Monday, April 15, 2013

Talmy: Toward a Cognitive Semantics (2000)

It appears that Leonard Talmy has put the whole manuscript for his book Toward a Cognitive Semantics (2000) online. That's nice of him.

I've just had a brief look at chapter 5, which is about figure/ground relations. It contains some pretty funny and telling linguistic examples. Unfortunately, it doesn't seem to include any psychological evidence, though.

Even so, I'd still like to show a few of his examples because they bring out his point so neatly.

I Put My Mouth Around the Food

He argues that some things are inherently more likely to be used as grounds. This is illustrated with contrasts like
    1. The bike is near the house.
    2. *The house is near the bike. (p. 314)
    1. The TV antenna was above the house.
    2. ?The house was below the TV antenna. (p. 317)
    1. My sister resembles Madonna.
    2. ?Madonna resembles my sister. (p. 318)
    1. Clark Kent is Superman.
    2. ?Superman is Clark Kent. (p. 318)
    1. y = 3x2 + 1
    2. 3x2 + 1 = y (p. 320)
    1. He dreamt while he slept.
    2. *He slept while he dreamt. (p. 324)
Being an old-school linguist, Talmy of course sums up the lesson learned from these examples with a story about universal principles of cognition and the like. That's all fine and good, but you can probably already predict what that story is going to look like based on these examples.

Before the Bomb Exploded, I Pushed the Button

One thing I found really thought-provoking was Talmy's discussion of how before and after are expressed in the native American language Atsugewi. According to his gloss, these relations are expressed in a way that literally translates as the following (p. 323, my italics):
  • Having-eaten, we left. (= We left after we ate.)
  • Still not having-left, we ate. (= We ate before we left.)
Notice that all four sentences actually mean the same thing (in a strictly logical sense).

But I for one needed some time to even see that. Time is difficult.

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