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Do classifier categories affect or reflect object concepts?

Speed, L., Chen, J., Huettig, F., & Majid, A. (2016). Do classifier categories affect or reflect object concepts? In A. Papafragou, D. Grodner, D. Mirman, & J. Trueswell (Eds.), Proceedings of the 38th Annual Meeting of the Cognitive Science Society (CogSci 2016) (pp. 2267-2272). Austin, TX: Cognitive Science Society.
We conceptualize objects based on sensory and motor information gleaned from real-world experience. But to what extent is such conceptual information structured according to higher level linguistic features too? Here we investigate whether classifiers, a grammatical category, shape the conceptual representations of objects. In three experiments native Mandarin speakers (speakers of a classifier language) and native Dutch speakers (speakers of a language without classifiers) judged the similarity of a target object (presented as a word or picture) with four objects (presented as words or pictures). One object shared a classifier with the target, the other objects did not, serving as distractors. Across all experiments, participants judged the target object as more similar to the object with the shared classifier than distractor objects. This effect was seen in both Dutch and Mandarin speakers, and there was no difference between the two languages. Thus, even speakers of a non-classifier language are sensitive to object similarities underlying classifier systems, and using a classifier system does not exaggerate these similarities. This suggests that classifier systems simply reflect, rather than affect, conceptual structure.
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