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Category Domain

Objects are not only located in physical space; they are also represented in a category domain that has its own quality dimensions (Gardenfors, 2000). If the physical domain represents where an object is, the category domain represents what it is.[1] The category domain is composed of a number of subdomains, such as color, size, and shape.

Although communicative coordination in the emotion and physical domains can be achieved without words, coordination in category space is, at the least, enhanced by the use of words. The first fifty or so words acquired by children are mainly category words for perceptually identifiable concrete objects: people, food, body parts, clothing, animals, vehicles, toys, and household objects (Fenson et al., 1994). They are often used in situations involving the joint attention of the child and an adult.

Hurford (2007, p. 224) has written that declarative pointing communicates only the location of an object and indicates nothing about its properties. This observation means that pointing may function without a shared category space having been established. Parents often scaffold children with words, in a situation of joint attention, to provide information about a category domain. As Goldin-Meadow (2007) and others have demonstrated, children combine pointing with words long before they rely on words alone. The words complement pointing or gaze-sharing and thus expand the possibilities for shared meaning domains in the communicative situation. The minds of the communicators meet in two ways: in the visual domain and in the category domain. Only later does the child learn words for abstract category domains such as kinship relations or money.

It is not well known how category space develops in children. Some cues can be obtained from children’s ability to learn nonsense words for new things (Bloom, 2000; Smith, 2009). There seems to be a shape bias in that the shape of objects seems to be the most important property in determining category membership for small children (Smith & Samuelson, 2006). Children also overgeneralize concepts (Bloom, 2000; MacWhinney, 1987).

From 18 through 24 months of age, children undergo what might be called a naming spurt, acquiring a substantial number of nouns for representing objects. Evidence suggests that, during this period, they also learn to extract the general shape of objects and that this abstraction helps in category learning (Smith, 2009; Son, Smith, & Goldstone, 2008). One interpretation is that the development of the shape domain, as a region of the category domain, strongly facilitates the learning of names for object categories.

  • [1] This distinction mirrors the products of the dorsal and ventral streams of visual processing in thebrain.
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