“Dividing the labor”: Lexical verbs and the linguistic encoding of physical support in 2- to 4.5-year-old children

Laura Lakusta, Julia Wefferling, Karima Elgamal, Barbara Landau

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Infants reason about support configurations (e.g., teddy bear on table) and young children talk about a variety of support relations, including support-from-below (e.g., apple on table) and many other types (e.g., Band-Aid on leg, picture on wall). Given this wide variation in support types, we asked whether early differentiation of the semantic space of support may play a key role in helping children to learn spatial language in this domain. Previous research has shown such differentiation with 20-month-olds mapping the basic locative construction (BE on) to support-from-below (cube on top of box), but not to a mechanical support configuration (cube on side of box via adhesion). Older children and adults show the same differentiation, with preferential mapping of BE on to support-from-below and lexical verbs to mechanical support. We further explored the development of this differentiation by testing how children aged 2 to 4.5 years map lexical verbs to a wide variety of support configurations. In Experiment 1, using an intermodal preferential pointing paradigm, we found that 2- to 3.5-year-olds map a lexical verb phrase (“sticks to”) to mechanical support via adhesion. In Experiments 2 and 3, we expanded the range of mechanical support relations and used production and forced-choice tasks to ask whether 2- to 4.5-year-olds also encode mechanical relations using lexical verbs. We found that they do. These findings suggest continuity between infancy and childhood in the way that children use spatial language to differentially map to support-from-below versus mechanical support and raise new questions about how mechanical support language develops.

Original languageEnglish
Article number105803
JournalJournal of Experimental Child Psychology
StatePublished - Feb 2024


  • Language development
  • Mechanism
  • Semantics
  • Spatial language
  • Support


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