Quick Summary:

We use words all the time, and for every language we speak, we have tens of thousands of morphemes that we use more or less without consciously thinking about it. But how do we learn them to begin with? It may seem like this is pretty easy, but actually, matching sounds to meanings in order to create morphemes is actually really challenging. Words don't generally have anything logically to do with the items they're attached to. And even when your friend points at something like a rabbit and gives it a label (say, Hodor), it could mean lots of things: rabbit, white, soft... there's a lot of possibilities.

Fortunately, we have four guiding assumptions to help us do our matching. The Whole Object Assumption pushes us towards thinking a new label refers to the entire item being pointed at, not just a part; the Type Assumption nudges us towards the idea that a label is for a kind of thing, rather than just that one thing's name; the Basic Level Assumption keeps our sights low, helping us figure that a new word is probably something simple and concrete (like rabbit), rather than more abstract (like mammal); and the Mutual Exclusivity Assumption tells us that any given thing should only have one label associated with it.

Between these, we can guide our interpretation without getting stuck too much, and build our mental dictionaries. We also use information about our syntax and morphology, like using plural markers or determiners like a or the, to inform our decisions. Finally, we can use experiments, like the wug test, to tell us that even as kids, we store bound morphemes like the English plural separately from the rest of each root noun.

 

Discussion:

So how about it? What do you all think? Let us know below, and we’ll be happy to talk with you about how we acquire words, the strategies we use, and how our different assumptions interact. There’s a lot of interesting stuff to say, and we want to hear what interests you!

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