Language-relative construal of individuation constrained by universal ontology: Revisiting language universals and linguistic relativity

Mutsumi Imai, Reiko Mazuka

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

43 Citations (Scopus)


Objects and substances bear fundamentally different ontologies. In this article, we examine the relations between language, the ontological distinction with respect to individuation, and the world. Specifically, in cross-linguistic developmental studies that follow Imai and Gentner (1997), we examine the question of whether language influences our thought in different forms, like (1) whether the language-specific construal of entities found in a word extension context (Imai & Gentner, 1997) is also found in a nonlinguistic classification context; (2) whether the presence of labels per se, independent of the count-mass syntax, fosters ontology-based classification; (3) in what way, if at all, the count-mass syntax that accompanies a label changes English speakers' default construal of a given entity? On the basis of the results, we argue that the ontological distinction concerning individuation is universally shared and functions as a constraint on early learning of words. At the same time, language influences one's construal of entities cross-lingistically and developmentally, and causes a temporary change of construal within a single language. We provide a detailed discussion of how each of these three ways language may affect the construal of entities, and discuss how our universally possessed knowledge interacts with language both within a single language and in cross-linguistic context.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)385-413
Number of pages29
JournalCognitive Science
Issue number3
Publication statusPublished - 2007


  • Individuation
  • Language acquisition
  • Language and thought
  • Linguistic relativity
  • Ontological concepts
  • Role of language in conceptual development

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Experimental and Cognitive Psychology
  • Cognitive Neuroscience
  • Artificial Intelligence


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