Language and Ontological Knowledge: The Contrast between Objects and Events Made by Spanish and English Speakers

Maria D. Sera, Jaime Gathje, Javier Del Castillo Pintado

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16 Scopus citations


What do differences across languages reflect about underlying category structure? This article focuses on how ontological divisions - the major divisions of entities in the world - are reflected in two languages. Experiments 1 and 2 investigated the contrast between objects and events among English and Spanish speakers by examining patterns of linguistic predicability - allowable combinations of nouns and predicates that constitute much of the evidence for ontological knowledge. Results from Experiment 1 replicated the previously documented ontological contrast between objects and events on the basis of temporal and physical predicates among adult speakers of both languages. However, Spanish speakers, unlike English speakers, distinguished objects from events on the basis of spatial predicates. In Experiment 2, the spatial distinction was found to develop according to the same trajectory in Spanish-speaking children as the temporal distinction develops in both English- and Spanish-speaking children, further suggesting an ontological contrast between objects and events based on spatial properties. Experiment 3 investigated the role of spatial and temporal properties in objects and events using a measure that did not rely on linguistic predicability. In this experiment, both speakers of English and Spanish judged variations in temporal and spatial properties as more likely to change the identity of events than of objects, indicating that the spatial linguistic contrast made by speakers of Spanish in Experiments 1 and 2 reflects an underlying conceptual contrast between objects and events that is made by both English and Spanish speakers - a contrast not previously documented in experimental psychology. This work offers new experimental evidence on the psychological distinction between objects and events and leads to a better understanding of the relation between language and ontological knowledge.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)303-326
Number of pages24
JournalJournal of Memory and Language
Issue number3
StatePublished - Oct 1999
Externally publishedYes

Bibliographical note

Funding Information:
This research was supported by a grant from NICHD (HD R01 27376), a McKnight Land Grant Professorship, and a Graduate School Grant-in-Aid from the University of Minnesota to Maria D. Sera. A portion of Experiment 1 was used to fulfill the requirements for an Honors Degree from the University of Minnesota by Jaime Gathje. We thank the staffs at Chicanos Latinos Unidos En Servicios (CLUES) in St. Paul and Minneapolis, and extend a special thanks to Rachel Burr, Milissa Tilton, Bernadette Sanchez, and the parents, children, and staff of Kids & Company in Hopkins, and of Joaquín Costa School in Madrid, for their assistance with the data collection. We also thank Wade Savage and two anonymous reviewers for their comments on earlier drafts of this paper. A poster summarizing this work was presented at the 1997 Biennial Meeting of the Society for Research in Child Development in Washington, D.C.


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