Journal of East Asian Linguistics

, Volume 18, Issue 1, pp 1-19

First online:

Classifier effects on human categorization: the role of shape classifiers in Mandarin Chinese

  • Jenny Yi-chun KuoAffiliated withDepartment of Foreign Languages, National Chiayi University Email author 
  • , Maria D. SeraAffiliated withInstitute for Child Development, University of Minnesota

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Chinese is a language that classifies nouns into groups on the basis of shape, material, and size. We asked whether the classification of nouns by shape affects the degree to which Chinese speakers rely on shape when classifying objects. Three experiments examined the degree to which Chinese- and English-speaking adults rely on shape versus taxonomic or functional similarity in a classification task. Across all three experiments, Chinese speakers made significantly more shape choices than English speakers though they both mostly classified objects on the basis of taxonomic or functional similarity. Reliance on shape by speakers of Chinese was correlated with amount of exposure to Chinese. The results offer evidence in support of the idea that language influences categorization, or a weak form of the Whorf Hypothesis. The results also call into question the widely-held belief that speakers of all classifier languages pay less attention to shape in classification.


Classifiers Categorization Linguistic relativity Mass noun hypothesis