Considerable stability of the meanings associated with concrete nouns is arguably important for their effective use. On the other hand, variability is observed across time, individuals, and communicative contexts. This study examined the balance between stability and flexibility in meanings of common, basic level artifact nouns by evaluating speaker differences in their use as a function of age, education, and gender. Diverse samples of monolingual Dutch- (N 400) and French-speaking (N 300) Belgian adults made lexical category judgments for pictures of storage containers. Mixture IRT-analyses revealed the presence of latent groups of categorizers related to age but not gender or education in each language. In both languages, older adults relied more on traditional materials such as glass or cardboard in their judgments, whereas younger adults emphasized relatively new materials such as plastics. This generational difference demonstrates how elements of word meaning can shift over the short-term, linking individual to larger scale variation and providing the foundation for meaning evolution over time.

Word meaning, Semantic change, Artifact categories, Categorization, Basic level categories, Individual differences,
Journal of Memory and Language
Department of Psychology

White, A, Storms, G, Malt, B. C., & Verheyen, S. (2018). Mind the generation gap: Differences between young and old in everyday lexical categories. Journal of Memory and Language, 98, 12–25. doi:10.1016/j.jml.2017.09.001