The question of whether different linguistic patterns differentially influence semantic and conceptual representations is of central interest in cognitive science. In this paper, we investigate whether the regular encoding of shape within a nominal classification system leads to an increased salience of shape in speakers' semantic representations by comparing English, (Amazonian) Spanish, and Bora, a shape-based classifier language spoken in the Amazonian regions of Columbia and Peru. Crucially, in displaying obligatory use, pervasiveness in grammar, high discourse frequency, and phonological variability of forms corresponding to particular shape features, the Bora classifier system differs in important ways from those in previous studies investigating effects of nominal classification, thereby allowing better control of factors that may have influenced previous findings. In addition, the inclusion of Spanish monolinguals living in the Bora village allowed control for the possibility that differences found between English and Bora speakers may be attributed to their very different living environments. We found that shape is more salient in the semantic representation of objects for speakers of Bora, which systematically encodes shape, than for speakers of English and Spanish, which do not. Our results are consistent with assumptions that semantic representations are shaped and modulated by our specific linguistic experiences.
About the author
Pamela Perniss, Deafness, Cognition and Language Research Centre (DCAL), 49 Gordon Square, London WC1H 0PD, UK. This work was supported by a Marie Curie Fellowship (MEIF-CT-2006-041886) awarded to the first author and an Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) of Great Britain grant (Grant RES-620-28-6001) awarded to the Deafness, Cognition and Language Research Centre (DCAL). We would like to thank Doris Fagua for the collection of most of the Spanish data, and Bernard Comrie, Olivier Le Guen, Lorena Pool Balam, and two reviewers for helpful comments on an earlier version of the paper.
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