How language influences the way we categorize hybrids

Yeshayahu Shen, David Gil

Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingChapterpeer-review


A hybrid is an entity conceived of as a fusion or inseparable combination of components associated with two or more distinct entities, the hybrid’s parents. A major subtype is visual hybrids, represented in two- or three-dimensional images such as drawings or statues; e.g., the mermaid, combining the top half of a woman with the bottom half of a fish. Visual hybrids are ubiquitous in art, religion, folklore and popular culture world-wide, and have been around since the dawn of civilization. Whereas the hybrid’s parents are typically well-known entities belonging to familiar categories, the hybrid itself is, or at least starts out as, a novel and unfamiliar entity whose categorial membership is not immediately obvious. We address the question whether one of the hybrid’s parents is more central to its conceptualization and if so, which one, surveying a series of studies conducted over the past several years investigating the processes involved in the categorization of visual hybrids. Our focus is on the Ontological Hierarchy: humans > animals > plants > inanimates. We examine the extent to which there is a tendency for hybrids to be categorized in accordance with the parent that is higher on the Ontological Hierarchy (e.g., man-bird as a kind of man, not a kind of bird). Our main finding is that the Ontological Hierarchy is indeed relevant to the conceptualization of hybrids; however, it is crucially dependent on the medium in which the categorization takes place. Specifically, the verbal medium, when present in various experimental tasks, enhances the Ontological-Hierarchy effect. The results of our studies thus provide support for a cognitive architecture consisting of two major levels, with a basic nonverbal level of conceptualization providing the foundations for a higher level of conceptualization associated with the linguistic medium.

Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationHandbook of Categorization in Cognitive Science
Number of pages24
ISBN (Electronic)9780081011072
StatePublished - 1 Jan 2017


  • Hybrids
  • Ontological hierarchy
  • Verbal priming


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