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Classifier categories reflect but do not affect conceptual organization

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JournalJournal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory, and Cognition
DateE-pub ahead of print - 5 Nov 2020
Original languageEnglish


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 4 studies. In the first 3 studies, participants had to rate how similar a target object was to 4 comparison objects, 1 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 using a successive pile-sorting task, we also found that the underlying object concepts were similar for speakers of Mandarin and Dutch. Speakers of a nonclassifier 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. (PsycInfo Database Record (c) 2020 APA, all rights reserved).

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