Bootstrapping (linguistics)

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In psycholinguistics, bootstrapping refers to the question of how language acquisition "gets started." A child gradually acquires a great deal of interlocking knowledge about the structure and vocabulary of his or her language. It has sometimes been proposed that some specific type of linguistic knowledge can be acquired early, and that this enables the child to analyze words or sentences well enough to acquire further knowledge from them. Metaphorically, this early knowledge would serve as bootstraps by which the child pulls himself or herself up.

Semantic bootstrapping[edit]

Semantic bootstrapping refers to a process in which children use expectations about how semantic information will be mapped onto syntax in order to discover syntactic features. For instance, a child may use the expectation that the "doer" of an action should be the grammatical subject to identify how subjects are marked in her language.

The theory of semantic bootstrapping was developed by Steven Pinker based on a suggestion by Jane Grimshaw.[1]

Syntactic bootstrapping[edit]

Syntactic bootstrapping is a theory that proposes that syntax (e.g. verbs, presented in their syntactic frames) provides a source of information about the meaning or semantics. When children are presented with a sentence that includes an unfamiliar verb, they look to extralinguistic context clues to help them in determining what the definition of that verb is.

Evidence for this theory was first proposed by Roger Brown in 1957 and this theory was later named Syntactic bootstrapping.[2] This idea was first tested experimentally by Lila Gleitman (1991).

It is proposed that this will get children started on their way to acquiring parts of speech, which later can be supplemented by other linguistic information. The hypothesis has received some support from the experiments that showed that three- to five-year-olds do, in fact, generally use nouns for things and verbs for actions more often than adults do. However, it has also been proposed that children may learn word meaning by attending to the distributional patterns of words in their language (see the distributional hypothesis), which does not require the category-word relation to be innately available.

Other theories such as cognitive linguistics also hold that the semantic mappings lead to syntactic discovery, but claims that these are also learned, and that the grammar also has semantics.[3]


Iterated learning and grounding: from holistic to compositional languages written by Paul Vogt. (See also an abstract of Project: Transmitting knowledge through the bootstrapping of compositional language.)

  1. ^ Pinker, S. (1984). Language Learnability and Language Development. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
  2. ^ Gernsbacher, Morton Ann. (Eds.). (1994). "Handbook of Psycholinguistics." San Diego: Academic Press.
  3. ^ Ronald W. Langacker, (1999). Grammar and Conceptualization,.