A substantial body of evidence demonstrates that infants understand the meaning of spoken words from as early as 6 months. Yet little is known about their ability to do so in the absence of any visual referent, which would offer diagnostic evidence for an adult-like, symbolic interpretation of words and their use in language mediated thought. We used the head-turn preference procedure to examine whether infants can generate implicit meanings from word forms alone as early as 18 months of age, and whether they are sensitive to meaningful relationships between words. In one condition, toddlers were presented with lists of words taken from the same taxonomic category (e.g. animals or body parts). In a second condition, words taken from two other categories (e.g. clothes and food items) were interleaved within the same list. Listening times were found to be longer in the related-category condition than in the mixed-category condition, suggesting that infants extract the meaning of spoken words and are sensitive to the semantic relatedness between these words. Our results show that infants have begun to construct the rudiments of a semantic system based on taxonomic relations even before they enter a period of accelerated vocabulary growth.
© 2014 John Wiley & Sons Ltd.