Academic journal article Memory & Cognition

Conversation and Convention: Enduring Influences on Name Choice for Common Objects

Academic journal article Memory & Cognition

Conversation and Convention: Enduring Influences on Name Choice for Common Objects

Article excerpt

The name chosen for an object is influenced by both short-term history (e.g., speaker-addressee pacts) and long-term history (e.g., the language's naming pattern for the domain). But these influences must somehow be linked. We propose that names adopted through speaker-addressee collaboration have influences that carry beyond the original context. To test this hypothesis, we adapted the standard referential communication task. The first director of each matching session was a confederate who introduced one of two possible names for each object. The director role then rotated to naive participants. The participants later rated name preference for the introduced and alternative names for each object. They also rated object typicality or similarity to each named category. The name that was initially introduced influenced later name use and preference, even for participants who had not heard the name from the original director. Typicality and similarity showed lesser effects from the names originally introduced. Name associations built in one context appear to influence retrieval and use of names in other contexts, but they have reduced impact on nonlinguistic object knowledge. These results support the notion that stable conventions for object names within a linguistic community may arise from local interactions, and they demonstrate how different populations of speakers may come to have a shared understanding of objects' nonlinguistic properties but different naming patterns.

How do people choose names to refer to common objects such as pens and cups? Contributing to the choice are the objects' physical features, their current function, and possibly inferences about their intended use or origin. Views of categorization as applied to the problem of object naming have focused on these sources of constraint (e.g., Bloom, 1996; Keil, 1989; Kemler Nelson, 1999; Rips, 1989). We have argued, though, that name choice is not fully determined by knowledge or beliefs about the object per se; it is also sensitive to influences such as a language's history and the particular history of a speaker and addressee (Malt, Sloman, & Gennari, 2003a, 2003b; Malt, Sloman, Gennari, Shi, & Wang, 1999). The name a person uses for an entity is influenced by the set of names his or her language makes available for that domain and the pattern of naming that the language has evolved for objects in that domain, as well as by the goals of the particular communication and other aspects of the common ground of the speaker and addressee.

Evidence for the importance of short-term goals and speaker-addressee history comes from studies of reference demonstrating the role of collaboration between a speaker and an addressee in establishing and carrying forward names in a conversation (e.g., Brennan & Clark, 1996; Carroll, 1980; Clark & Wilkes-Gibbs, 1986; Garrod & Anderson, 1987; Krauss & Weinheimer, 1966; Markman & Makin, 1998). Evidence for longer term historical influences on naming choices was provided by Malt et al. (1999), who found that naming patterns for a set of 60 common artifacts in the same neutral context diverged substantially for speakers of English, Spanish, and Chinese. For instance, the 16 objects called bottle in English were distributed across seven different linguistic categories in Spanish. The Chinese name applied to the 19 objects calledyar in English also was used for 13 objects called bottle in English and 8 called container; at the same time, other objects called bottle or container in English had different Chinese names. These naming differences occurred even though physical, functional, and overall similarity judgments were much the same across speakers of the different languages. Patterns of naming appear to emerge over the history of a language and are driven by more than perceived or inferred properties of the objects (see also Hock & Joseph, 1996; Malt et al., 2003b; Singleton, 2000).

Short- and long-term historical influences must somehow be linked: Names introduced or adopted for an object by one person or a small number of people must spread beyond the initial users to a larger linguistic community if the names are to become conventional for all members of the group. …

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