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Constraints on events semantics across languages


Majid,  Asifa
Language and Cognition Department, MPI for Psycholinguistics, Max Planck Society;

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Majid, A. (2008). Constraints on events semantics across languages. Talk presented at the Workshop Foundations of Language Comparison: Human Universals as Constraints on Language Diversity. Bamberg University, Germany. 2008-02-27 - 2008-02-29.

Cite as: https://hdl.handle.net/11858/00-001M-0000-000F-093D-D
Are semantic categories determined primarily by universal principles (such as perceptual and cognitive predispositions), or are they relatively free to vary (depending on cultural, environmental and historical circumstances)? Despite the long history of this question, there is still little consensus on what the answer might be. Previously established semantic universals are regularly challenged (e.g., Roberson, Davies, and Davidoff 2000 versus Kay and Regier 2003 on color; Majid, Enfield, and van Staden 2006 versus Wierzbicka 2007 on the body), and the outcome has still to be determined. Much of the previous debate has centered on relatively concrete domains, perhaps due to the implicit assumption that these are more likely to yield substantial universals (cf. Gentner, 1982). In this paper, I will draw on findings from two large-scale cross-linguistic projects based at the Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics, that demonstrate that there are non-trivial constraints in how relatively abstract entities – events – are semantically categorised across languages. The projects examine how events of “cutting and breaking” (Majid and Bowerman 2007) and “reciprocals” (Evans, Gaby, Levinson, and Majid in prep) are expressed in words (verbs) and constructions. In both projects, the starting point is an etic grid of event types – a set of videoclips – which vary along a number of parameters. The clips are used to elicit speaker descriptions from a range of geographically, genetically and typologically diverse languages. The descriptions are then analyzed using multivariate statistics. These techniques extract recurrent categorisation strategies found across languages, as well as identifying unusual patterns. They also quantify how much structure is shared – if any. The results suggest considerable uniformity in semantic categorisation across languages. For instance, for cutting and breaking events all languages recognize a dimension having to do with how predictable the location of separation in an entity will be. Categorization of reciprocal events shows more variation, with some quite different solutions to the problem of how to encode such events, but nevertheless recurrent semantic spaces emerge. Evans, N., Gaby, A., Levinson, S. C. and Majid, A. (in prep). Reciprocals and Semantic Typology. Amsterdam: John Benjamins Series Typological Studies in Language. Gentner, D. (1982). Why nouns are learned before verbs: Linguistic relativity versus natural partitioning. In S. A. Kuczaj (Ed.), Language development: Vol. 2. Language, thought and culture (pp. 301-334). Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates. Kay, P., & Regier, T. (2003). Resolving the question of color naming universals. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 100, 9085-9089. Roberson, D., Davies I., & Davidoff, J. (2000) Colour categories are not universal: Replications and new evidence from a Stone-age culture. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, 129, 369-398. Majid, A., & Bowerman, M. (2007). “Cutting and breaking” events: A cross-linguistic perspective. Special issue of Cognitive Linguistics, 18(2). Majid, A., Enfield, N. J., & van Staden, M. (Eds.). (2006). Parts of the body: Cross-linguistic categorization [Special issue]. Language Sciences, 28, 137-359 Wierzbicka, A. (2007). Bodies and their parts: An NSM approach to semantic typology. Language Sciences, 29, 14-65.