Speaking of shape: The effects of language-specific encoding on semantic representations

Pamela Perniss, David Vinson, Frank Seifart, Gabriella Vigliocco

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


The question of whether different linguistic patterns differentially influence semantic and conceptual representations is of central interest in cognitive science. In this paper, we investigate whether the regular encoding of shape within a nominal classification system leads to an increased salience of shape in speakers’ semantic representations by comparing English, (Amazonian) Spanish, and Bora, a shape-based classifier language spoken in the Amazo- nian regions of Columbia and Peru. Crucially, in displaying obligatory use, pervasiveness in grammar, high discourse frequency, and phonological vari- ability of forms corresponding to particular shape features, the Bora classifier system differs in important ways from those in previous studies investigating effects of nominal classification, thereby allowing better control of factors that may have influenced previous findings. In addition, the inclusion of Spanish monolinguals living in the Bora village allowed control for the possibility that differences found between English and Bora speakers may be attributed to their very different living environments. We found that shape is more salient in the semantic representation of objects for speakers of Bora, which systemati- cally encodes shape, than for speakers of English and Spanish, which do not. Our results are consistent with assumptions that semantic representations are shaped and modulated by our specific linguistic experiences.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)223-242
Number of pages20
JournalLanguage and Cognition
Issue number3
Publication statusPublished - 1 Sept 2012


  • semantic representation
  • nominal classification
  • shape-based semantics
  • semantic similarity
  • linguistic relativity


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