Categories in Mind and Categories in Language: Do Classifier Categories Influence Conceptual Structures?

Mutsumi Imai, Henrik Saalbach

Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingChapter

9 Citations (Scopus)


This chapter explores the relation between classifier grammar systems - grammatical systems that categorize objects/entities into over 100 grammatical categories - and how people think about objects. It first reviews different views of how the role of language (linguistic categories) should be evaluated in thought. It then reports empirical results of two series of studies on the impact of classifier systems. It identifies the influence of classifiers in some cognitive tasks, but not others, in Chinese speakers. There was no influence of classifiers in any of the cognitive tasks in Japanese speakers, including the tasks in which Chinese speakers exhibited the influence of classifiers. Based on these results, the nature of the influence of classifiers is clarified, specifying how large theclassifier effect would be relative to other major conceptual relations such as taxonomic or thematic relations, in what cognitive contexts the language-specific classifier effect is observed (and in what contexts it is not), and how the language-specific classifier effect might arise. The chapter argues that it is time for us to go beyond a pro-Whorf or anti- Whorf conclusion. Instead of seeking a cross-linguistic difference in one task for the purpose of establishing evidence for (or against) the linguistic relativity hypothesis, we must investigate the relation between language and thought in order to reveal complex interactions between the semantic as well as structural nature of the grammatical system and the type of cognitive activities, and to evaluate how pervasive and important the influence of a target linguistic categorization system is in a full range of cognitive processes.

Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationWords and the Mind
Subtitle of host publicationHow Words Capture Human Experience
PublisherOxford University Press
ISBN (Electronic)9780199776924
ISBN (Print)9780195311129
Publication statusPublished - 2010 Feb 1


  • Chinese
  • Classifier grammar systems
  • Cognition
  • Japanese
  • Language-thought interface
  • Linguistic categories
  • Whorf

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • General Psychology


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