Spatial meanings for function words? The link between conjunctions and spatial representations


While formal theories of language consider function words to have little semantic content, more recent theoretical work has argued that even function words have meaning. Yet, there is little experimental work on the representations underlying the meaning of function words such as conjunctions. In two offline experiments, we examined whether conjunctions (and, or, but, either…or) are associated in systematic but distinctive ways with spatial information. In Experiment 1, participants drew schematic representations to depict how two abstract conjuncts might be connected by each of the four conjunctions. These drawing were evaluated on three spatial dimensions (distance, containment and size). In Experiment 2, participants evaluated how well schematic sketches (that differed in distance, containment, and size) represented different conjunctions. In both experiments, spatial information was systematically and distinctively associated with conjunctions. Either… or and or conjunctions were reliably associated with the use of large distance and separation via containment of the conjuncts. And, by contrast, was associated with shorter distance between, and no containment of, the conjuncts. Finally, but was associated with differences in size. We discuss implications of these results for the spatial foundation of linguistic meaning, and the link between lexical semantics and logic.

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