Date Thesis Awarded


Access Type

Honors Thesis -- Access Restricted On-Campus Only

Degree Name

Bachelors of Arts (BA)




Kate Harrigan

Committee Members

Talbot Taylor

Jack Martin

Brian Rabinovitz


Verbs are organized into classes based on some aspect of their semantics or argument structure. Motion verbs, one of those classes, are broken down further into categories that include both Path (a figure’s trajectory) and Manner (how a figure moves), among others. Many studies have shown that English-speaking children more readily encode Manner verbs than Path verbs, as English has relatively more verbs of that type. These studies aimed to discover what role the factor of Environment (background) plays in adult perception of motion verbs, as well as how it affects children’s encoding of novel verbs. Additionally, we hoped to replicate previous work showing that children are stronger at learning novel Manner verbs than novel Path ones. In Study I (N = 35) and Study II (N = 64), adult participants were asked to rate familiar actions or objects in terms of how well they matched the participant’s conception of their meaning. We find that noun meaning does not rely on background, while verb meaning may. We also find that when it comes to verbs, people’s responses are sensitive to background in two ways: some verbs in particular are more sensitive to background, and some backgrounds are particularly salient in influencing verb meaning. Study III was performed with 25 children (age 3;11 - 7;11), who were presented with examples of novel verbs and asked to identify them in a forced-choice task. We find that children are better at learning Manner verbs than Path verbs overall, though in the case of a highly salient background, they are around chance for both verb types. We also find that the influence of background differs across different levels of background salience—specifically, children are less likely to be influenced by background for the low-salience background items than for the high-salience background items. This reinforces past literature by providing evidence that English-speaking children are stronger at mapping Manner verbs, and it also suggests that children may be lured by an Environment cue, especially when the background is highly salient.

On-Campus Access Only