How similar are semantic categories in closely related languages? A comparison of cutting and breaking in four Germanic languages

Asifa Majid 1 , Marianne Gullberg 2 , Miriam van Staden 3 ,  and Melissa Bowerman 4
  • 1 Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics, The Netherlands.
  • 2 Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics, The Netherlands.
  • 3 University of Amsterdam, The Netherlands.
  • 4 Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics, The Netherlands.


Are the semantic categories of very closely related languages the same? We present a new methodology for addressing this question. Speakers of English, German, Dutch and Swedish described a set of video clips depicting cutting and breaking events. The verbs elicited were then subjected to cluster analysis, which groups scenes together based on similarity (determined by shared verbs). Using this technique, we find that there are surprising differences among the languages in the number of categories, their exact boundaries, and the relationship of the terms to one another—all of which is circumscribed by a common semantic space.

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Cognitive Linguistics presents a forum for linguistic research of all kinds on the interaction between language and cognition. The journal focuses on language as an instrument for organizing, processing and conveying information. It is devoted to high-quality research on topics such as the structural characteristics of natural language categorization and the functional principles of linguistic organization.