Lexis and Semantics

Lexis and Semantics
Discuss the following criteria for a word and
choose the one you think is best:
1. As long as the adult understands it, it’s a word
2. A word has got to sound like the adult version
3. A word combines context and ‘correct’
4. A word is any repeated sound
5. A word has to be intentional
A word is any sound or set of sounds that is used consistently
to refer to some thing, action or quality. (Bee, 1997) This
suggests that the first word doesn’t have to be recognisable
as an adult word. It is more important that it functions as a
word than that it sounds strictly like one.
In pairs, discuss which of these examples you
would count as a word, giving your reasons.
1. A baby says ‘da’ every time he hits his toy duck
against the side of the bath
2. A baby says ‘dada’ one day when his father
enters the room
3. On looking into a mirror an infant exclaims
4. On looking into a mirror, looking at a
photograph album and various books an infant
exclaims ‘baba!’
5. You show a baby a picture of a gorilla in a book.
She shouts ‘Argh!’
Jean Aitchison
Another linguist, Jean Aitchison connects
children’s lexical and semantic development.
Linking words to the objects to which
they refer, understanding that things can
be labelled
Exploring the labels and to what they can
apply. Over/underextension occurs in
order to eventually understand the range
of a word’s meaning
Making connections between words,
understanding similarities and opposites
in meaning
Once children expand their vocabulary they
use network-building to sort the words. An
aspect of this stage is an understanding of
hyponymy, the links between lexical items that
divides into hypernyms and hyponyms.
Hyponomy: the hierarchal structure that exists
between lexical items
hypernym: a more general word that can have more
specific words under it
hyponym: a more specific word in a wider category
If you take ‘clothes’ as the hypernym, you
could list all the hyponyms a child could use
for specific items of clothing they wear: socks,
shoes, vest etc. When they have a larger
vocabulary (18 months onwards) they may use
these more accurately and precisely to
identify individual items of clothing.
Synonymy appears too, offering different ways
to name the same object, e.g. ‘Duck’ and
This example of over-extension demonstrates the child’s
exploration of labels.
As in this interaction, it has
been found that parents are
Child: moon
more likely to use hyponyms to
Adult: moon yes
encourage children to networkbuildmoon
and increase
Child: (points to the stars) moon
more more
Adult: more
Child: more moon
Adult: (suddenly realises he is pointing at the stars in the
picture) oh these are stars (.) these are little stars (.) stars
in the sky
Linking in theorists!
Which theorists could we refer to when discussing the
examples we’ve looked at today?
Jean Piget emphasised that children
are active learners who use their
environment and social interactions to
shape their language. Rachel’s use of
the word ‘wassat’ shows that she
wanted more labels to describe the
objects around her. Piaget linked
linguistic development with
understanding, suggesting that
children cannot be taught a word
before they are ready and understand
the meaning of the word.
B. F Skinner believed
that children develop
language through
imitation and positive or
negative reinforcement.
The types of first words
we’ve looked at today
seem to agree with this
theory as many are
words that are likely to
have been used often
and repeated by

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