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Diagrammatic iconicity explains asymmetries in Paamese possessive constructions

  • Simon Devylder EMAIL logo
From the journal Cognitive Linguistics


Grammatical asymmetries in possessive constructions are overtly coded in about 18% of the world’s languages according to the World Atlas of Language Structures What primarily motivates these grammatical asymmetries is controversial and has been at the crux of the “iconicity vs. frequency” debate This paper contributes to this debate by focusing on the grammatical asymmetries of Paamese possessive constructions, and looking for the primary motivating factor in their multidimensional experiential context. After a careful account of four experiential dimensions of distance (functional, affective, sociopragmatic, and embodied), the degrees of experiential distance are shown to systematically correspond to the degrees of formal distance of the possessive constructions used to refer to these experiences (e.g., direct or indirect suffixation of kinship and body part terms). Relevant anthropological and linguistic data concerning Paamese is used to explore whether this correspondence between language and experience is primarily motivated by iconicity or economy. I argue that diagrammatic iconicity is the primary motivating factor for the grammatical asymmetries in Paamese possessive constructions, and that economy can account for some, but not all cases. I also show that economy and iconicity can collaborate in motivating some cases, and thus do not necessarily need to be opposed.


I am indebted to the Paamese People for welcoming me with open arms into their lives and for sharing their culture and language with great patience and enthusiasm. I am grateful to my consultants, in particular to Dorothy and Kunde Toka, and to Ruth and Sam Abel Kaiar. I am also grateful to my colleagues from the cognitive semiotics and linguistics divisions at Lund University, and to Jordan Zlatev and to Nele Põldvere in particular, for their most valuable feedback and advice on my work. I am very much indebted to Terry Crowley for his seminal work on Paamese, and would like to thank Editor-in-Chief John Newman, Assistant Editor Claudia Heinrich, and three anonymous reviewers, for their insightful comments. This research was partially supported by the Swedish Research Council Grant 2015-01583, for the PATOM project ( at Lund University.


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Received: 2017-5-12
Revised: 2018-1-23
Accepted: 2018-2-4
Published Online: 2018-5-5
Published in Print: 2018-5-25

© 2018 Walter de Gruyter GmbH, Berlin/Boston

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