Thinking in ways we don’t speak: Evidence for a universal preference in semantic granularity


Languages partition the world in different ways—for example, the categories named by spatial terms vary substantially across languages. Yet beneath this linguistic variation there may lie universal cognitive tendencies. Khetarpal et al. (2010) found that speakers of Dutch and English, despite differences in their linguistic spatial systems, sorted spatial scenes similarly—and more like the finer-grained language, Dutch. We asked whether this preference for fine-grained sorting extends to two new languages: Máíhɨki, a language of Peruvian Amazonia, with a fine-grained spatial system, and Chichewa, a Bantu language of southeast Africa, with a coarse-grained spatial system. Despite the great range in spatial naming represented across these languages—both in the granularity and the shape of their spatial categories—we found that speakers of all four languages sorted finely, and thus similarly to the finer-grained languages, Máíhɨki and Dutch. These results suggest that spatial cognition, unlike spatial language, is universally fine-grained.

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