex adjective classes. To test this acquisition hypothesis I analyzed corpus data from the spontaneous speech of a German-speaking child between age 2 and 3 and developed a comprehension experiment assessing the interpretation of absolute (clean, dirty) and relative gradable (big, small) adjectives in preschool children and adults. The findings I will present from both studies point to an acquisition path of adjectives which mirrors the proposed complexity hierarchy.


Building 504, room 7

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