The semantics and acquisition of number words: Integrating linguistic and developmental perspectives

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This article brings together two independent lines of research on numerally quantified expressions, e.g. two girls. One stems from work in linguistic theory and asks what truth conditional contributions such expressions make to the utterances in which they are used - in other words, what do numerals mean? The other comes from the study of language development and asks when and how children learn the meaning of such expressions. My goal is to show that when integrated, these two perspectives can both constrain and enrich each other in ways hitherto not considered. Specifically, work in linguistic theory suggests that in addition to their 'exactly n' interpretation, numerally quantified NPs such as two hoops can also receive an 'at least n' and an 'at most n' interpretation, e.g. you need to put two hoops on the pole to win (i.e. at least two hoops) and you can miss two shots and still win (i.e. at most two shots). I demonstrate here through the results of three sets of experiments that by the age of 5 children have implicit knowledge of the fact that expressions like two N can be interpreted as 'at least two N' and 'at most two N' while they do not yet know the meaning of corresponding expressions such as at least/most two N which convey these senses explicitly. I show that these results have important implications for theories of the semantics of numerals and that they raise new questions for developmental accounts of the number vocabulary.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)1-41
Number of pages41
Issue number1
StatePublished - Aug 2004
Externally publishedYes

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

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


  • Language acquisition
  • Number words
  • Pragmatics
  • Scalar terms
  • Semantics

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