Pragmatic aspects of spatial language acquisition and use across languages


Across languages, locative back is produced earlier and more frequently than locative front. This asymmetry has been attributed either to a conceptual/semantic asymmetry in the early meanings of these locatives (with back being more basic than front; conceptual immaturity account) or to the fact that Back configurations are inherently more ‘noteworthy’ than Front configurations (pragmatic account). Here, we tested the two accounts. In Study 1, children and adult speakers of English and Greek described Front/Back motion events. In Study 2, adult speakers of 10 additional languages described the same events. Despite cross-linguistic differences, speakers of all age and language groups typically used more Back than Front adpositions; furthermore, they often encoded Back information in occlusion verbs (e.g. hide) but no such verbs were available for Front. Thus, the front/back asymmetry is not due to children’s conceptual immaturity but should be linked to pragmatic factors that also shape adult production cross-linguistically.

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