Beyond The Basics: Preschool Children Label Objects Flexibly At Multiple Hierarchical Levels

Sandra R. Waxman, Thomas Hatch

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

65 Scopus citations


Although preschoolers typically accept the basic level label for an object (e.g. dog) and tend to resist all others (e.g. collie, animal), this tendency is not inviolable. Under certain circumstances, children accept more than one label per object. In this experiment, with 20 three-and 20 four-year-old children, we extended this body of research in three ways. We examined (1) children's production of multiple, hierarchically related labels; (2) the pragmatic consequences of the inherent asymmetry of inclusion relations; and (3) the influence of morphology (modifier+noun constructions vs. simple lexemes) at the subordinate level. Children labelled objects most frequently at the basic level, but also readily produced many non-basic level terms. Children, like adults, may prefer to label objects at the basic level, but they exhibit no general prohibition against also labelling at other, non-basic levels. Their performance challenges the notion that the ability to label objects flexibly at multiple levels is beyond the young child's capacity.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)153-166
Number of pages14
JournalJournal of Child Language
Issue number1
StatePublished - Feb 1992

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Language and Linguistics
  • Experimental and Cognitive Psychology
  • Developmental and Educational Psychology
  • Linguistics and Language
  • Psychology(all)


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