The Acquisition of Meaning

Clifton Pye

pyersqr (at) ku (dot) edu

In her chapter “What Shapes Children’s Grammars?” Melissa Bowerman (1985) observed:

“In spite of the general interest in meaning shown by our field in recent years, variation among languages in the makeup and scope of grammatically-relevant semantic categories has been persistently neglected in crosslinguistic studies of grammatical development. In general, the way in which languages organize meaning has not been regarded as an integral part of their structure, equivalent in status to syntactic or morphological structure and comparable to these in its potential to influence rate of acquisition, likelihood of errors, and so on ....

“The neglect of semantic variation in crosslinguistic studies of language acquisition reflects, I think, the difficulty our field has had in distinguishing meaning as it is structured by language from nonlinguistic, cognitive organization. In much recent theorizing about language acquisition, children are seen as possessing powerful cognitive capacities that enable them to organize and interpret their experiences independently of language. When language starts to come in, according to this view, it does not introduce new meanings, but simply allows children to express those meanings they have already formulated. The emphasis in this model is on the cognitive understanding that all children are assumed to share; correspondingly, there is little attention to crosslinguistic variation in meaning structure, or to the process by which children learn to the specific way in which their language categorizes elements of experience” (pp. 1313-1314).

The acquisition of language-specific semantic structures was an important theme of Bowerman’s research, best seen in her comparison of the semantics of English and Korean verbs of motion (c.f. Bowerman and Choi 2001). It is important to emphasize that research on the cognitive development of children acquiring a single language confounds language-neutral and language-specific cognitive ability. The only way to disentangle this confound is by making detailed semantic comparisons between languages.

Crosslinguistic comparisons of spatial language provide one example of the ways in which languages structure spatial cognition. Consider the word front. English speakers use the word to refer to the fronts of houses, cars and trees without stopping to consider what counts as the front of each object. The front of a house is arbitrarily stipulated by reference to the location of a front door, even though people might enter their houses through a garage located at the side of the house. The front of a car is not based on where you enter the car, but on the direction that the car travels when it moves in a forward direction (a circular definition). Finally, the front of a tree is defined by the speaker’s perspective. A speaker standing on the opposite side of the tree has a different tree front.

These examples show that English speakers apply different frames of spatial reference depending on their conceptual construction of each object. The “fronts” of artifacts depend on their function, whereas the “fronts” of natural kinds depend on other considerations such as the speaker’s perspective. In other words, the meaning of front is based on the English speaker’s intentional stance towards each object, and intentional stances vary across languages.

English speakers think of objects like trees as having fronts that face towards a speaker. Hausa speakers think of objects like trees as having fronts that face in the same direction as the speaker (Hill 1982). English speakers see the “fronts” of objects, whereas Hausa speakers see the “backs” of objects. The Mayan language K’iche’ adds a vertical component to “front” by referring to the front of the ground, that is, it’s surface.

Acquisition research, which assumes that children begin with the same conceptual categories, will miss the ways in which languages shape all manners of conceptual boundaries. Conceptual development includes learning cultural conventions, embedded in the local language, for interpreting local experience. As Bowerman showed, there is much to be learned from comparative research on semantic development of children living in different language communities.


Bowerman, M. 1985. What shapes children’s grammars? In D. I. Slobin (ed.), The Crosslinguistic Study of Language Acquisition Vol. 2: Theoretical Issues, 1257-1319. Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum.

Bowerman, M. and S. Choi. 2001. Shaping meanings for language: Universal and language-specific in the acquisition of semantic categories. In M. Bowerman and S. C. Levinson (eds.), Language Acquisition and Conceptual Development, 475-511. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Hill, C. 1982. Up/Down, front/back, left/right. A contrastive study of Hausa and English. In J. Weissenborn and W. Klein (Eds.), Here and There, 13-42. Amsterdam: Benjamins.

Mar. 2, 2018

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© 2018 Clifton Pye