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      Individuals and non-individuals in cognition and semantics: The mass/count distinction and quantity representation


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          Language is a sub-component of human cognition. One important, though often unattained goal for both cognitive scientists and linguists is to explicate how the meanings of words and sentences relate to the more general, non-linguistic, cognitive systems that are used to evaluate whether sentences are true or false. In the present paper, we explore one such relationship: an interface between the linguistic structures referring to individuals and non-individuals (specifically, count-nouns like cows and mass-nouns like beef in English) and the non-linguistic cognitive systems that quantify and compare number and area. While humans may be flexible in how they use language across contexts, in two experiments using standard psychophysical testing we find that participants evaluate a count-noun sentence (i.e., one including a pluralized noun, such as blobs) via numerical representations and evaluate a corresponding mass-noun sentence (i.e., one including a unmarked noun, such as blob) via non-numerical representations, consistent with a principled interface between language and cognition for evaluating these terms. This was the case even when the visual display was held constant across conditions and only the noun type was varied, further suggesting an important difference in how area and number, as well as count and mass nouns, are represented. These findings speak to issues concerning the semantics-cognition interface, the mass-count distinction, and the psychophysics of quantity representation.

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          Most cited references47

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          Core systems of number.

          What representations underlie the ability to think and reason about number? Whereas certain numerical concepts, such as the real numbers, are only ever represented by a subset of human adults, other numerical abilities are widespread and can be observed in adults, infants and other animal species. We review recent behavioral and neuropsychological evidence that these ontogenetically and phylogenetically shared abilities rest on two core systems for representing number. Performance signatures common across development and across species implicate one system for representing large, approximate numerical magnitudes, and a second system for the precise representation of small numbers of individual objects. These systems account for our basic numerical intuitions, and serve as the foundation for the more sophisticated numerical concepts that are uniquely human.
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            A theory of magnitude: common cortical metrics of time, space and quantity.

            V Walsh (2003)
            Research into the perception of space, time and quantity has generated three separate literatures. That number can be represented spatially is, of course, well accepted and forms a basis for research into spatial aspects of numerical processing. Links between number and time or between space and time, on the other hand, are rarely discussed and the shared properties of all three systems have not been considered. I propose here that time, space and quantity are part of a generalized magnitude system. I outline A Theory Of Magnitude (ATOM) as a conceptually new framework within which to re-interpret the cortical processing of these elements of the environment.
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              Exact and approximate arithmetic in an Amazonian indigene group.

              Is calculation possible without language? Or is the human ability for arithmetic dependent on the language faculty? To clarify the relation between language and arithmetic, we studied numerical cognition in speakers of Mundurukú, an Amazonian language with a very small lexicon of number words. Although the Mundurukú lack words for numbers beyond 5, they are able to compare and add large approximate numbers that are far beyond their naming range. However, they fail in exact arithmetic with numbers larger than 4 or 5. Our results imply a distinction between a nonverbal system of number approximation and a language-based counting system for exact number and arithmetic.

                Author and article information

                Glossa: a journal of general linguistics
                Ubiquity Press
                18 May 2018
                : 3
                : 1
                : 61
                [1 ]University of British Columbia, CA
                [2 ]University of Maryland College Park, US
                [3 ]University of California Los Angeles, US
                [4 ]Johns Hopkins University, US
                Author information
                Copyright: © 2018 The Author(s)

                This is an open-access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License (CC-BY 4.0), which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original author and source are credited. See http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/.

                : 20 April 2017
                : 12 February 2018
                Special collection: the interpretation of the mass-count distinction across languages and populations

                General linguistics,Linguistics & Semiotics
                quantity representation,quantification,approximate number system,count/mass nouns,semantics-cognition interface


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