It’s around here: Residential history and the meaning of ‘Midwest’


Even speakers of American English who think they grew up in the Midwest do not agree on its boundaries. So what determines the meaning of 'Midwest' to a given speaker? We argue that the meaning of a geographical term like ‘Midwest’ is based in part on one's experience with locations that one knows to be part of the region. This exemplar-based knowledge causes the perceived location of the Midwest to shift depending on where in the Midwest a respondent has lived and to remain fixed in space over time despite changes in features of exemplar locations. Nonetheless, regression analyses suggest that exemplar knowledge, when available, coexists with more abstract definitional knowledge. We believe that empirical studies of meanings of geographical terms can shed light on the nature of human semantic categories and the role of specific exemplars in semantic representation.

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