Event representations constrain the structure of language: Sign language as a window into universally accessible linguistic biases

Brent Strickland, Carlo Geraci, Emmanuel Chemla, Philippe Schlenker, Meltem Kelepir, Roland Pfau

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

67 Scopus citations

Abstract

According to a theoretical tradition dating back to Aristotle, verbs can be classified into two broad categories. Telic verbs (e.g., "decide," "sell," "die") encode a logical endpoint, whereas atelic verbs (e.g., "think," "negotiate," "run") do not, and the denoted event could therefore logically continue indefinitely. Here we show that sign languages encode telicity in a seemingly universal way and moreover that even nonsigners lacking any prior experience with sign language understand these encodings. In experiments 1-5, nonsigning English speakers accurately distinguished between telic (e.g., "decide") and atelic (e.g., "think") signs from (the historically unrelated) Italian Sign Language, Sign Language of the Netherlands, and Turkish Sign Language. These results were not due to participants' inferring that the sign merely imitated the action in question. In experiment 6, we used pseudosigns to show that the presence of a salient visual boundary at the end of a gesture was sufficient to elicit telic interpretations, whereas repeated movement without salient boundaries elicited atelic interpretations. Experiments 7-10 confirmed that these visual cues were used by all of the sign languages studied here. Together, these results suggest that signers and nonsigners share universally accessible notions of telicity as well as universally accessible "mapping biases" between telicity and visual form.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)5968-5973
Number of pages6
JournalProceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America
Volume112
Issue number19
DOIs
StatePublished - 12 May 2015
Externally publishedYes

Bibliographical note

Copyright - Copyright National Academy of Sciences May 12, 2015

Last updated - 2015-05-28

Keywords

  • Cognitive biases
  • Language universals
  • Sign language
  • Telicity

Fingerprint

Dive into the research topics of 'Event representations constrain the structure of language: Sign language as a window into universally accessible linguistic biases'. Together they form a unique fingerprint.

Cite this