Research

Languages Support Efficient Communication about the Environment: Words for Snow Revisited, Terry Regier, Alexandra Carstensen, & Charles Kemp. PLOS ONE, 4/13/2016:

The claim that Eskimo languages have words for different types of snow is well-known among the public, but has been greatly exaggerated through popularization and is therefore viewed with skepticism by many scholars of language. Despite the prominence of this claim, to our knowledge the line of reasoning behind it has not been tested broadly across languages.

Language evolution in the lab tends toward informative communication, Alexandra Carstensen, Jing Xu, Cameron Smith, & Terry Regier. Paper presented at the 37th Annual Conference of the Cognitive Science Society, Pasadena, California, 7/25/2015:

Why do languages parcel human experience into categories in the ways they do? Languages vary widely in their category systems but not arbitrarily, and one possibility is that this constrained variation reflects universal communicative needs. Consistent with this idea, it has been shown that attested category systems tend to support highly informative communication. However it is not yet known what process produces these informative systems.

The space of spatial relations: An extended stimulus set, Alexandra Carstensen, Yang Xu, Charles Kemp, & Terry Regier. Poster presented at the 37th Annual Conference of the Cognitive Science Society, Pasadena, California, 7/24/2015:

Spatial configurations allow for many different kinds of spatial relations between objects. Previous cross-linguistic work in this domain relies on a valuable but restricted stimulus set, the Topological Relations Picture Series (TRPS), which has two major limitations: (1) it covers a small subset of the spatial semantic domain, focusing on the IN/ON area, and (2) it covers that subset in an unsystematic way. We propose to create a large stimulus set of spatial relations that covers the space of possible relations in a more comprehensive way and includes the TRPS as a subset.

Locomotion language in the wild: Biomechanical constraints and caveats, Alexandra Carstensen, Kevin J. Holmes, Aagje van der Meer, & Terry Regier. Poster presented at the 36th Annual Conference of the Cognitive Science Society, Quebec City, Canada, 7/24/2014:

Semantic systems vary substantially across languages, but may nonetheless be constrained by structure in the world. Malt et al. (2008) advanced such an argument in the domain of locomotion. In their study, speakers of English, Spanish, Japanese, and Belgian Dutch named video clips of an individual locomoting on a treadmill. In all four languages, naming respected the distinction between walking and running gaits, suggesting a universal semantic constraint based on a biomechanical discontinuity.

Testing a rational account of pragmatic reasoning: The case of spatial language, Alexandra Carstensen, Elizabeth Kon, & Terry Regier. Paper presented at the 36th Annual Conference of the Cognitive Science Society, Quebec City, Canada, 7/24/2014:

How do people recover precise meanings from ambiguous utterances? Frank and Goodman (2012) proposed that listeners do this by rationally combining evidence about word meaning and the salience of particular objects in context. They found that a Bayesian model based on this idea provided a near-perfect account of their empirical data.

Thinking in ways we don’t speak: Evidence for a universal preference in semantic granularity, Alexandra Carstensen, Grace Neveu, Lev Michael, & Terry Regier. Poster presented at the 35th Annual Conference of the Cognitive Science Society, Berlin, Germany, 8/3/2013:

Languages partition the world in different ways—for example, the categories named by spatial terms vary substantially across languages.  Yet beneath this linguistic variation there may lie universal cognitive tendencies.  Khetarpal et al.

Individuals recapitulate the proposed evolutionary development of spatial lexicons, Alexandra Carstensen & Terry Regier. Paper presented at the 35th Annual Conference of the Cognitive Science Society, Berlin, Germany, 8/2/2013:

When English speakers successively pile-sort colors, their sorting recapitulates an independently proposed hierarchy of color category evolution during language change (Boster, 1986). Here we extend that finding to the semantic domain of spatial relations. Levinson et al. (2003) have proposed a hierarchy of spatial category evolution, and we show that English speakers successively pile-sort spatial scenes in a manner that recapitulates that proposed evolutionary hierarchy.

Using Bayesian models to discriminate theories of magnitude and metaphor, Alexandra Carstensen, Joshua Abbott, Richard Ivry, & Thomas Griffiths. Talk presented at the Embodied and Situated Language Processing Workshop, Potsdam, Germany, 7/29/2013

People perceive time in the absence of a dedicated perceptual system for timing, but systematically conflate temporal information with other scalar quantities, particularly spatial extent. Two influential accounts of this phenomenon contend that people think about time and space via obligatory mappings between domains, but make contrasting claims about the nature and structure of such mappings.

Grounding spatial language in non-linguistic cognition: Evidence for universal and relative spatial semantics in thought, Alexandra Carstensen, Michael Pacer, & Terry Regier. Paper presented at the 34th Annual Conference of the Cognitive Science Society, Sapporo, Japan, 8/4/2012:

The categories named by spatial terms vary considerably across languages. It is often proposed that underlying this variation is a universal set of primitive spatial concepts that are combined differently in different languages. Despite the inherently cognitive assumptions of this proposal, such spatial primitives have generally been inferred in a top-down manner from linguistic data.

Universals and variation in spatial language and cognition: Evidence from Chichewa, Alexandra Carstensen, Naveen Khetarpal, Asifa Majid, & Terry Regier. Poster presented at the 33rd Annual Conference of the Cognitive Science Society, Boston, Massachusetts, 7/22/2011:

The relation of spatial language and spatial cognition is central to the debate over language and thought. Recent findings move this debate beyond the standard opposition between universalist and relativist (Whorfian) stances. One such study, by Khetarpal et al. (2010), suggests that spatial cognition reflects universal tendencies which are further modulated by linguistic convention. That study gauged non-linguistic spatial cognition through English and Dutch speakers' pile-sorting of spatial scenes by similarity.

Time in the mind: Is space an obligatory influence on temporal judgments?, Alexandra Carstensen & Richard Ivry. Poster presented at the joint meeting of the Conceptual Structure, Discourse and Language (CSDL) and Embodied and Situated Language Processing (ESLP) Associations, San Diego, California, 9/18/2010

How do we construct a sense of time in the absence of a perceptual system devoted to timing? Two major theories contend that people think about time and space via obligatory mappings between domains. Conceptual Metaphor Theory suggests that people make decisions about time by directionally integrating information from the domain of space, while A Theory of Magnitude (ATOM) posits conceptual overlap and symmetrical flow of information between the two domains.