Kuhn, Geraci, Schlenker, & Strickland. 2020. Boundaries in space and time: iconic biases across modalities.

Manuscript, Institut Jean-Nicod (CNRS), Ecole Normale Supérieure.

[Full paper at PsyArXiv]

Abstract: The idea that the form of a word reflects information about its meaning has its roots in Platonic philosophy, and has been experimentally investigated for concrete, sensory based semantic properties since the early 20th century. Here, we provide evidence for an abstract, semantic property of ‘boundedness’ that introduces a systematic, iconic bias on the phonological expectations of a novel lexicon. We show that this abstract property is domain-general with respect to meaning and possibly form. In Experiment 1, we show that subjects are systematically more likely to associate sign language signs that end with a gestural boundary with telic verbs (denoting events with temporal boundaries, e.g., die, arrive) and to count nouns (denoting objects with spatial boundaries, e.g., ball, coin). In Experiments 2 and 3, we show that this iconic mapping is acting on conceptual representations, not on grammatical features. Specifically, the mapping does not carry over to psychological nouns (e.g. idea vs. knowledge). Although these nouns are still syntactically encoded as either count or mass, they cannot denote objects with stable spatial boundaries. Experiments 4-5 replicate these findings with a new set of stimuli. Finally, in Experiments 6-11, we explore possible extensions to a similar bias beyond sign language and the gestural domain. We provide evidence that a similar effect is present for spoken language stimuli, at least for nominal meanings. Generally, the results here suggest that ‘boundedness’ of words’ referents (in space or time) has a powerful effect on intuitions regarding the form that the words should take.

Keywords: language universals, cognitive biases, event and object boundaries, sign language, telicity, count/mass