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Licensed Unlicensed Requires Authentication Published by De Gruyter Mouton December 23, 2014

Vision verbs dominate in conversation across cultures, but the ranking of non-visual verbs varies

Lila San Roque EMAIL logo , Kobin H. Kendrick , Elisabeth Norcliffe , Penelope Brown , Rebecca Defina , Mark Dingemanse , Tyko Dirksmeyer , NJ Enfield , Simeon Floyd , Jeremy Hammond , Giovanni Rossi , Sylvia Tufvesson , Saskia van Putten and Asifa Majid
From the journal Cognitive Linguistics


To what extent does perceptual language reflect universals of experience and cognition, and to what extent is it shaped by particular cultural preoccupations? This paper investigates the universality~relativity of perceptual language by examining the use of basic perception terms in spontaneous conversation across 13 diverse languages and cultures. We analyze the frequency of perception words to test two universalist hypotheses: that sight is always a dominant sense, and that the relative ranking of the senses will be the same across different cultures. We find that references to sight outstrip references to the other senses, suggesting a pan-human preoccupation with visual phenomena. However, the relative frequency of the other senses was found to vary cross-linguistically. Cultural relativity was conspicuous as exemplified by the high ranking of smell in Semai, an Aslian language. Together these results suggest a place for both universal constraints and cultural shaping of the language of perception.

Received: 2013-9-30
Revised: 2014-5-26
Accepted: 2014-7-23
Published Online: 2014-12-23
Published in Print: 2015-2-1

©2015 by Walter de Gruyter Berlin/Munich/Boston

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