The linguistic dimensions of concrete and abstract concepts: lexical category, morphological structure, countability, and etymology

Cognitive Linguistics 32 (4):641-670 (2021)
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Abstract

The distinction between abstract and concrete concepts is fundamental to cognitive linguistics and cognitive science. This distinction is commonly operationalized through concreteness ratings based on the aggregated judgments of many people. What is often overlooked in experimental studies using this operationalization is that ratings are attributed to words, not to concepts directly. In this paper we explore the relationship between the linguistic properties of English words and conceptual abstractness/concreteness. Based on hypotheses stated in the existing linguistic literature we select a set of variables and verify whether they are statistically associated with concreteness ratings. We show that English nouns are rated as more concrete compared to other parts of speech, but mass nouns are rated as less concrete than count nouns. Furthermore, a more complex morphological structure is associated with abstractness, and as for etymology, French- and Latin-derived words are more abstract than words of other origin. This shows that linguistic properties of words are indeed associated with the degree of concreteness that we attribute to the underlying concepts, and we discuss the implications that these findings have for linguistic theory and for empirical investigations in the cognitive sciences.

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