Universal meaning extensions of perception verbs are grounded in interaction

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Universal meaning extensions of perception verbs are grounded in

Universal meaning extensions of perception verbs are grounded in interaction
Lila San Roque, Kobin H. Kendrick, Elisabeth Norcliffe and Asifa Majid
From the journal Cognitive Linguistics
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Apart from references to perception, words such as see and listen have shared, non-literal meanings across diverse languages. Such cross-linguistic meanings have not been systematically investigated as they appear in their natural home — informal spoken interaction. We present a qualitative examination of the semantic associations of perception verbs based on recorded everyday conversation in thirteen diverse languages. Across these diverse communities, spontaneous interaction provides evidence for two commonly-discussed extensions of perception verbs — perception~cognition, hearing~linguistic communication — as well as illustrating other meanings and functions (e.g., the use of perception verbs as discourse markers) that have been less appreciated heretofore. The range of usage that is readily observable in informal conversation makes it clear that this type of data must take center stage for the empirically grounded study of semantics. Moreover, these data suggest that commonalities in polysemous meanings may rely not only on universal cognition, but also on the universal exigencies of social interaction.
Keywords: perception verbconversationpolysemysocialitydiscourse marker;diversitysemantics
1 Introduction
Words have multiple meanings and contexts of use. In English one can speak of a sharp knife but also of a sharp taste, sound, or movement, each of which evokes a different but related sense of sharpness. Polysemy — broadly speaking, the possibility for a word to have several related interpretations — is thought to be a feature of all linguistic systems (e.g., Rabagliati et al. 2010), psychologically real (e.g., Pylkkänen et al. 2006), and integral to language change (e.g., Wilkins 1981Sweetser 1990Evans and Wilkins 2000). Examples of polysemy have been cited as evidence for both culture-specific and universal conceptual structures (e.g., Sweetser 1990Evans 1992), and as revealing general communicative and cognitive motivations for semantic stasis and change (e.g., Regier et al. 2016Xu et al. 2017). Within the cross-linguistic study of polysemy, the language of perception has received particular attention, as it represents the intersection of our common physiological basis for experience on the one hand, and the bountiful variety of human linguistic and cultural systems on the other (e.g., Howes 1991Classen 1997). It thus provides good purchase to examine how both cultural and biological forces shape the lexicon, provided that diverse languages are studied (Evans and Wilkins 2000Majid and Levinson 2011Majid et al. in press). In this study we take a cross-linguistic approach to polysemy that is grounded in conversational data, allowing us to further contemplate the possible role of “the interaction engine” (Levinson 2006) as a third powerful influence on how words expand their semantic and pragmatic range.
Polysemy is a linguistic habit practiced by everyone, every day. Take extended uses of English perception verbs as an example. It is common parlance to talk about hearing from someone who in fact made contact through a visual medium such as email; or to start a sentence with a peremptory Look, where no literal looking is required. Spontaneous spoken language is central to polysemy, as new senses of a word are thought to begin as products of pragmatic inference in interaction, and, through repeated instances, come to stick around as distinct meanings (Wilkins 1981Sweetser 1990Traugott and Dasher 2002Jansegers et al. 2015). Face-to-face conversation is also of considerable interest as regards the language of perception: conversation is a forum that enables interlocuters to calibrate and negotiate immediate perceptual experience through language; or, from a learner’s perspective, match linguistic labels to qualia (Dahl 2000;Levinson and Majid 2014). To date, however — owing in part to the scarcity of available corpora — semantic associations in informal conversation are under-studied, particularly from a cross-linguistic perspective. In this paper, we ask what connections in form and meaning are, in fact, evoked in (and by) everyday interaction, and whether we observe similar patterns across diverse languages.
We aim to contribute to the study of polysemy and the language of perception in three ways. First, building on a prior study of lexical frequency (San Roque et al. 2015), we showcase a procedure for the cross-linguistic study of polysemy in informal conversation. Second, we detail the semantic and pragmatic associations of perception verbs as found in conversational data from 13 languages, including five major national or international languages and eight under-studied indigenous languages of the Americas, Asia, Africa, and the Pacific. Third, we highlight “discourse” extensions of perception verbs that are not usually considered in the same context as referential polysemy. In doing so, we show that conversational data (as per Jansegers and Gries 2017Kendrick in press) point with renewed energy to the role of sociality in common extensions of perception verbs across languages and cultures. The cross-linguistic study of everyday talk can illuminate the intersubjective rationale for widespread semantic and pragmatic extensions of sensory language (e.g., those to do with cognition and attention) and empirically demonstrate that very general patterns (such as the typical uni-directionality of “intrafield” extensions) are nevertheless grounded in very particular moments of linguistically and culturally situated interaction. Informal conversation, with all its social and contextual baggage, thus emerges alongside individual cognition as a potential facilitator and arbiter of “universal” semantic relations.

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