A cross-cultural study of language and cognition: Numeral classifiers and solid object categorization


One of the central issues in cognition is identifying universal and culturally specific patterns of thought. In this study, we examined how one aspect of culture, a linguistic part of speech known as classifiers, are related to categorization of solid objects. In Experiment 1, we used a numeral classifier elicitation task to examine the classifiers used by speakers of Hmong, Japanese, and Mandarin Chinese (N = 34) with 135 nouns that referred to solid objects. In Experiment 2, adult speakers of English, Japanese, Mandarin Chinese, and Hmong (N = 64) rated the similarity of 39 pictured objects that depicted a subset of the nouns. All groups classified the objects into natural kinds and artifacts, with the category of humans anchoring both divisions. The main difference that emerged from the study was that speakers of Japanese and English rated humans and animals as more similar to each other than Hmong speakers; Mandarin speakers’ ratings of the similarity between humans and animals fell in between those of Hmong and English speakers. However, the pattern of categorization of humans and animals found among speakers of the classifier languages contradicted their patterns of classifier use. The findings help to tease apart the effects of language from other cultural factors that impact cognition.

Memory & Cognition
Christopher M. Hammerly
Christopher M. Hammerly
Assistant Professor of Linguistics

My research interests include syntax and morphology, particularly the interface between our grammatical knowledge and processing abilities.