Language Affects How We Perceive Motion

Andrew Warner reports on a new study examining cross-linguistic semantic differences in verbs of motion

The way our native language employs verbs of motion—words like “go,” “run” or “descend”—may have an effect on how we perceive those motions, according to a study published in Neuropsychologia.

According to the study, different languages can encode different semantic information in their verbs of motion—in this sense, languages fall into two camps: manner-verbs and path-verbs. English tends to encode the manner in the verb form—for example, the verbs “run” and “roll” focus on the manner in which the subject is moving. Spanish verbs of motion, on the other hand, focus more on the path that a subject follows—to express manner, an adverbial expression is often appended after the verb phrase.

To explain, researchers used the Spanish sentence, “El perro entra la casa rápidamente,” which would be translated word-for-word into English as “The dog enters the house quickly,” with the verb “enter” emphasizing the path or direction in which the subject moves. Although this is a perfectly grammatical English sentence, English speakers are far more likely to generate the sentence “The dog runs into the house,” with the verb “run” emphasizing the manner of the movement. Other languages that prefer manner verbs include Polish, German, and Dutch; other path verb-dominant languages include Japanese, Turkish, and Korean.

When the researchers showed English speakers grammatically constructed sentences that mimicked the path-oriented structures (or when they showed the opposite to Spanish speakers), they found that the brain responded as if the sentences were ungrammatical. Using an electroencephalogram to analyze electrical activity in the subjects’ brains, the researchers found that these less common, though still grammatical, sentences were processed by the brain as errors, because they violated the subjects’ expectations of how the sentence would normally be formed.

The study was conducted by a team of researchers in the Psychology Department of Georgia State University, who performed a series of perceptual experiments on speakers of English and Spanish, two languages which tend to encode slightly different meanings in their most frequent verbs of motion.

“Our study, with its neural approach, has the potential to expand our knowledge of the effect of language on motion event processing in several important ways,” the paper reads.

The team hopes to conduct similar experiments with speakers of other languages, as well as bilingual English and Spanish speakers, to get a better look at how the language we speak subtly impacts our view of the world around us.

1 COMMENT

  1. Perhaps motion words are used to bridge the reductio ad absurdum of any attempt to describe movement. (Zeno’s Paradox of The Arrow). Calculus provided a way to subject movement to mathematical modelling as Newton established the foundation of Physics. Perhaps it is the other way around. Shared physiology of perception affects the nature of language. It certainly appears to explain why human languages can translate one to the other.

    Our method of perceiving movement is intermittent. We assume movement although, strictly, we cannot entirely perceive it. This is our way of doing what numbers do in calculus- except calculus is vastly more precise- where we choose to move our heads making the background a blur looking at a moving object and, if we decide not to move our heads, the object is blurred.

    However this approach is utterly unacceptable to modern linguistic philosophers who consider our shared physiology of perception utterly irrelevant to language which they appear to believe has not absolute basis beyond arbitrary cultural relativist criteria.

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