Linguistic Distributional Knowledge and Sensorimotor Grounding both Contribute to Semantic Category Production

Cognitive Science 45 (10):e13055 (2021)
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The human conceptual system comprises simulated information of sensorimotor experience and linguistic distributional information of how words are used in language. Moreover, the linguistic shortcut hypothesis predicts that people will use computationally cheaper linguistic distributional information where it is sufficient to inform a task response. In a pre‐registered category production study, we asked participants to verbally name members of concrete and abstract categories and tested whether performance could be predicted by a novel measure of sensorimotor similarity (based on an 11‐dimensional representation of sensorimotor strength) and linguistic proximity (based on word co‐occurrence derived from a large corpus). As predicted, both measures predicted the order and frequency of category production but, critically, linguistic proximity had an effect above and beyond sensorimotor similarity. A follow‐up study using typicality ratings as an additional predictor found that typicality was often the strongest predictor of category production variables, but it did not subsume sensorimotor and linguistic effects. Finally, we created a novel, fully grounded computational model of conceptual activation during category production, which best approximated typical human performance when conceptual activation was allowed to spread indirectly between concepts, and when candidate category members came from both sensorimotor and linguistic distributional representations. Critically, model performance was indistinguishable from typical human performance. Results support the linguistic shortcut hypothesis in semantic processing and provide strong evidence that both linguistic and grounded representations are inherent to the functioning of the conceptual system. All materials, data, and code are available at



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