A cross-linguistic comparison of generic noun phrases in English and Mandarin

Cognition 66 (3):215-248 (1998)
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Abstract

Generic noun phrases (e.g. 'bats live in caves') provide a window onto human concepts. They refer to categories as 'kinds rather than as sets of individuals. Although kind concepts are often assumed to be universal, generic expression varies considerably across languages. For example, marking of generics is less obligatory and overt in Mandarin than in English. How do universal conceptual biases interact with language-specific differences in how generics are conveyed? In three studies, we examined adults' generics in English and Mandarin Chinese. The data include child-directed speech from caregivers interacting with their 19-23-month-old children. Examples of generics include: 'baby birds eat worms' (English) and da4 lao3shu3 yao3 bu4 yao3 ren2 ('do big rats bite people or not?') (Mandarin). Generic noun phrases were reliably identified in both languages, although they occurred more than twice as frequently in English as in Mandarin. In both languages, generic usage was domain-specific, with generic noun phrases used most frequently to refer to animals. This domain effect was specific to generics, as non-generic noun phrases were used most frequently for artifacts in both languages. In sum, we argue for universal properties of 'kind' concepts that are expressed with linguistically different constructions. However, the frequency of expression may be influenced by the manner in which generics are expressed in the language.

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Susan Gelman
University of Michigan, Ann Arbor

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