Skip to main content

Quantifying semantic animacy: How much are words alive?


The main goal of this study, which comprised two experimental tasks and three normative studies, was to describe the underlying distribution of semantic animacy, with the focus on Serbian and English. Animacy was measured using three normative techniques. The cognitive effects of obtained measures were tested in two experiments conducted in both Serbian and English: a visual lexical decision task and a semantic categorization task. Results suggest that semantic animacy is a graded property. A high correlation between Serbian and English measures suggests that semantic animacy might be language independent, most likely because of its biological grounding. As for its behavioral correlates, animacy does not affect lexical decision times but it does codetermine the categorization speed: the category decision gradually slows as a function of the degree of animacy. These results were consistent across two languages under research scrutiny. We thus conclude that animacy is a continuous aspect of meaning.

Corresponding author
ADDRESS FOR CORRESPONDENCE Jelena Radanović, Department of Psychology, Faculty of Philosophy, Dr Zorana Đinđića 2, Novi Sad 21000, Serbia. E-mail:
Hide All
Aissen J. (2003). Differential object marking: Iconicity vs. economy. Natural Language & Linguistic Theory, 21, 435483.
Baayen R. H. (2008). Analyzing linguistic data: A practical introduction to statistics using R. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Baayen R. H., Davidson D. J., & Bates D. M. (2008). Mixed-effects modeling with crossed random effects for subjects and items. Journal of Memory and Language, 59, 390412.
Baayen R. H., Feldman L. B., & Schreuder R. (2006). Morphological influences on the recognition of monosyllabic monomorphemic words. Journal of Memory and Language, 53, 496512.
Baayen R. H., & Milin P. (2010). Analyzing reaction times. International Journal of Psychological Research, 3, 1228.
Baayen R. H., Milin P., Filipović-Đurđević D., Hendrix P., & Marelli M. (2011). An amorphous model for morphological processing in visual comprehension based on naive discriminative learning. Psychological Review, 118, 438481.
Balota D. A., Cortese M. J., Sergent-Marshall S. D., Spieler D. H., & Yap M. (2004). Visual word recognition of single-syllable words. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, 133, 283316.
Branigan B. H., Pickering J. M., & Tanaka M. (2008). Contributions of animacy to grammatical function assignment and word order production. Lingua, 118, 172189.
Bresnan J., Cueni A., Nikitina T., & Baayen R. H. (2007). Predicting the dative alternation. In Bouma G., Kraemer I., & Zwarts J. (Eds.), Cognitive foundations of interpretation (pp. 6994). Amsterdam: Royal Netherlands Academy of Science.
Brysbaert M., Warriner A. B., & Kuperman V. (2014). Concreteness ratings for 40 thousand generally known English word lemmas. Behavior Research Methods, 46, 904911.
Cappa S. F., Perani D., Schnur T., Tettamanti M., & Fazio F. (1998). The effects of semantic category and knowledge type on lexical-semantic access: A PET study. NeuroImage, 8, 350359.
Caramazza A., & Shelton J. R. (1998). Domain-specific knowledge systems in the brain: The animate-inanimate distinction. Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience, 10, 134.
Chao L. L., Weisberg J., & Martin A. (2002). Experience-dependent modulation of category-related cortical activity. Cerebral Cortex, 12, 545551.
Dahl Ö., & Fraurud K. (1996). Animacy in grammar and discourse. In Fretheim T. & Gundel J. K. (Eds.), Reference and referent accessibility (pp. 4764). Amsterdam: John Benjamins.
De Renzi E., & Lucchelli F. (1994). Are semantic systems separately represented in the brain? The case of living category impairment. Cortex, 30, 325.
Devlin J. T., Russell R. P., Davis M. H., Price C. J., Moss H. E., Fadili M. J., et al. (2002). Is there an anatomical basis for category-specificity? Semantic memory studies in PET and fMRI. Neuropsychologia, 40, 5475.
Dixon R. M. W. (1979). Ergativity. Language, 55, 59138.
Dunteman G. (1989). Principal component analysis. Newbury Park, CA: Sage.
Dye M., Milin P., Futrell R., & Ramscar M. (in press). A functional theory of gender paradigms. In Kiefer F., Blevins J. P., & Bartos H. (Eds.), Morphological paradigms and functions. Leiden: Brill.
Farah M. J., Meyer M. M., & McMullen P. A. (1996). The living/nonliving dissociation is not an artifact: Giving an a priori implausible hypothesis a strong test. Cognitive Neuropsychology, 13, 137154.
Forster K. I., & Forster J. C. (2003). DMDX: A windows display program with millisecond accuracy. Behavior Research Methods, Instruments, and Computers, 35, 116124.
Frawley W. (1992). Linguistic semantics. New York: Routledge.
Grabowski T. J., Damasio H., & Damasio A. R. (1998). Premotor and prefrontal correlates of category-related lexical retrieval. NeuroImage, 7, 232243.
Hay J. B., & Baayen R. H. (2005). Shifting paradigms: Gradient structure in morphology. Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 9, 342348.
Ilić O., Ković V., & Styles S. J. (2013). In the absence of animacy: Superordinate category structure affects subordinate label verification. PLOS ONE, 8, e83282.
Inagaki K., & Hatano G. (2003). Conceptual and linguistic factors in inductive projection: How do young children recognize commonalities between animals and plants? In Gentner D. & Goldin-Meadow S. (Eds.), Language in mind: Advances in the study of language and thought (pp. 313333). Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
Ishai A., Ungerleider L. G., Martin A., Schouten J. L., & Haxby J. V. (1999). Distributed representation of objects in the human ventral visual pathway. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 96, 93799384.
Jolliffe I. (2002). Principal component analysis. New York: Wiley.
Kadhila N. (2005). NSSC Biology Module 1. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Keuleers E., & Brysbaert M. (2010). Wuggy: A multilingual pseudoword generator. Behavior Research Methods, 42, 627633.
Klenin E. (2014). Belebtheit, personalität/Animacy, personhood. In Kempgen S., Kosta P., Berger T., & Gutschmidt K. (Eds.), Die slavischen Sprachen/The Slavic Languages. Halbband 2 (Vol. 32, pp. 152161). Chicago: Walter de Gruyter.
LimeSurvey Project Team/Carsten Schmitz. (2012). LimeSurvey: An Open Source survey tool [Computer software]. Retrieved from
Love B. C., Medin D. L., & Gureckis T. M. (2004). SUSTAIN: A network model of category learning. Psychological Review, 111, 309332.
Martin A., Wiggs C. L., Ungerleider L. G., & Haxby J. V. (1996). Neural correlates of category-specific knowledge. Nature, 379, 649652.
Moore C. J., & Price C. J. (1999). A functional neuroimaging study of the variables that generate category-specific object processing differences. Brain, 122, 943962.
Mummery C. J., Patterson K., Hodges J. R., & Price C. J. (1998). Functional neuroanatomy of the semantic system: Divisible by what? Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience, 10, 766777.
Nosofsky R. M. (1986). Attention, similarity, and the identification-categorization relationship. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, 115, 3961.
Perani D., Cappa S. F., Bettinardi V., Bressi S., Gorno-Tempini M., Matarrese M., et al. (1995). Different neural systems for the recognition of animals and man-made tools. NeuroReport, 6, 16371641.
Perani D., Schnur T., Tettamanti M., Gorno M., Cappa S. F., & Fazio F. (1999). Word and picture matching: A PET study of semantic category effects. Neuropsychologia, 37, 293306.
Pilgrim L. K., Fadili J., Fletcher P., & Tyler L. K. (2002). Overcoming confounds of stimulus blocking: An event-related fMRI design of semantic processing. NeuroImage, 16, 713723.
Radanović J., & Milin P. (2011). Morpho-semantic properties of Serbian nouns: Animacy and gender pairs. Psihologija, 44, 343366.
R Core Team. (2013). R: A language and environment for statistical computing [Computer software]. Vienna: R Foundation for Statistical Computing. Retrieved from
Rosenbach A. (2007). Animacy and grammatical variation—Findings from English genitive variation. Lingua, 118, 151171.
Sacchett C., & Humphreys G. W. (1992). Calling a squirrel a squirrel but a canoe a wigwam: A category-specific deficit for artefactual objects and body parts. Cognitive Neuropsychology, 9, 7386.
Schütze C. T., & Sprouse J. (2014). Judgment data. In Podesva R. J. & Sharma D. (Eds.), Research methods in linguistics (pp. 2750). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Silverstein M. (1976). Hierarchy of features and ergativity. In Dixon R. M. W. (Ed.), Grammatical categories in Australian languages (pp. 112171). Canberra: Australian Institute of Aboriginal Studies.
Tyler L., & Moss H. (2001). Towards a distributed account of conceptual knowledge. Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 5, 244252.
Tyler L., Russell R., Fadili J., & Moss H. (2001). The neural representation of nouns and verbs: PET studies. Brain, 124, 16191634.
Tyler L. K., Bright P., Dick E., Tavares P., Pilgrim L., Fletcher P., et al. (2003). Do semantic categories activate distinct cortical regions? Evidence for a distributed neural semantic system. Cognitive Neuropsychology, 20, 541559.
Tyler L. K., Moss H. E., Durrant-Peatfield M. R., & Levy J. P. (2000). Conceptual structure and the structure of concepts: A distributed account of category-specific deficits. Brain and Language, 75, 195231.
Tyler L. K., Stamatakis E. A., Dick E., Bright P., Fletcher P., & Moss H. (2003). Objects and their actions: Evidence for a neurally distributed semantic system. Neuroimage, 18, 542557.
Vigliocco G., Vinson D. P., Lewis W., & Garrett M. F. (2004). Representing the meanings of object and action words: The featural and unitary semantic space hypothesis. Cognitive Psychology, 48, 422488.
Warrington E. K., & McCarthy R. (1987). Categories of knowledge: Further fractionation and an attempted integration. Brain, 110, 12731296.
Westbury C. (2007). ACTUATE: Assessing cases: The University of Alberta Testing Environment [Computer software]. Retrieved from
Wood S. N. (2006). Generalized additive models: An introduction with R. Boca Raton, FL: Chapman & Hall/CRC Press.
Yamamoto M. (1999). Animacy and reference: A cognitive approach to corpus linguistics. Amsterdam: John Benjamins.
Zaenen A., Carletta J., Garretson G., Bresnan J., Koontz-Garboden A., Nikitina T., et al. (2004). Animacy encoding in English: Why and how. In Byron D. & Webber B. (Eds.), Proceedings of the 2004 ACL Workshop on Discourse Annotation (pp. 118125). East Stroudsburg, PA: Association for Computational Linguistics.
Recommend this journal

Email your librarian or administrator to recommend adding this journal to your organisation's collection.

Applied Psycholinguistics
  • ISSN: 0142-7164
  • EISSN: 1469-1817
  • URL: /core/journals/applied-psycholinguistics
Please enter your name
Please enter a valid email address
Who would you like to send this to? *


Full text views

Total number of HTML views: 13
Total number of PDF views: 119 *
Loading metrics...

Abstract views

Total abstract views: 388 *
Loading metrics...

* Views captured on Cambridge Core between September 2016 - 20th February 2018. This data will be updated every 24 hours.