How language shapes the cultural inheritance of categories [Psychological and Cognitive Sciences]
It is widely recognized that language plays a key role in the transmission of human culture, but relatively little is known about the mechanisms by which language simultaneously encourages both cultural stability and cultural innovation. This paper examines this issue by focusing on the use of language to transmit categories, focusing on two universal devices: labels (e.g., shark, woman) and generics (e.g., “sharks attack swimmers”; “women are nurturing”). We propose that labels and generics each assume two key principles: norms and essentialism. The normative assumption permits transmission of category information with great fidelity, whereas essentialism invites innovation by means of an open-ended, placeholder structure. Additionally, we sketch out how labels and generics aid in conceptual alignment and the progressive “looping” between categories and cultural practices. In this way, human language is a technology that enhances and expands the categorization capacities that we share with other animals.
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