Skip to main content Accessibility help

Speaking of shape: The effects of language-specific encoding on semantic representations

  • Pamela Perniss (a1), David Vinson (a1), Frank Seifart (a2) and Gabriella Vigliocco (a1)


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.


Corresponding author

Correspondence addresses: Pamela Perniss, Deafness, Cognition and Language Research Centre (DCAL), 49 Gordon Square, London WC1H 0PD, UK. E-mail:


Hide All
Aikhenvald, A. Y. 2000. Classifiers. A typology of noun categorization devices. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Allan, K. 1977. Classifiers. Language 53. 285311.
Bloom, P. & Keil, F. C.. 2001. Thinking through language. Mind and Language 16(4). 351367.
Dixon, R. M. W. 1986. Noun classes and noun classification in typological perspective. In Craig, C. (ed.), Noun classes and categorization, 105112. Amsterdam: John Benjamins.
Evans, N. & Levinson, S. C.. 2009. The myth of language universals: Language diversity and its importance for cognitive science. Behavioural and Brain Sciences 32(5). 429492.
Gao, M. Y. & Malt, B. C.. 2009. Mental representation and cognitive consequences of Chinese individual classifiers. Language and Cognitive Processes 24(7). 11241179.
Gaskins, S. & Lucy, J. A.. 2003. Interaction of language type and referent type in the development of nonverbal classification preferences. In Gentner, D. & Goldin-Meadow, S. (eds.), Language in mind: Advances in the study of language and thought, 465492. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
Imai, M. & Gentner, D.. 1997. A crosslinguistic study of early word meaning: Universal ontology and linguistic influence. Cognition 62. 169200.
Imai, M. & Mazuka, R.. 2007. Revisiting language universals and linguistic relativity: Language-relative construal of individuation constrained by universal ontology. Cognitive Science 31. 385414.
Imai, M. & Saalbach, H.. 2010. Categories in mind and categories in language: Are classifier categories a reflection of the mind? In Malt, B. C. & Wolff, P. (eds.), Words and the mind: How words capture human experience, 138164. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Imai, M., Saalbach, H. & Stern, E.. 2010. Are Chinese and German children taxonomic, thematic, or shape biased? Influence of classifiers and cultural contexts. Frontiers in Psychology 1. doi: 10.3389/fpsyg.2010.00194.
Iwasaki, N., Vinson, D. P. & Vigliocco, G.. 2010. Does the grammatical count/mass distinction affect semantic representations? Evidence from experiments in English and Japanese. Language and Cognitive Processes 25(2). 189223.
Klima, E. S. & Bellugi, U.. 1979. The signs of language. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
Kousta, S., Vinson, D. P. & Vigliocco, G.. 2008. Investigating linguistic relativity through bilingualism: The case of grammatical gender. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory, and Cognition 34(4). 843858.
Kuo, J. Y. & Sera, M. D.. 2009. Classifier effects on human categorization: The role of shape classifiers in Mandarin Chinese. Journal of East Asian Linguistics 18. 119.
Lucy, J. A. 1992. Grammatical categories and cognition. A case study of the linguistic relativity hypothesis. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Lucy, J. A. & Gaskins, S.. 2001. Grammatical categories and the development of classification preferences: A comparative approach. In Bowerman, M. & Levinson, S. C. (eds.), Language acquisition and conceptual development, 257283. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Mazuka, R. & Friedman, R. S.. 2000. Linguistic relativity in Japanese and English: Is language the primary determinant in object classification? Journal of East Asian Linguistics 9(4). 353377.
Saalbach, H. & Imai, M.. 2007. The scope of linguistic influence: Does a classifier system alter object concepts? Journal of Experimental Psychology: General 136. 485501.
Sandler, W. & Lillo-Martin, D.. 2006. Sign language and linguistic universals. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Schmitt, B. H. & Zhang, S.. 1998. Language structure and categorization: A study of classifiers in consumer cognition, judgment, and choice. Journal of Consumer Research 25(2). 108122.
Seifart, F. 2005. The structure and use of shape-based noun classes in Miraña (North West Amazon). MPI Series in Psycholinguistics 32. (PhD dissertation, Radboud University Nijmegen.) Wageningen: Ponsen & Looijen.
Senft, G. (ed.). 2000. Systems of nominal classification. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Slobin, D. I. 1996. From “thought and language” to “thinking for speaking”. In Gumperz, J. J. & Levinson, S. C. (eds.), Rethinking linguistic relativity, 7096. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Srinivasan, M. 2010. Do classifiers predict differences in cognitive processing? A study of nominal classification in Mandarin Chinese. Language and Cognition 2(2). 177190.
Vigliocco, G., Vinson, D. P., Paganelli, F. & Dworzynski, K.. 2005. Grammatical gender effects on cognition: Implications for language learning and language use. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General 134(4). 501520.
Zhang, S. & Schmitt, B. H.. 1998. Language-dependent classification: The mental representation of classifiers in cognition, memory, and ad evaluations. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Applied 4. 375385.


Related content

Powered by UNSILO

Speaking of shape: The effects of language-specific encoding on semantic representations

  • Pamela Perniss (a1), David Vinson (a1), Frank Seifart (a2) and Gabriella Vigliocco (a1)


Altmetric attention score

Full text views

Total number of HTML views: 0
Total number of PDF views: 0 *
Loading metrics...

Abstract views

Total abstract views: 0 *
Loading metrics...

* Views captured on Cambridge Core between <date>. This data will be updated every 24 hours.

Usage data cannot currently be displayed.