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Contributors:
  1. Jorie Koster-Hale
  2. Lindsay Yazzolino
Affiliated institutions: Johns Hopkins University

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Description: We examined the contribution of first-person sensory experience to concepts by studying the meanings of “visual” verbs in congenitally blind adults. Congenitally blind individuals (n=25) and aged-matched sighted controls (n=22) judged the semantic similarity for pairs of verbs (n=2041) referring to events of visual perception (e.g. "to peek”) and light emission (e.g. "to shimmer"). As control conditions, we included verbs of touch perception (“to feel”) and amodal knowledge acquisition (“to perceive”) as well as sound emission ("to boom") and manner of motion (“to roll”). The judgments of blind and sighted subjects for "visual" verbs were remarkably similar. Blind and sighted individuals alike differentiate “visual” verbs from verbs of touch, sound and amodal verbs. Among visual perception verbs, both groups differentiate between intense and continuous versus brief acts of visual perception (e.g. peek vs. stare) and differentiated light emission verbs according to dimensions of intensity (blaze vs. glow) and stability (blaze vs. flash). Interestingly, relative to the sighted, blind speakers on average had more consistent knowledge of touch perception and sound emission verbs. The results demonstrate that first-person sensory experience is not required for typical meaning acquisition, but communicative needs affect the likelihood that a given speaker knows the details of a particular word’s meaning.

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