Classifier categories reflect, but do not affect conceptual organization

Speed, L., Chen, J., Huettig, F., & Majid, A. (in press). Classifier categories reflect, but do not affect conceptual organization. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory, and Cognition.
Do we structure object-related conceptual information according to real-world sensorimotor experience, or can it also be shaped by linguistic information? This study investigates whether a feature of language coded in grammar—numeral classifiers—affects the conceptual representation of objects. We compared speakers of Mandarin (a classifier language) with speakers of Dutch (a language without classifiers) on how they judged object similarity in four studies. In the first three studies, participants had to rate how similar a target object was to four comparison objects, one of which shared a classifier with the target. Objects were presented as either words or pictures. Overall, the target object was always rated as most similar to the object with the shared classifier, but this was the case regardless of the language of the participant. In a final study employing a successive pile-sorting task, we also found that the underlying object concepts were similar for speakers of Mandarin and Dutch. Speakers of a non-classifier language are therefore sensitive to the same conceptual similarities that underlie classifier systems in a classifier language. Classifier systems may therefore reflect conceptual structure, rather than shape it.
Publication type
Journal article

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