Words as social tools: Language, sociality and inner grounding in abstract concepts

The paper introduces a new perspective on abstract concepts (e.g. "freedom") and their associate words representation, the Words As social Tools (WAT) view. Traditional theories conceptualize language as a way to index referents, a shortcut to access meaning, or a way to access meaning through words associations. WAT goes beyond these theories by identifying additional functions of words and language: words are tools helping us to perform actions and change the state of our social environment, and language is a means to improve our thought abilities, to control our behavior and plays a predictive role, helping us to form categories. Most importantly, WAT proposes that language and sociality - along with interoceptive and metacognitive processes - are key for the grounding of abstract concepts (ACs) that are more complex, variable, and more detached from perceptual and motor experience than concrete concepts (CCs). We highlight four tenets of WAT and discuss each of them in light of recent evidence: a. acquisition: compared to concrete concepts, the acquisition of abstract concepts relies more on social and linguistic inputs; b. brain representation: abstract concepts recruit more linguistic and social brain areas; c. mouth activation: due to the relevance of language for representing them, abstract concepts activate more the oral motor system; d. linguistic variability: abstract concepts are more affected by differences between spoken languages. We discuss evidence supporting these four tenets of WAT, and its advantages and limitations compared to other views on abstract concepts. Finally, we outline a conceptual proposal that specifies how internal models supporting the representation and processing of ACs can be grounded on interoceptive, metacognitive, social, and linguistic experience.

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Author or Creator: 
Borghi, Anna M.
Barca, Laura
Binkofski, Ferdinand
Castelfranchi, Cristiano
Pezzulo, Giovanni
Tummolini, Luca
Elsevier, Boston ;, Paesi Bassi
Physics of life reviews (Print) 29 (2019): 120–153. doi:10.1016/j.plrev.2018.12.001
info:cnr-pdr/source/autori:Borghi, Anna M.; Barca, Laura; Binkofski, Ferdinand; Castelfranchi, Cristiano; Pezzulo, Giovanni; Tummolini, Luca/titolo:Words as social tools: Language, sociality and inner grounding in abstract concepts/doi:10.1016/j.plrev.201
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