Shape, material, and syntax: Interacting forces in children's learning in novel words for objects and substances

Kaveri Subrahmanyam, Barbara Landau, Rochel Gelman

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


In three studies, we examined the roles of ontological and syntactic information in children's learning of words for physical entities, such as objects and substances. In Experiment 1, 3-year-olds and 4- to 5-year-olds, and adults first saw either an Object or Substance Standard labelled with either a mass or a count noun. Transfer items varied in shape and/or material as compared to the Standards. The 3-year-olds attended to ontologically relevant information about the Standard (i.e. its object/substance status), whereas 4- to 5-year-olds and adults used the syntactic context that marked the label as a mass or count noun. However, the tendency for 4- to 5-year-olds to use the syntactic context when they heard a label (mass or count) was less pronounced when the Standards were more ambiguous (Experiment 2). In Experiment 3, 3-year-olds who were shown the Object or Substance Standard in a No-Name similarity judgement task, attended to shape for both Standard types. This contrasts with the findings from Experiment 1, and suggests that attention to information about the ontological status of a referent may only become relevant during labelling. Our results reveal a strong and changing developmental interaction for the use of ontologically relevant perceptual information, labels, and syntax. Early ontological/ conceptual biases might serve as a scaffold for the later more determinate attention to syntactic information during word learning.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)249-281
Number of pages33
JournalLanguage and Cognitive Processes
Issue number3
StatePublished - Dec 1 1999
Externally publishedYes

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Experimental and Cognitive Psychology
  • Language and Linguistics
  • Education
  • Linguistics and Language


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