Effect of classifier system on object similarity judgment: A cross-linguistic study

Caicai Zhang, Ruijing Wang

Research output: Journal article publicationJournal articleAcademic researchpeer-review


Long-term experience with a classifier language influences the speakers' similarity judgment of everyday objects. Previous studies found that speakers of a classifier language, but not speakers of a non-classifier language, judge two objects that can be categorized by a common classifier to be more similar (e.g. Zhang and Schmitt 1998; Saalbach and Imai 2007, 2012). In the literature, two hypotheses have been proposed to account for the classifier effect. The category-based classifier hypothesis emphasizes the classifier-noun collocation relationship as the factor influencing similarity judgment. The feature-based classifier hypothesis suggested that speakers pay more attention to features like shape and animacy that are explicitly expressed via classifiers. Nevertheless, these two hypotheses are not mutually exclusive. In the present study, three experiments were carried out to test an integrated hypothesis that both collocation relationship and classifier feature contribute to the classifier effect interactively. Experiment 1 was a linguistic survey of the classifiernoun collocation in two classifier languages, Mandarin and Cantonese. Experiment 2A and 2B tested the category-based and feature-based hypotheses with similarity judgment tasks in Mandarin and Cantonese, which have different classifier-noun collocations but largely similar distribution of classifier features. Experiment 3 proposed and tested the gradient classifier model which emphasizes the integrated effect of collocation relationship and classifier feature. Findings of this study suggest that long-term language experience influences the speaker's preferred way of observing objects, and provide a finer interpretation of the nature of the classifier effect.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)188-217
Number of pages30
JournalJournal of Chinese Linguistics
Issue number1
Publication statusPublished - 1 Jan 2014
Externally publishedYes


  • Cantonese
  • Classifier category
  • Classifier feature
  • Linguistic relativity
  • Mandarin
  • Similarity judgment

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Arts and Humanities (miscellaneous)
  • Linguistics and Language


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