Journal of Child Language


Young children's understanding of markedness in non-verbal communication*


a1 Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology


Speakers often anticipate how recipients will interpret their utterances. If they wish some other, less obvious interpretation, they may ‘mark’ their utterance (e.g. with special intonations or facial expressions). We investigated whether two- and three-year-olds recognize when adults mark a non-verbal communicative act – in this case a pointing gesture – as special, and so search for a not-so-obvious referent. We set up the context of cleaning up and then pointed to an object. Three-year-olds inferred that the adult intended the pointing gesture to indicate that object, and so cleaned it up. However, when the adult marked her pointing gesture (with exaggerated facial expression) they took the object's hidden contents or a hidden aspect of it as the intended referent. Two-year-olds' appreciation of such marking was less clear-cut. These results demonstrate that markedness is not just a linguistic phenomenon, but rather something concerning the pragmatics of intentional communication more generally.

(Received October 15 2009)

(Revised June 02 2010)

(Accepted June 21 2010)

(Online publication March 08 2011)


c1 Address for correspondence: Kristin Liebal, Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology – Department of Developmental and Comparative Psychology, Deutscher Platz 6, Leipzig D-04103, Germany. E-mail: