Similarity judgments reflect both language and cross-language tendencies: Evidence from two semantic domains


Many theories hold that semantic variation in the world’s languages can be explained in terms of a universal conceptual space that is partitioned differently by different languages. Recent work has supported this view in the semantic domain of containers (Malt et al., 1999), and assumed it in the domain of spatial relations (Khetarpal et al., 2009), based in both cases on similarity judgments derived from pile-sorting of stimuli. Here, we reanalyze data from these two studies and find a more complex picture than these earlier studies suggested. In both cases we find that sorting is similar across speakers of different languages (in line with the earlier studies), but nonetheless reflects the sorter’s native language (in contrast with the earlier studies). We conclude that there are cross-culturally shared conceptual tendencies that can be revealed by pile-sorting, but that these tendencies may be modulated to some extent by language. We discuss the implications of these findings for accounts of semantic variation.

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