Systematicity in the semantics of noun compounds: The role of artifacts vs. natural kinds

Beth Levin, Lelia Glass, Dan Jurafsky
2019 Linguistics  
The nature of the relationship between the head and modifier in English noun compounds has long posed a challenge to semantic theories. We argue that the type of head-modifier relation in an English endocentric noun-headed compound depends on how its referent is categorized: specifically, on whether the referent is conceptualized as an artifact, made by humans for a purpose; or as a natural kind, existing independently of humans. We propose the Events vs. Essences Hypothesis: the modifier in an
more » ... the modifier in an artifact-headed compound typically refers to an event of use or creation associated with that artifact, while the modifier in a natural kind-headed compound typically makes reference to inherent properties reflective of an abstract essence associated with the kind, such as its perceptual properties or native habitat. We present three studies substantiating this hypothesis. First, in a corpus of almost 1,700 attested compounds in two conceptual domains (food/cooking and precious minerals/jewelry), we find that as predicted, compound names referring to artifacts tend to evoke events, whereas compound names referring to natural kinds tend to evoke essential properties. Next, in a production experiment involving compound creation and a comprehension experiment involving compound interpretation, we find that the same tendencies also extend to novel compounds.
doi:10.1515/ling-2019-0013 fatcat:b2bbkajqq5bijaw3szt5o6tvi4