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How words categorize the human body


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

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Majid, A. (2005). How words categorize the human body. Talk presented at Words and the World: How Words Capture Human Experience. Lehigh University, Bethlehem, PA. 2005-06-06 - 2005-06-07.

Cite as: https://hdl.handle.net/11858/00-001M-0000-000F-0951-E
The human body is unique - it is both an object of perception and the source of human experience. Its universality makes it a perfect resource for asking questions about how words capture human experience. For example, we can ask how speakers of different languages segment and categorize the human body. A dominant view is that body parts are "given" by perceptual discontinuities, and that words are merely labels for these perceptually determined parts (e.g., Andersen, 1978; Brown, 1976; Lakoff, 1987). However, there are problems with this view. A comparison of a range of typologically, genetically and areally diverse languages shows that the perceptual view has only limited applicability (Majid, Enfield & van Staden, in press). For example, using a "coloring-in" task, where speakers of seven different languages were given a line drawing of a human body and asked to color in various body parts, Majid & van Staden (in prep) show that languages vary substantially in body part segmentation. For example, Jahai (Mon-Khmer) makes a lexical distinction between upper arm, lower arm, and hand, but Lavukaleve (Papuan Isolate) has just one word to refer to arm, hand, and leg. This shows that body part categorization is not a straightforward mapping of words to "basic" perceptual parts.