When Is Language a Window into the Mind? Looking Beyond Words to Infer Conceptual Categories


Language is often regarded as a rich source of evidence about the mind. However, a number of findings challenge this position, at least at the level of words: Where languages differ in their lexical distinctions, conceptual differences are not always observed. We ask here how language might serve as a window into the mind despite an apparently loose connection between words and concepts. We propose that prominent conceptual distinctions, though not necessarily captured by individual words, may be revealed by elements of meaning shared by multiple words. Testing this hypothesis in the domain of space, we show that clusters of spatial terms, identified through dimensionality reduction analyses of semantic similarity data, align with conceptual categories spontaneously accessed during the perceptual discrimination of spatial relations. These findings suggest that aspects of semantic structure beyond the level of words may provide considerable insight into the conceptual system. Implications for research on linguistic relativity are discussed.

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