Jump to ContentJump to Main Navigation
Show Summary Details
More options …


An Interdisciplinary Journal of the Language Sciences

Editor-in-Chief: Gast, Volker

IMPACT FACTOR 2018: 1.066

CiteScore 2018: 0.97

SCImago Journal Rank (SJR) 2018: 0.384
Source Normalized Impact per Paper (SNIP) 2018: 1.409

See all formats and pricing
More options …
Volume 57, Issue 3


Systematicity in the semantics of noun compounds: The role of artifacts vs. natural kinds

Beth Levin / Lelia Glass / Dan Jurafsky
Published Online: 2019-05-16 | DOI: https://doi.org/10.1515/ling-2019-0013


The nature of the relationship between the head and modifier in English noun compounds has long posed a challenge to semantic theories. We argue that the type of head-modifier relation in an English endocentric noun-headed compound depends on how its referent is categorized: specifically, on whether the referent is conceptualized as an artifact, made by humans for a purpose; or as a natural kind, existing independently of humans. We propose the Events vs. Essences Hypothesis: the modifier in an artifact-headed compound typically refers to an event of use or creation associated with that artifact, while the modifier in a natural kind-headed compound typically makes reference to inherent properties reflective of an abstract essence associated with the kind, such as its perceptual properties or native habitat. We present three studies substantiating this hypothesis. First, in a corpus of almost 1,700 attested compounds in two conceptual domains (food/cooking and precious minerals/jewelry), we find that as predicted, compound names referring to artifacts tend to evoke events, whereas compound names referring to natural kinds tend to evoke essential properties. Next, in a production experiment involving compound creation and a comprehension experiment involving compound interpretation, we find that the same tendencies also extend to novel compounds.

Keywords: noun-headed compounds; artifacts; natural kinds; nominal semantics


  • Baayen, R. Harald, Richard Piepenbrock & Leon Gulikers. 1995. The CELEX lexical database (Release 2). Linguistic Data Consortium, University of Pennsylvania [Distributor], Philadelphia, PA.Google Scholar

  • Barr, Dale J., Roger Levy, Christoph Scheepers & Harry J. Tily. 2013. Random effects structure for confirmatory hypothesis testing: Keep it maximal. Journal of Memory and Language 68(3). 255–278.CrossrefGoogle Scholar

  • Bates, Douglas, Reinhold Kliegl, Shravan Vasishth & Harald Baayen. 2015. Parsimonious mixed models. University of Wisconsin-Madison, University of Potsdam and University of Tübingen, ms.Google Scholar

  • Bates, Douglas & Deepayan Sarkar. 2007. The lme4 package. R package.Google Scholar

  • Bauer, Laurie, Rochelle Lieber & Ingo Plag. 2013. The Oxford reference guide to English morphology. Oxford: Oxford University Press.Google Scholar

  • Bird, Alexander & Emma Tobin. 2017. Natural kinds. In Edward N. Zalta (ed.), The Stanford encyclopedia of philosophy, Stanford, CA: Stanford University. http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/natural-kinds/ (accessed 6 August 2017).

  • Bloom, Paul. 1996. Intention, history, and artifact concepts. Cognition 60(1). 1–29.Google Scholar

  • Brown, Cecil H. 1995. Lexical acculturation and ethnobiology: Utilitarianism versus intellectualism. Journal of Linguistic Anthropology 5(1). 51–64.CrossrefGoogle Scholar

  • Brown, Cecil H. 1999. Lexical acculturation in Native American languages. Oxford: Oxford University Press.Google Scholar

  • Bücking, Sebastian. 2009. How do phrasal and lexical modification differ? Contrasting adjective-noun combinations in German. Word Structure 2(2). 184–204.CrossrefGoogle Scholar

  • Chaigneau, Sergio E., Lawrence W. Barsalou & Mojdeh Zamani. 2009. Situational information contributes to object categorization and inference. Acta Psychologica 130(1). 81–94.CrossrefGoogle Scholar

  • Costello, Fintan J. & Mark T. Keane. 1997. Polysemy in conceptual combination: Testing the constraint theory of combination. In Nineteenth annual conference of the Cognitive Science Society, 137–142. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.Google Scholar

  • Costello, Fintan J. & Mark T. Keane. 2000. Efficient creativity: Constraint-guided conceptual combination. Cognitive Science 24(2). 299–349.CrossrefGoogle Scholar

  • Dixon, R. M. W. 1977. Where have all the adjectives gone? Studies in Language 1(1). 19–80.CrossrefGoogle Scholar

  • Dixon, R. M. W. 2004. Adjective classes in typological perspective. In R. M. W. Dixon & Alexandra Y. Aikhenvald (eds.), Adjective classes: A cross-linguistic typology, 1–49. Oxford: Oxford University Press.Google Scholar

  • Downing, Pamela. 1977. On the creation and use of English compound nouns. Language 53(4). 810–842.CrossrefGoogle Scholar

  • Dowty, David R. 1979. Word meaning and Montague Grammar, Dordrecht: Reidel.Google Scholar

  • Dressler, Wolfgang U. 1986. Explanation in natural morphology, illustrated with comparative and agent-noun formation. Linguistics 24(3). 519–548.Google Scholar

  • Gagné, Christina L. 2009. Psycholinguistic perspectives. In Rochelle Lieber & Pavol štekauer (eds.), The Oxford handbook of compounding, 255–271. Oxford: Oxford University Press.Google Scholar

  • Gagné, Christina L. & Edward J. Shoben. 1997. Influence of thematic relations on the comprehension of modifier–noun combinations. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory, and Cognition 23(1). 71–87.Google Scholar

  • Gagné, Christina L., Thomas L. Spalding & Melissa C. Gorrie. 2005. Sentential context and the interpretation of familiar open-compounds and novel modifier-noun phrases. Language and Speech 48(2). 203–221.CrossrefGoogle Scholar

  • Gibson, James J. 1977. The theory of affordances. In Robert Shaw & John Bransford (eds.), Perceiving, acting, and knowing: Toward an ecological psychology, 67–82. Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.Google Scholar

  • Grimm, Scott. 2012. Number and individuation. Stanford, CA: Stanford University dissertation.Google Scholar

  • Haspelmath, Martin. 2009. Psycholinguistic perspectives. In Martin Haspelmath & Uri Tadmor (eds.), Loanwords in the world’s languages: A comparative handbook, 35–54. Berlin & New York: De Gruyter Mouton.Google Scholar

  • Hilpinen, Risto. 2011. Artifact. In Edward N. Zalta (ed.), The Stanford encyclopedia of philosophy, Stanford, CA: Stanford University. http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/artifact/ (accessed 6 August 2017).

  • Jackendoff, Ray. 2009. Compounding in the parallel architecture and conceptual semantics. In Rochelle Lieber & Pavol štekauer (eds.), The Oxford handbook of compounding, 105–128. Oxford: Oxford University Press.Google Scholar

  • Kay, Paul & Karl Zimmer. 1990. On the semantics of compounds and genitives in English. In Savas L. Tsohatzidis (ed.), Meanings and prototypes: Studies in linguistic categorization, 239–246. London: Routledge.Google Scholar

  • Keane, Mark T. & Fintan J. Costello. 1996. Where do ‘soccer moms’ come from?: Cognitive constraints on noun-noun compounding in English. In TCD-CS-96-18, Dublin: Department of Computer Science, Trinity College. https://www.cs.tcd.ie/publications/tech-reports/reports.96/TCD-CS-96-18.pdf.

  • Keil, Frank C. 1989. Concepts, kinds, and cognitive development, Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

  • Kiddle, Lawrence B. 1978. American Indian borrowings of Spanish caballo. In Vladimir Honsa & M. J. Hardman de Bautista (eds.), Papers on linguistics and child language: Ruth Hirsch Weir memorial volume, 151–167. The Hague: Mouton.Google Scholar

  • Körtvélyessy, Lívia, Pavol štekauer & Július Zimmermann. 2015. Word-formation strategies: Semantic transparency vs. formal economy. In Lívia Körtvélyessy, Pavol štekauer & Július Zimmermann (eds.), Semantics of complex words, 85–113. Dordrecht: Springer.Google Scholar

  • Kripke, Saul A. 1972. Naming and necessity. In Donald Davidson & Gilbert H. Harman (eds.), Semantics of natural language, 253–355. Dordrecht: Reidel.Google Scholar

  • Levin, Beth & Malka Rappaport. 1988. Non-event -er nominals: A probe into argument structure. Linguistics 26(6). 1067–1084.Google Scholar

  • Libben, Gary. 2010. Compound words, semantic transparency, and morphological transcendence. In Susan Olsen (ed.), New impulses in word formation, 212–232. Hamburg: Buske.Google Scholar

  • Lieber, Rochelle. 2004. Morphology and lexical semantics, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.Google Scholar

  • Malt, Barbara C. & Steven A. Sloman. 2004. Conversation and convention: Enduring influences on name choice for common objects. Memory & Cognition 32(8). 1346–1354.CrossrefGoogle Scholar

  • Malt, Barbara C., Steven A. Sloman & Silvia P. Gennari. 2003. Universality and language specificity in object naming. Journal of Memory and Language 49(1). 20–42.CrossrefGoogle Scholar

  • Margolis, Eric & Stephen Laurence (eds.). 2007. Creations of the mind: Theories of artifacts and their representation. Oxford: Oxford University Press.Google Scholar

  • Murphy, Gregory L. 1988. Comprehending complex concepts. Cognitive Science 12(4). 529–562.CrossrefGoogle Scholar

  • Murphy, Gregory L. 1990. Noun phrase interpretation and conceptual combination. Journal of Memory and Language 29(3). 259–288.CrossrefGoogle Scholar

  • Nichols, Lynn. 2008. Lexical semantic constraints on noun roots and noun borrowability. Studies in Language 32(3). 683–700.CrossrefGoogle Scholar

  • Olsen, Susan. 2012. The semantics of compounds. In Claudia Maienborn, Klaus von Heusinger & Paul Portner (eds.), Semantics: An international handbook of natural language meaning, vol. 2, 2120–2151. Berlin & Boston: De Gruyter Mouton.Google Scholar

  • Partee, Barbara. 1995. Lexical semantics and compositionality. In Lila R. Gleitman & Mark Liberman (eds.), Invitation to cognitive science, vol. 1: Language, 2nd edn., 311–360. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.Google Scholar

  • Pustejovsky, James. 1991. The generative lexicon. Computational Linguistics 17(4). 409–441.Google Scholar

  • Pustejovsky, James. 1995. The generative lexicon. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.Google Scholar

  • Putnam, Hilary. 1975. The meaning of ‘meaning’. Minnesota Studies in the Philosophy of Science 7. 215–271.Google Scholar

  • R Development Core Team. 2012. R: A language and environment for statistical computing. R Foundation for Statistical Computing, Vienna, Austria. http://www.R-project.org/.

  • Sakel, Jeannette. 2007. Types of loan: Matter and pattern. In Yaron Matras & Jeannette Sakel (eds.), Grammatical borrowing in cross-linguistic perspective, 15–29. Berlin & New York: Mouton de Gruyter.Google Scholar

  • Sloman, Steven A., Barbara Malt & Arthur Fridman. 2001. Categorization versus similarity: The case of container names. In Ulrike Hahn & Michael Ramscar (eds.), Similarity and categorization, 73–86. Oxford: Oxford University Press.Google Scholar

  • Spalding, Thomas L. & Christina L. Gagné. 2007. Semantic property activation during the interpretation of combined concepts. The Mental Lexicon 2(1). 25–47.CrossrefGoogle Scholar

  • Sperber, Dan. 2007. Seedless grapes: Nature and culture. In Eric Margolis & Stephen Laurence (eds.), Creations of the mind: Theories of artifacts and their representation, 124–137. Oxford: Oxford University Press.Google Scholar

  • štekauer, Pavol. 2005. Meaning predictability in word formation. Amsterdam & Philadelphia: John Benjamins.Google Scholar

  • Wisniewski, Edward J. & Bradley C. Love. 1998. Relations versus properties in conceptual combination. Journal of Memory and Language 38(2). 177–202.CrossrefGoogle Scholar

  • Zimmer, Karl E. 1971. Some general observations about nominal compounds. In Working papers on language universals, no. 5, C1–C21. Stanford, CA: Stanford University.Google Scholar

  • Zimmer, Karl E. 1972. Appropriateness conditions for nominal compounds. In Working papers on language universals, no. 8, 3–20. Stanford, CA: Stanford University.Google Scholar

About the article

Published Online: 2019-05-16

Published in Print: 2019-05-27

Citation Information: Linguistics, Volume 57, Issue 3, Pages 429–471, ISSN (Online) 1613-396X, ISSN (Print) 0024-3949, DOI: https://doi.org/10.1515/ling-2019-0013.

Export Citation

© 2019 Walter de Gruyter GmbH, Berlin/Boston.Get Permission

Comments (0)

Please log in or register to comment.
Log in