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Semenza et al BL 2005

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Semenza et al BL 2005
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  The (neuro)-psychology of mass and count nouns C. Semenza University of Trieste, Trieste, Italy Accepted 8 July 2005Available online 29 August 2005A basic distinction in our knowledge, already present in pre-lin-guistic infants, is that between compact, enduring things (objects) andthe stuff (substance) of which they are constituted. The former arecounted, the latter are measured. Most languages reflect this distinc-tion in the categories of   count  and  mass  nouns.Count nouns, like cat, chair or fork, apply (Macnamara &Reyes, 1994) to perceptual entities that in combination do notyield another entity of the same kind.  Mass  nouns, like water, saltor oil denote, instead, monadic entities whose boundaries areperceptually inaccessible: the samples to which they are appliedare taken as constituting in combination another sample. Thestructure of substances, designated by mass nouns, is arbitrary,while the structure of objects, designated by count nouns, is notarbitrary.In languages like English, French or Italian, syntactic propertiesalso distinguish the two lexical categories of mass and count nouns (seeGillon, 1992). Cardinal numerals and quasi-cardinal numerals (e.g.,several) modify count nouns, never mass nouns. Moreover, quantifierslike ‘‘little’’ or ‘‘much’’ modify mass nouns, never count nouns,whereas ‘‘few’’ and ‘‘many’’ modify count nouns, never mass nouns.Count nouns admit a morphological contrast between singular andplural; mass nouns do not, being almost always singular. The pronoun‘‘one’’ may have as its antecedent a count noun, not a mass noun.Mass nouns with singular morphology do not tolerate the indefinitearticle, whereas singular count nouns do. Finally, mass nouns occuronly with plural form of those quantifiers whose singular and pluralforms differ.A categorical organization of noun processing has been shown tobe supported in the brain in many instances (Semenza, 1999; Pulver-mueller, 1999): the main question addressed here is whether count andmass nouns are differentially processed in the brain. Neuropsycholo-gical investigations conducted so far are recent and relatively few.Significant findings concern morpho-syntactic, conceptual, semantic,and lexical aspects, while anatomo-physiological studies are even morelimited.The most convincing findings distinguishing mass and count nounsin neuropsychological literature concern morpho-syntactic aspects.Indeed, Grossman, Mickanin, Onishi, and Hughes (1995) had shownthat early dementing patients are particularly sensitive to subtle syn-tactic distinctions such as those mentioned for mass and count nouns.In the first single case extensive report addressing this issue, a patient,whose grammar was otherwise perfect, was described, who, as a con-sequence of focal brain damage, showed an isolated deficit in the use,across a series of tasks, of the grammatical properties of mass nouns(Semenza, Mondini, & Cappelletti, 1997). Mondini, Jarema, andLiguori (2004) have recently reported the reverse pattern: their patientexhibited a general syntactic deficit while his performance was flawlessin mass/count syntactic tasks. An interesting finding has been reportedby Vigliocco, Vison, Martin, and Garret (1999): anomic patients maybe able to apply proper mass/count lexical-syntactic rules to wordsthey cannot retrieve.At a general, conceptual level, mass kinds were found (Borgo &Shallice, 2003) to associate with living entities rather than with artifactswithin a herpes encephalitis patient’s memory disorder. A dissociationbetween mass and count nouns at the semantic and lexical level hasbeen difficult to find. Indeed, in lexical retrieval past studies suggestthat mass and count nouns may be supported by largely overlappingregions. Repeated investigations, in fact, involving a considerablenumber of aphasic patients, found only one subject, who had a hugeleft hemisphere lesion, featuring an over time stable, reliable dissoci-ation (count worse than mass) in naming the two categories (Semenza,Mondini, & Marinelli, 2000).An ERP investigation (Steinhauer, Roumyana, Newman, Gennari,& Ullman, 2001) has demonstrated that count (vs. mass) nouns elicit afrontal negativity which is independent of the N400 marker for con-ceptual-semantic processing, but resembles anterior negativities relatedto grammatical processing. ERPs may indeed turn out to be an ex-cellent means to study the mass/count contrast in anatomical/physio-logical terms. Tapping the time course of their processing seems, infact, a good way to distinguish these two categories. In fact, since theytogether account for most of the known world, they are likely tooverlap quite extensively in the brain space: the lack of clear doubledissociations between the two categories in lesion studies seems indeedto support this hypothesis.In summary, a very interesting linguistic domain, that concerningtwo important categories of words, has received relatively little at-tention in aphasiology. Among the reasons for this shortcoming onecan identify difficulties in testing confrontation naming with massitems, the subtlety of lexical/syntactic differences between the twocategories, and a largely overlapping anatomical representation. Thetime is however ripe for further research.Brain and Language 95 (2005) 88–89www.elsevier.com/locate/b&l E-mail address:  semenza@univ.trieste.it.0093-934X/$ - see front matter    2005 Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.doi:10.1016/j.bandl.2005.07.049  References Borgo, F., & Shallice, T. (2003) Category-specificity and featureknowledge. Evidence from new sensory-quality categories.  Cogni-tive Neuropsychology, 3/4/5 , 327–353.Gillon, B. S. (1992) Towards a common semantics for English countand mass nouns.  Linguistic and Philosophy, 15 , 597–639.Grossman, M., Mickanin, J., Onishi, K., & Hughes, E. (1995). Anaspect of sentence processing in Alzheimer’s disease: quantifier-noun agreement.  Neurology, 45 , 57–65.Macnamara, J., & Reyes, G.E. (1994)  The logical Foundation of Cognition . Oxford University Press: Oxford.Mondini. S., Jarema, G., & Liguori, F. (2004) Semantics and syntax of mass and count nouns: Data from aphasia and dementia.  Brain and Language, 91 , 138–139.Pulvermueller, F. (1999) Words in the brain’s language.  Behavioral and Brain Science, 22 , 253–336.Semenza, C. (1999) Lexical semantic disorders in aphasia. In G. Denesand L. Pizzamiglio (Eds.)  Handbook of Clinical Neuropsychology, pp. 215–244.Semenza, C., Mondini, S., & Cappelletti, M. (1997) The grammaticalproperties of mass nouns: An aphasia case study,  Neuropsycholo- gia ,  35 , 669–675.Semenza, C., Mondini, S., & Marinelli, K. (2000) Count and massnouns: Semantics and syntax in aphasia and Alzheimer disease. Brain and Language, 74 , 428–429 . Steinhauer, K., Roumyana, P., Newman, J., Gennari, S., & Ullman,M. (2001) How the mass counts: An electrophysiologicalapproach to the processing of lexical features.  Neuroreport, 12 ,999–1005.Vigliocco, G., Vison, D. P., Martin, R. C., & Garret, M. F. (1999): Is‘‘count’’ and ‘‘mass’’ information available when the noun is not?An investigation of the tip of the tongue states in anomia.  Journal of Memory and Language, 40 , 534–558. Abstract / Brain and Language 95 (2005) 88–89  89
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