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Cognitive Semiotics

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The influence of native language word order and cognitive biases in pictorial event representations

Anu Vastenius / Joost van de Weijer / Jordan Zlatev
Published Online: 2016-05-07 | DOI: https://doi.org/10.1515/cogsem-2016-0004


Ever since Goldin-Meadow, S., C. Mylander, W. C. So, and A. Özyürek. 2008. The natural order of events: How speakers of different languages represent events nonverbally. PNAS 105: 9163–9168. proposed that there is a preferred order in sequential non-verbal event representations (Actor > Patient > Act), apparently independent of the default word order in one’s native language, the topic has been the focus of much cognitive-semiotic research. After providing a partial review of the field, we describe an empirical study investigating the order of pictorial representations of motion events using a design that emphasized the linearity of the representations to a greater extent than Goldin-Meadow et al. (2008). Speakers of Swedish (default word order: Actor > Act > Patient, or SVO) and speakers of Kurdish (default word order: Actor > Patient > Act, or SOV) participated in the study. Unlike earlier studies, we found an effect of native language word order. The Swedish speakers preferred to place the Patient picture after the Act picture, especially after first describing the stimuli verbally. In contrast, the Kurdish speakers preferred Act after Patient both with and without verbalization. The results of the study suggest that any cognitive or communicative biases for particular constituent order in non-verbal representations are likely to be modulated by linguistic word order, at least in populations reliant on written language in their daily lives.

Keywords: constituent order; word order; non-verbal representations; thinking for speaking; motion events; linguistic relativity


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About the article

Anu Vastenius

Anu Vastenius is a doctoral student at the Division for Cognitive Semiotics, Centre for Languages and Literature, Lund University. Her research interests are experimental semiotics, linguistic relativity, gesture studies, and language evolution.

Joost van de Weijer

Joost van de Weijer obtained his Ph.D. from the Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics in 1998. He is currently employed at the Department of Linguistics and Phonetics and at the Laboratory of the Humanities, both at Lund University. His main research interests are experimental linguistics and quantitative data analysis.

Jordan Zlatev

Jordan Zlatev is Professor of General Linguistics, working at the Division for Cognitive Semiotics, Centre for Languages and Literature, Lund University. His research focuses on language as a predominantly conventional semiotic system for communication and thought in relation to other semiotic systems and consciousness. He is the author of Situated Embodiment: Studies in the Emergence of Spatial Meaning (1997), co-editor of The Shared Mind (2008) and Moving Ourselves, Moving Others (2012), and has published over 60 articles in peer-reviewed journals and books.

Published Online: 2016-05-07

Published in Print: 2016-05-01

Citation Information: Cognitive Semiotics, Volume 9, Issue 1, Pages 45–77, ISSN (Online) 2235-2066, ISSN (Print) 1662-1425, DOI: https://doi.org/10.1515/cogsem-2016-0004.

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