CORDIS - EU research results

Abstraction. Unlocking meaning from experience, through language.

Project description

Towards a deeper understanding of the mechanisms of language abstraction

Humans use words to communicate concepts that vary in concreteness (banana is concrete, hunger is abstract) and specificity (banana is specific, food is generic). Concreteness and specificity are the two variables involved in the mechanism of abstraction. The EU-funded ABSTRACTION project will investigate the effects of concreteness and specificity. Researchers will use an innovative gamification technique to collect specificity data for thousands of words in English and Italian. They will then run behavioural experiments and statistical analyses to explain how specificity interacts with concreteness in the human mind. Findings will be of great importance to cognitive science and AI research.


Words, language's building blocks, are labels that define different types of categories. Some words define categories of concrete entities (cats, tables) while others define abstract entities (legacy, empathy). Some words define generic categories that encompass many different entities (vehicles, art) while others define more specific ones (sport cars, Impressionism).

To unlock meaning from experience, we construct different types of categories through mechanisms of abstraction. Concreteness and specificity are the two variables that support abstractions.

However, when investigating the mechanisms and effects of abstraction, scholars from different fields typically focus only on specificity or only on concreteness. Relying on different and partial definitions of abstraction, the debate across scientific communities is impaired and the theoretical development is jeopardized. This is also due to the fact that human-generated resources to measure specificity do not exist.

The ABSTRACTION team will collect specificity data for thousands of words in 2 languages (English and Italian) through an innovative gamification technique. Using this data and other lexical resources, we will run extensive statistical analyses aimed at explaining how specificity interacts with concreteness in:

- Thought, to explain contrasting findings that have been previously attributed to concreteness alone
- Language, to construct texts that are optimally clear and informative for the target readerships
- Creativity, to construct effective metaphors in different contexts

ABSTRACTION will explain how word specificity and concreteness enable us to unlock meaning from experience and achieve the higher-order generalizations on which much of our thinking and talking relies. This is a hot topic in cognitive science, where the grounding of abstract concepts is an open question, and in AI research, where it is still unknown how machines may construct and use concepts in the way humans do.

Host institution

Net EU contribution
€ 1 392 265,00
40126 Bologna

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Nord-Est Emilia-Romagna Bologna
Activity type
Higher or Secondary Education Establishments
Total cost
€ 1 392 265,00

Beneficiaries (1)