Saturday, April 16, 2011

My Son's Linguistic Challenge

If my son sees a ball, he says "ball"* (repeatedly). If he sees a 2-dimensional ball on the page of a book, he says, "ball." If he sees the Pepsi logo on a vending machine, he says "ball." If he sees the round plastic buckle on his car seat strap, he says "ball." If he sees anything circular, he says "ball."

The linguistic challenge for my 17-month-old boy? Hyponyms. Or superordinates. Hyponyms are subcategories of a word, more specific than the word itself, which is the superordinate. For example, "bird" is the superordinate (the category) for such animals as crows, hummingbirds, and birds of paradise. For that matter, "animal" is the superordinate for "bird." Conversely, "bird" is a hyponym of "animal," and "crow," "hummingbird," and "bird of paradise" are hyponyms of "bird."

In my son's case, "ball" has become an absolute superordinate because he hasn't learned the hyponyms. "Ball" is not even the right superordinate. I suppose "circle" would be, if you can include a ball (sphere) as a hyponym of "circle."

A baby's failure to distinguish between superordinates and hyponyms, of course, is not a problem at all. My son has an incredibly sophisticated language-learning capacity, and I am confident he will gradually learn all the vocabulary and grammar he ever needs (and probably some he doesn't need). He may in fact already know words for various ball-shaped objects. The problem then is either phonological (he cannot yet pronounce "circle" or "buckle") or volitional. Perhaps he is trying to will balls into existence. Evidence for this could be found in the fact that, in addition to calling anything round that he sees "ball," he still frequently and randomly says "ball" even if he doesn't see anything resembling a ball. Volition is, unfortunately, beyond the realm of linguistics.

*It's actually more like /baw/ at this point; he doesn't usually get much of the "l" in there.

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