A cross-cultural study of language and cognition: Numeral classifiers and solid object categorization

Maria D. Sera, Hooi Ling Soh, Drew Brinker, Jenny Yichun Kuo, Judith W. Fuller, Christopher M. Hammerly, James Stevens, Ruxue Shao, Chris Batteen, Dingcheng Li, Nobuko Davis, Wenting Cai

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


One of the central issues in cognition is identifying universal and culturally specific patterns of thought. In this study, we examined how one aspect of culture, a linguistic part of speech known asclassifiers, are related to categorization of solid objects. In Experiment 1, we used a numeral classifier elicitation task to examine the classifiers used by speakers of Hmong, Japanese, and Mandarin Chinese (N = 34) with 135 nouns that referred to solid objects. In Experiment 2, adult speakers of English, Japanese, Mandarin Chinese, and Hmong (N = 64) rated the similarity of 39 pictured objects that depicted a subset of the nouns. All groups classified the objects into natural kinds and artifacts, with the category of humans anchoring both divisions. The main difference that emerged from the study was that speakers of Japanese and English rated humans and animals as more similar to each other than Hmong speakers; Mandarin speakers’ ratings of the similarity between humans and animals fell in between those of Hmong and English speakers. However, the pattern of categorization of humans and animals found among speakers of the classifier languages contradicted their patterns of classifier use. The findings help to tease apart the effects of language from other cultural factors that impact cognition.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)601-622
Number of pages22
JournalMemory and Cognition
Issue number3
StatePublished - Apr 2023

Bibliographical note

Funding Information:
This work was supported by an Interdisciplinary Grant-in-Aid from the University of Minnesota to Maria D. Sera and Hooi Ling Soh. A portion of this work was presented at Psychonomics in 2012 in Minneapolis, MN, USA. We thank Song Lee for his help with the data collection from Hmong speakers in Experiment . We also thank Ting Xiong, Pa Yang, Ying Ying Cheung, Gunnar An, and Andrew Sell for their help with stimulus construction and data collection for Experiment . We give a special thanks to Pernu Menheer for writing the computer program for Experiment . Finally, we thank Steven Verheyen for his thoughtful and detailed reviews of the manuscript.

Publisher Copyright:
© 2022, The Psychonomic Society, Inc.


  • Categorization
  • Crosscultural comparisons
  • Crosslinguistic comparisons
  • Language and cognition
  • Numeral classifiers
  • Similarity

PubMed: MeSH publication types

  • Journal Article
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't


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