Boundaries in space and time: Iconic biases across modalities
In cognition, spatial and temporal boundaries have been theorized to be central to humans' perception of objects and events. In language, a related semantic property has characterized the mass/count and telic/atelic oppositions, which have been argued to be grounded in these non-linguistic conceptual representations. Intriguingly, boundarihood has also been shown to be involved in a motivated mapping in sign language: telic verbs are associated with gestural boundaries.
In a series of experiments, we investigate the origin of this mapping bias. We show that non-signing subjects show an iconic bias to associate bounded forms with bounded meanings, and unbounded forms with unbounded meanings. The representations involved are abstract and domain general: the bias is found both for nouns that denote bounded objects or unbounded substances, and for verbs that denote bounded or unbounded events. Interestingly, this mapping bias disappears for psychological nouns (but not psychological verbs), which are grammatically categorized as mass or count, but do not have well defined boundaries in space or time. We conclude that the mapping bias operates on conceptual representations, as opposed to piggybacking on grammatical categories or linguistic paraphrases. The statistical tendency that is observed for sign language thus has its origins in a generally accessible bias involving abstract, iconic mappings that operate on psychological representations.