Linguistic biases and the establishment of conceptual hierarchies: Evidence from preschool children

Sandra R. Waxman*

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

114 Scopus citations


These experiments test the hypothesis that preschool children are predisposed to interpret nouns as referring to taxonomic relations, and that this bias guides the early establishment of conceptual hierarchies (e.g., collie, dog, mammal, animal. Two familiar hierarchies-animals and food-and two linguistic form classes-nouns and adjectives-were examined in detail. Experiment 1 tested the effect of introducing novel nouns at multiple hierarchical levels (subordinate, basic, intermediate, and superordinate). Some children were introduced to novel nouns for the classes (e.g., suikahs); others heard no labels. Nouns facilitated superordinate level classification, but made subordinate classification more difficult. In Experiment 2, another group of children labeled the classes to enable a direct comparison of preschoolers' linguistic descriptions and conceptual groupings. They tended to label all subordinate classes identically (e.g., they labeled all subclasses of dogs as 'dogs'), yet when they were explicitly instructed to distinguish them, they used adjectival phrases (e.g., 'big dogs'). In Experiment 3, novel labels were presented in two different linguistic contexts, either as nouns (e.g., suikahs) or as adjectives (e.g., suk-ish ones). As in Experiment 1, nouns made subordinate classification more difficult. Conversely, adjectival phrases facilitated subordinate classification, but made superordinate classification more difficult. Children's early sensitivity to the different applications of nouns and adjectives served to guide the establishment of conceptual hierarchies.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)123-150
Number of pages28
JournalCognitive Development
Issue number2
StatePublished - Apr 1990

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Experimental and Cognitive Psychology
  • Developmental and Educational Psychology


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