Related intuitions and the mental representation of causative verbs in adults and children

György Gergely, Thomas G. Bever

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

14 Scopus citations


Several lines of investigation refute the empirical basis for previous claims that experiments on subjective word relatedness demonstrate the psychological unreality of decompositional semantic representations for lexical causatives. Using three different techniques, we show that perceived relatedness between words is not a function of their structural distance at different levels of linguistic representation. Therefore, relatedness intuitions cannot be used as a critical test of the relative structural complexity of underlying syntactic or semantic representations. In contrast, subjective relatedness between nouns of structurally identical sentences are clearly affected by aspects of their conceptual interpretation, such as the 'definiteness' and 'concreteness' of the denoted entities, the intensity of their 'intentional interaction', or the 'directness of causation' expressed. The meaning of lexical causatives cannot be accounted for in terms of a prototype concept of direct causation. The prototype theory generates wrong predictions about the referential use of causative verbs in adults. It also fails to account for facts in the acquisition of lexical causatives. There is a stage of broad causative generalization when the use of both existing and novel causative verbs is extended to non-prototypical as well as prototypical causative events. We propose a bi-level lexical representation of causative verbs, which consists of (i) a decompositional - but non -definitional - semantic representation articulating their causative status, and (ii) a contextually attached conceptual stereotype specifying their range of application as a function of their context of use. The decomposable semantic structure emerges as a developmental stage in the acquisition of lexical concepts as a result of the linguistic reorganization of the lexicon. The conceptual stereotype becomes embedded later as part of the representation available in the mental lexicon for access by adults.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)211-277
Number of pages67
Issue number3
StatePublished - Aug 1986

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Experimental and Cognitive Psychology
  • Language and Linguistics
  • Developmental and Educational Psychology
  • Linguistics and Language
  • Cognitive Neuroscience


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