Could both be right? Children's and adults' sensitivity to subjectivity in language


While some word meanings, like "spotted," depend on intersubjectively accessible properties of the world, others like "pretty" invoke speakers' subjective beliefs. We explored children and adults' sensitivity to the subjectivity of a range of adjectives. Participants saw two speakers who had independently experienced distributions of exemplars of a novel object kind disagree about whether a critical exemplar was, e.g., "tall," "pretty," and "spotted." In Experiments 1 and 3, speakers had seen distinct distributions, while in Experiments 2 and 4, the distributions were identical. Adults always judged disagreements over adjectives like "pretty" as faultless—indicating that both speakers "could be right"—and permitted less faultless disagreement for adjectives like "tall" when the speakers had seen identical distributions of exemplars. Strikingly, children did not respond in an adult-like manner until age 8 or 9, but their explanations for speakers' conflicting assertions suggested some sensitivity to the kinds of knowledge relevant for evaluating different adjectives.

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