Individuals and non-individuals in cognition and semantics: The mass/count distinction and quantity representation

Darko Odic, Paul Pietroski, Tim Hunter, Justin Halberda, Jeffrey Lidz

Language is a sub-component of human cognition. One important, though often unattained goal for both cognitive scientists and linguists is to explicate how the meanings of words and sentences relate to the more general, non-linguistic, cognitive systems that are used to evaluate whether sentences are true or false. In the present paper, we explore one such relationship: an interface between the linguistic structures referring to individuals and non-individuals (specifically, count-nouns like ‘cows’ and mass-nouns like ‘beef’) and the non-linguistic cognitive systems that quantify and compare number and area. While humans may be flexible in how they use language across contexts, in two experiments using standard psychophysical testing we find that participants evaluate a count-noun sentence via numerical representations and evaluate a corresponding mass-noun sentence via non-numerical representations; consistent with a principled interface between language and cognition for evaluating these terms. This was the case even when the visual display was held constant across conditions and only the noun type was varied, further suggesting an important difference in how area and number, as well as count and mass nouns, are represented. These findings speak to issues concerning the semantics-cognition interface, the mass-count distinction, and the psychophysics of quantity representation.