Being pragmatic about syntactic bootstrapping

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Hacquard, V (468.07 KB)
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HACQUARD, V. (2022). Being pragmatic about syntactic bootstrapping. Journal of Child Language, 1-24.


Words have meanings vastly undetermined by the contexts in which they occur. Their acquisition therefore presents formidable problems of induction. Lila Gleitman and colleagues have advocated for one part of a solution: indirect evidence for a word’s meaning may come from its syntactic distribution, via SYNTACTIC BOOTSTRAPPING. But while formal theories argue for principled links between meaning and syntax, actual syntactic evidence about meaning is noisy and highly abstract. This paper examines the role that syntactic bootstrapping can play in learning modal and attitude verb meanings, for which the physical context is especially uninformative. I argue that abstract syntactic classifications are useful to the child, but that something further is both necessary and available. I examine how pragmatic and syntactic cues can combine in mutually constraining ways to help learners infer attitude meanings, but need to be supplemented by semantic information from the lexical context in the case of modals.