Boundaries in space and time: Iconic biases across modalities

Cognition 210 (C):104596 (2021)
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Abstract

The idea that the form of a word reflects information about its meaning has its roots in Platonic philosophy, and has been experimentally investigated for concrete, sensory-based properties since the early 20th century. Here, we provide evidence for an abstract property of ‘boundedness’ that introduces a systematic, iconic bias on the phonological expectations of a novel lexicon. We show that this abstract property is general across events and objects. In Experiment 1, we show that subjects are systematically more likely to associate sign language signs that end with a gestural boundary with telic verbs (denoting events with temporal boundaries, e.g., die, arrive) and with count nouns (denoting objects with spatial boundaries, e.g., ball, coin). In Experiments 2–3, we show that this iconic mapping acts on conceptual representations, not on grammatical features. Specifically, the mapping does not carry over to psychological nouns (e.g. people are not more likely to associate a gestural boundary with idea than with knowledge). Although these psychological nouns are still syntactically encoded as either count or mass, they do not denote objects that are conceived of as having spatial boundaries. The mapping bias thus breaks down. Experiments 4–5 replicate these findings with a new set of stimuli. Finally, in Experiments 6–11, we explore possible extensions to a similar bias for spoken language stimuli, with mixed results. Generally, the results here suggest that ‘boundedness’ of words' referents (in space or time) has a powerful effect on intuitions regarding the form that the words should take.

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Author Profiles

Jeremy Kuhn
Institut Jean Nicod
Carlo Geraci
Institut Jean Nicod
Philippe Schlenker
Institut Jean Nicod
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References found in this work

Verbs and times.Zeno Vendler - 1957 - Philosophical Review 66 (2):143-160.
Principles of object perception.Elizabeth S. Spelke - 1990 - Cognitive Science 14 (1):29--56.
The algebra of events.Emmon Bach - 1986 - Linguistics and Philosophy 9 (1):5--16.

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