HIERARCHIES IN CLASSIFICATION AND LANGUAGE: EVIDENCE FROM PRESCHOOL CHILDREN (TAXONOMIES, COGNITIVE, LABELLING)

SANDRA R WAXMAN, University of Pennsylvania

Abstract

Hierarchical systems of organization (e.g., apple, fruit, food) are fundamental to human cognition. They provide a powerful foundation for reasoning and are woven into the fabric of language. The experiments reported here examine preschoolers' appreciation of hierarchical systems in classification and language. In Experiment I, preschoolers classified materials at four levels (superordinate, intermediate, basic, subordinate) within two hierarchies (animals and food). Overall preschoolers performed well, suggesting that they appreciate hierarchical systems. The most intriguing results involved the role of language. Previous work suggested that children honor an implicit bias to interpret nouns taxonomically. Therefore, novel nouns (e.g., suikahs) were expected to have a uniform effect, facilitating classification at all levels. Instead, the nouns facilitated superordinate classification, but made subordinate classification more difficult. This specific effect may be related to the conceptual status of classes at different hierarchical levels. In Experiment II, preschoolers' labels for these classes suggest that they do not yet appreciate categorical distinctions at subordinate levels. For example, children labelled the TERRIERS and COLLIES identically (as 'dogs'), with no semantic contrast. Children labelled subordinate classes contrastively only when they were explicitly encouraged to do so. Most children ultimately marked subordinate level contrast using adjectival phrases (e.g., 'big dogs'), with the head noun honoring the basic level class. Introducing novel nouns at subordinate levels (Experiment I) may have made it more difficult for children to discover subordinate level distinctions. The noun may have highlighted the inclusive, and especially salient basic level class (e.g., DOGS). In Experiment III, a multiple-level classification task, novel words were presented in two linguistic contexts--either as nouns (e.g., suikahs) or as part of adjectival phrases (e.g., suk-ish ones). Children were very sensitive to linguistic context. As predicted, nouns made subordinate classification more difficult; adjectival phrases facilitated subordinate classification, but made superordinate classification more difficult. These experiments point to a powerful link between conceptual and linguistic organization. Labels do more than highlight taxonomic relations. The linguistic form of the label may provide information regarding hierarchical level. Children's early sensitivity to the relations between linguistic and conceptual information guides them as they establish hierarchical systems of organization.

Subject Area

Developmental psychology

Recommended Citation

WAXMAN, SANDRA R, "HIERARCHIES IN CLASSIFICATION AND LANGUAGE: EVIDENCE FROM PRESCHOOL CHILDREN (TAXONOMIES, COGNITIVE, LABELLING)" (1985). Dissertations available from ProQuest. AAI8603722.
https://repository.upenn.edu/dissertations/AAI8603722

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