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Cognition. 1991 Feb;38(2):179-211.

Ontological categories guide young children's inductions of word meaning: object terms and substance terms.

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  • 1Northeastern University, Boston, MA 02115.


Three experiments assessed the possibility, suggested by Quine (1960, 1969) among others, that the ontology underlying natural language is induced in the course of language learning, rather than constraining learning from the beginning. Specifically, we assessed whether the ontological distinction between objects and non-solid substances conditions projection of word meanings prior to the child's mastery of count/mass syntax. Experiments 1 and 2 contrasted unfamiliar objects with unfamiliar substances in a word-learning task. Two-year-old subjects' projection of the novel word to new objects respected the shape and number of the original referent. In contrast, their projection of new words for non-solid substances ignored shape and number. There were no effects of the child's knowledge of count/mass syntax, nor of the syntactic context in which the new word was presented. Experiment 3 revealed that children's natural biases in the absence of naming do not lead to the same pattern of results. We argue that these data militate against Quine's conjecture.

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