Children assume an asymmetry in syntax indicates an asymmetry in meaning
Some words have a symmetrical meaning. For example, the sentence, “Bill met Jane” necessitates that, “Jane met Bill.” Contrast this with, “Bill kicked Jane” which does not necessitate that “Jane kicked Bill.” Thus, “meet” is symmetrical and “kicked” is asymmetrical. Other words with symmetrical meanings include “next to” and “argue.” However, when these words are used in a transitive syntax, an asymmetry in meaning is introduced. It sounds perfectly fine to say, “The bike is next to the garage,” but odd to say, “The garage is next to the bike.” The “bike” is a small, mobile object which we call a Figure. The garage is a large, immobile object which we call a Ground. Subjects of sentences are Figures and Objects of sentences are Grounds. Note that this is about sentence structure, not word meaning, since the figure-ground difference goes away for intransitive sentences like, “The garage is next to the bike.” Prior work has shown that 4- to 8-year-old assume an asymmetry in syntax indicates an asymmetry in meaning. This project seeks to understand if 2- to 4-year-old children assume that an asymmetry in meaning indicates an asymmetry in meaning. If they do make this assumption, we want to know if they can use it to make hypotheses about word meaning. We found evidence that children over 3.5 years of age do make this assumption. However, we did not find evidence that they used this assumption to form hypotheses about word meaning.