Do words reveal concepts?


To study concepts, cognitive scientists must first identify some. The prevailing assumption is that they are revealed by words such as triangle, table, and robin. But languages vary dramatically in how they carve up the world by name. Either ordinary concepts must be heavily language-dependent or names cannot be a direct route to concepts. We asked English, Dutch, Spanish, and Japanese speakers to name videos of human locomotion and judge their similarities. We investigated what name inventories and scaling solutions on name similarity and on physical similarity for the groups individually and together suggest about the underlying concepts. Aggregated naming and similarity solutions converged on results distinct from the answers suggested by any single language. Words such as triangle, table, and robin help identify the conceptual space of a domain, but they do not directly reveal units of knowledge usefully considered “concepts.”

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