The effects of numeral classifiers and taxonomic categories on Chinese and English speakers' recall of nouns.

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Huang, S.
Chen, J.-Y.

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Springer Netherlands


It has been suggested that classifiers in Chinese serve a semantic function of categorizing the nouns in terms of their perceptual and functional features. In this study, we investigated the classifiers’ organizational utility in a recall task by contrasting it with that of taxonomic categories. Chinese and English participants studied and immediately recalled two lists of nouns, one associated with four taxonomic categories and the other with four classifiers. The nouns were presented randomly in bare forms or in columns labeled by category names or classifiers. Substantial subjective clustering effects were found in the recall of taxonomically categorized nouns whether they were presented randomly or in labeled columns. The recall of classifier categorized nouns showed no clustering when presented randomly, but some clustering when presented in labeled columns. The findings indicate that (1) classifiers do not serve as a spontaneous memory organizational device among Chinese speakers, (2) when used as such under specific circumstances (e.g., explicitly cued), they are not as effective as taxonomic categories, and (3) Chinese speakers benefit more from explicit labels of classifiers than English, which hints at an indirect language effect. These findings suggest that classifiers are analogous to the so-called ad hoc categories, the constancy of which relies on the degree features shared among the member nouns, as well as the frequency with which speakers are exposed to these nouns as a group, which includes the linguistic experience of using the same classifier to refer to them.