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Do classifiers predict differences in cognitive processing? A study of nominal classification in Mandarin Chinese

  • Mahesh Srinivasan (a1)

In English, numerals modify nouns directly (two tables), but in Mandarin Chinese, they modify numeral classifiers that are associated with nouns (two flat-thing table). Classifiers define a system of categories based on dimensions such as animacy, shape, and function (Adams and Conklin 1973; Dixon 1986), but do these categories predict differences in cognitive processing? The present study explored possible effects of classifier categories in a speeded task preventing significant deliberation and strategic responding. Participants counted objects in a visual display that were intermixed with distractor objects that had either the same Mandarin classifier or a different one. Classifier categories predicted Mandarin speakers' search performance, as Mandarin speakers showed greater interference from distractors with the same classifier than did Russian or English speakers. This result suggests that classifier categories may affect cognitive processing, and may have the potential to influence how speakers of classifier languages perform cognitive tasks in everyday situations. Two theoretical accounts of the results are discussed.

Corresponding author
Correspondence addresses: Mahesh Srinivasan, Department of Psychology, Harvard University, William James Hall, 1118, 33 Kirkland Street, Cambridge, MA 02138, USA. E-mail:
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Language and Cognition
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