Academic journal article Psychonomic Bulletin & Review

Adjective-Noun Order as Representational Structure: Native-Language Grammar Influences Perception of Similarity and Recognition Memory

Academic journal article Psychonomic Bulletin & Review

Adjective-Noun Order as Representational Structure: Native-Language Grammar Influences Perception of Similarity and Recognition Memory

Article excerpt

Published online: 19 July 2013

© Psychonomic Society, Inc. 2013

Abstract This article describes two experiments linking native-language grammar rules with implications for perception of similarity and recognition memory. In prenominal languages (e.g., English), adjectives usually precede nouns, whereas in postnominal languages (e.g., Portuguese), nouns usually precede adjectives.We explored the influence of such rules upon similarity judgments about, and recognition of, objects with multiple category attributes (one nominal attribute and one adjectival attribute). The results supported the hypothesized primacy effect of native-language word order such that nouns generally carried more weight for Portuguese speakers than for English speakers. This pattern was observed for judgments of similarity (i.e., Portuguese speakers tended to judge objects that shared a noun-designated attribute as more similar than did English speakers), as well as for false alarms in recognition memory (i.e., Portuguese speakers tended to falsely recognize more objects if they possessed a familiar noun attribute, relative to English speakers). The implications of such linguistic effects for the cognition of similarity and memory are discussed.

Keywords Linguistic relativity . Adjective-noun order . Similarity . Recognition . Language-memory interaction


How might the characteristics of the language that we speak influence what we perceive to be important and memorable about the objects that we encounter? Such a question gets to the heart of Whorf's (1956) principle of linguistic relativity, which states that language can influence thought and that, therefore, differences across languages lead to differences in cognition. One can distinguish between a strong version and a weak version of this principle. In its strong version, the principle proposes that language severely constrains thought, such that subtleties of experience that are not labeled by one's native language are literally imperceptible. In its weaker version, language influences (rather than determines) thought, and affects cognitive tendencies rather than potentiality. Although early research (e.g., Heider & Olivier, 1972) failed to support the strong version of theWhorfian hypothesis, an explosion of recent work has indeed supported the more conservative "weak" version (e.g., Boroditsky, Schmidt, & Phillips, 2003; Kuo & Sera, 2009).

Our research focused on a particular grammatical difference across languages: the order in which adjectives and nouns typically appear. Whereas in English and German (prenominal languages) adjectives usually precede nouns (e.g., blue painting), in Portuguese and Italian (postnominal languages), nouns usually precede adjectives (e.g., quadro azul ["painting blue"]; see Dryer, 2007; Percy, Sherman, Garcia-Marques, Mata, & Garcia-Marques, 2009). On the basis of a large body of research demonstrating that information encountered first carries more weight than information encountered later, as has been demonstrated in memory (e.g., Ebbinghaus, 1964) and in impression formation (e.g., Asch, 1946), Percy et al. hypothesized a primacy effect of native-language adjective-noun word order, such that for objects with multiple category attributes, some of which are designated by nouns and others by adjectives, the noundesignated attributes would carry more weight for speakers of noun-first languages than for speakers of adjective-first languages.

In the first tests of this grammatical-primacy hypothesis (Percy et al., 2009), American and Portuguese participants were presented with either adjective-noun phrases (e.g., The honest chef, The honest journalist, or The happy chef, presented in their native language and in the natural word order of the language), or visual stimuli without verbal description whose features could be designated by an adjective and a noun (e.g., a red circle, red square, or blue square). …

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