Abstract and concrete sentences, embodiment, and languages

Claudia Scorolli, Ferdinand Binkofski, Giovanni Buccino, Roberto Nicoletti, Lucia Riggio, Anna Maria Borghi

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


One of the main challenges of embodied theories is accounting for meanings of abstract words. The most common explanation is that abstract words, like concrete ones, are grounded in perception and action systems. According to other explanations, abstract words, differently from concrete ones, would activate situations and introspection; alternatively, they would be represented through metaphoric mapping. However, evidence provided so far pertains to specific domains. To be able to account for abstract words in their variety we argue it is necessary to take into account not only the fact that language is grounded in the sensorimotor system, but also that language represents a linguistic-social experience. To study abstractness as a continuum we combined a concrete (C) verb with both a concrete and an abstract (A) noun; and an abstract verb with the same nouns previously used (grasp vs. describe a flower vs. a concept). To disambiguate between the semantic meaning and the grammatical class of the words, we focused on two syntactically different languages: German and Italian. Compatible combinations (CC, AA) were processed faster than mixed ones (CA, AC). This is in line with the idea that abstract and concrete words are processed preferentially in parallel systems -abstract in the language system and concrete more in the motor system, thus costs of processing within one system are the lowest. This parallel processing takes place most probably within different anatomically predefined routes. With mixed combinations, when the concrete word preceded the abstract one (CA), participants were faster, regardless of the grammatical class and the spoken language. This is probably due to the peculiar mode of acquisition of abstract words, as they are acquired more linguistically than perceptually. Results confirm embodied theories which assign a crucial role to both perception-action and linguistic experience for abstract words.

Original languageEnglish
Article numberArticle 227
JournalFrontiers in Psychology
Issue numberSEP
Publication statusPublished - 2011


  • Abstract concepts
  • Cross-language comparison
  • Embodiment
  • Parallel
  • Processing
  • Social-linguistic experience

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Psychology(all)


Dive into the research topics of 'Abstract and concrete sentences, embodiment, and languages'. Together they form a unique fingerprint.

Cite this