To be or not to be: Examining the role of language in a concept of negation

AbstractNegation is a complex, abstract concept, despite the ubiquity of words like “no” and “not” in even young children’s speech. One challenging aspect to words like “no” and “not” is that these words can serve many functions in speech, giving us tools to express an array of concepts such as denial, refusal, and nonexistence. Is there a single concept of “negation” that unites these separate negative functions – and if so, does understanding this concept require the structure of human language? In this paper we present a study demonstrating that adults spontaneously identify a concept of negation in the absence of explicit verbal instructions, even when the exemplars of negation are perceptually varied and represent many different functions of negation. Furthermore, tying up participants’ language ability using verbal shadowing impairs participants’ ability to identify a concept of negation, but does not impair participants’ ability to identify an equally complex control concept (natural kinds). We discuss our findings in light of theories regarding the representation of negation and the relationship between language and thought.


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