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LINGUIST List 24.2109

Sat May 18 2013

Review: Cognitive Science; Semantics; Syntax; Typology: Kopecka & Narasimhan (2012)

Editor for this issue: Rajiv Rao <rajivlinguistlist.org>

Date: 18-May-2013
From: Lilián Guerrero <lilianguerreroyahoo.com>
Subject: Events of Putting and Taking
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Book announced at http://linguistlist.org/issues/23/23-2665.html

EDITOR: Anetta Kopecka
EDITOR: Bhuvana Narasimhan
TITLE: Events of Putting and Taking
SUBTITLE: A crosslinguistic perspective
SERIES TITLE: Typological Studies in Language 100
PUBLISHER: John Benjamins
YEAR: 2012

REVIEWER: Lilián Guerrero, Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México


This book appears in John Benjamins Publishing Company’s well-respected ‘Typological Studies in Language’ series. As with other titles in this series, the overall goal is to offer a comprehensive study of what is at the forefront of the topic under investigation. This volume stands as the first systematic exploration of semantic categorization of placement and removal events. The book is divided into a preface, an introductory chapter and sixteen papers organized into two sections. The first section, “Lexical Semantics”, examines whether, how, and to what extent speakers of different languages agree on how to distinguish between ‘put’ and ‘take’ events of different kinds. The second section, “(A)symmetries in the encoding placements vs. removal events”, explores the possible asymmetries in the linguistic encoding of goal-oriented verbs (e.g. ‘put’) versus source-oriented verbs (e.g. ‘take’). The contributions to this volume explore one or more of these themes on the basis of findings from a large-scale comparative study of how a standardized set of stimuli (‘Put and Take’, Bowerman et al. 2004) is encoded by speakers of nineteen areally, genetically, and typologically diverse languages.

In the preface, Stephen C. Levinson, one of the pioneers of semantic typology, establishes the importance of this volume for the structure of semantic fields across unrelated (and unrepresented) languages. The study of semantic concepts and linguistic categories based on cross-cultural variation began in the 1960s within the domain of color terms and kinship categories. Nonetheless, it took almost 30 years to extend the study to other, more complex semantic domains, e.g., the expression of topological relations and posture verbs (Levinson 2003; Levinson & Wilkins 2006; Ameka & Levinson 2007), the ‘cutting and breaking’ opposition (Majid & Bowerman 2007), the work by Newman on ‘giving’ (1998), ‘sitting, standing and lying’ (2002), and ‘eating and drinking’ events (2009), and the most recent study on reciprocals (Majid et al. 2011; Evans et al, 2011), among other topics. In this book, the semantic domain of interest is that of the encoding of reaching and placing events. The book comes directly from the Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics, of which the Language & Cognition Department has played a central role, not only in the study of language and cognition, but also in the development of stimuli and experimental methods used in semantic fields.

In the introductory chapter, “Putting and taking events. A cross-linguistic perspective”, Bhuvana Narasimhan, Anetta Kopecka, Melissa Bowerman, Marianne Gullberg and Asifa Mijid set up the complexity of the topic by first saying that the conceptualization of everyday experiences, such as putting things in places and removing them from places, poses profound intellectual challenges, especially for cross-linguistic comparison. Recent studies have shown that for some languages, it is essential to use position verbs that indicate how an object (i.e. ‘Figure’) is placed with regards to another object (i.e. ‘Ground, Landmark’), e.g., lying, standing, sitting. Thus, verbs encoding putting and taking an object under agentive control can be expected to respect many of these language-specific distinctions. To facilitate comparative analysis, the following terminology is used: placement (or ‘putting’) events are events in which an agent causes an object to move to a location; removal (or ‘taking’) events are events in which an agent causes an object to move away from a location; the ‘agent’ is the entity causing the motion; the ‘figure’ is the object that is caused to move; the ‘ground’ is the location with respect to which it moves; and the ‘path’ is the trajectory along which the object moves (e.g. into, onto, out of). This section also introduces the methodologies used to collect data in the respective field languages (e.g. the stimuli, the procedure, and the challenges involved in employing these elicitation techniques), and advances the major findings concerning three themes: (a) syntax-semantic mapping of core elements; (b) lexical semantics; and (c) asymmetries in the encoding of goal-oriented events vs. source-oriented events.

Each contribution to this volume begins with a brief introduction to the lexico-grammatical device the language under discussion provides for the expression of placement and removal events (e.g. compound verbs, verb particles, serial verb constructions, adpositional phrases, etc.), and discusses the syntax-semantics mapping(s) in the language; how ‘putting and taking’ information is typically distributed across different utterance constituents. Later, the particular papers explore one or both of the two specific themes; lexical semantics or asymmetries in the encoding of placement vs. removal events.

The first section begins with “The linguistic encoding of placement and removal events in Jahai”, an Austro-Asiatic (Malay Peninsula) language. Niclas Burenhult provides evidence of variation in how semantic roles are mapped onto syntactic constituents; in most situation types, Agent, Figure and Ground associate with particular NPs, but some events are described with semantically specialized verbs and /or linguistic descriptions, e.g., events of placement of the Agent’s own body part.

In “She from bookshelf take-descend-come-the box”, Jidong Chen shows that the majority of placement verbs in Mandarin (Sino-Tibetan) are directional verb compounds, taking two or three verbs in a fixed order: the first conveys object manipulation; and the second and third indicate the path of motion, including deixis. However, this highly productive process also shows certain constraints based on the goal of the placement (e.g. dressing verbs), figure-ground spatial relations (e.g. tight-fitting), as well as particular manner, intention and degrees of the Agent’s control situations.

In Penelope Brown’s contribution, “To ‘put’ or to ‘take’?”, the discussion focuses on verbs and other spatial vocabulary used for describing events of ‘putting and taking’ in Tzeltal (Mayan). As happens with locative descriptions, there are many different verbs for encoding placement and removal in Tzeltal, and verb choice is largely determined by the shape, orientation, and resulting disposition of the figure and ground objects. Additionally, goal-oriented verbs are lexically more finely distinguished in comparison with source-oriented verbs.

“The encoding of placement and removal events in ǂÁkhoe Haillom (Khoisan)” is the fourth contribution to this section. Christian J. Rapold provides evidence for a clear tendency to make detailed semantic distinctions in placement verbs, as opposed to semantically more general removal verbs; the former exhibit finer distinctions based on the identity or shape of the Figure moving, and its final position.

“The semantics of placement and removal predicates in Moroccan Arabic”, by Nadi Nouaouri, offers valuable observations concerning the distinction between accidental vs. deliberate events, on one hand, and a rich lexical-semantic distinction in goal-oriented predicates directed to factors such as attachment, control, and volition, on the other. In contrast, the posture of the Figure (e.g. sitting, standing, lying) is typically not specified in the linguistic descriptions of ‘putting and taking’ in Moroccan Arabic.

Iraide Ibarretxe-Antuñano, in “Placement and removal events in Basque and Spanish”, offers an interesting comparison of lexicalization and conceptualization facts among these two unrelated but in-contact languages. In addition to the expected influence of verb-framed lexicalization patterns, in both languages, the degree of force, causality and intentionality in conceptual elements proves to be crucial to the conceptualization of ‘putting and taking’.

The subsequent chapter, by Raphael Berthele, “On the use of Put verbs in multilingual speakers of Romansh”, compares the lexical semantics of Romansh (where there is a fairly general verb meaning ‘to put’) and German (where different positional verbs are used). Whereas there are almost no traces of German in the Romansh linguistic description of ‘putting and taking’ from German-Romansh bilinguals, it seems that their production of German yields uses of the verbs that differ from the typical German system, though their distribution may vary.

Marianne Gullberg and Niclas Burenhult, in “Probing the linguistic encoding of placement and removal events in Swedish”, provide evidence for three semantic patterns related to the nature of the Figure-Ground relationship based on whether or not: the Ground is represented by an Agent’s body part; the Figure is contained within the Ground; and the Figure is supported by the Ground. As a satellite-framed language type, Swedish uses particles to encode path. Interestingly, removal descriptions are overall more likely to co-occur with those particles than verbs in placement descriptions.

In “The semantic role of agentive control in Hungarian placement events”, Attila Andics claims that general verb choices cannot be explained in terms of spatial relations (e.g. containment and support) or spatial relation changes (e.g. joining and separation). On the contrary, lexical distinctions in Hungarian can be better described in terms of agentive control settings. Up to five major verb types are distinguished, including: ‘take’, ‘put’, ‘give’, ‘pout’, ‘throw’ and ‘make fall’.

In the next chapter, ‘Putting and taking in Tamil and Hindi’, Bhuvana Narasimhan characterizes the meanings and patterns of use of general or ‘light’ verbs to describe placement and removal events in Hindi (Indo-European) and Tamil (Dravidian). In these two unrelated but in-contact languages, there are at least two general verbs in the placement domain; Hindi also has two general source-oriented event verbs, while Tamil employs only one ‘supergeneral’ removal verb. The distribution of the two general ‘putting’ verbs seems to be determined, among other factors, by the nature of the Ground.

The second part of the book focuses on the distribution of goal-oriented and source-oriented events, e.g., predicates, adpositions, constructions, and so on. The asymmetry describing placement and removal verbs is the topic of the first two chapters. First, Alice Gaby, in “The Thaayorre lexicon of putting and taking”, argues that ‘putting and taking’ verbs can be subcategorized in Kuuk Thaayorree (Pama-Nyungan) according to whether they may combine with an NP encoding a goal, an NP encoding a source, or both. Interestingly, not only are goal-oriented verbs the most frequent combination in the sample, but they also encode more information regarding the nature of the event.

Second, Miyuki Ishibashi, in “The expression of ‘putting’ and ‘taking’ events in Japanese”, claims that the expression of source is less frequent than the expression of the goal in Japanese, but, if source is expressed, then it is morpho-syntactically more complex than goal. This suggests that removal events are more complex than placement events in their construal.

Stephen Levinson and Penelope Brown, in “Put and take in Yélȋ Dnye, the Papuan language of Rossel Island”, provide evidence for a very differently situation. In Yélȋ Dnye, ‘put and take’ events are treated symmetrically, i.e., there are as many distinctions in ‘taking’ as there are in ‘putting’ verbs. These predicates reflect the causative version of positional verbs that reflect a specific shape and canonical orientation of physical objects.

In “Take it up, down, and away”, Loretta O’Connor offers a structural and semantic analysis of the expression of caused motion in Lowland Chontal of Oaxaca. Here, ‘putting and taking’ are most often expressed with two-part compound stem predicates. The initial element gives details on the Figure, the Figure-Ground configuration, or the manner of motion, while the second element depicts the direction of motion (e.g. up, down, across, away) or the topological relation of the Figure with respect to the Ground. In the sample, there are more lexical verb types used to describe placement than removal and more lexical mentions of the Figure in removal events, but more lexical mentions of the Ground in placement event descriptions.

In the subsequent contribution, “Semantic granularity of placement and removal expressions in Polish”, Anetta Kopecka investigates lexical and grammatical devices used in the expression of placement and removal events in Polish in order to examine whether goal-oriented events are described in a more fine-grained way than source-oriented events. The data supports the hypothesis in general but also shows that the asymmetry between the two events is subtler, since speakers pay close attention to both sources and goals and encode them with comparable frequency in expressions of removal and placement.

The last paper in this section, “How to put and take in Kalasha”, by Jan Heegård Petersen, offers an interesting discussion about a symmetrical relationship between lexical items encoding ‘placement on’ and ‘removal from’ a supporting surface, but a lexical asymmetry expressing ‘placement in’ and ‘removal from’ an enclosure. In this Indo-Aryan language, ‘take’ verbs display a larger degree of linguistic elaboration of the Figure-Ground relation and the type of caused motion than ‘put’ verbs.


This volume offers a significant contribution to cross-linguistic studies within the field of semantic typology, and provides new insights to studies on causation, the typology of motion events, and the growing body of literature on posture and locative descriptions.

Previous cross-linguistic studies within the semantic domain have focused on ‘basic’ lexical items used to encode particular concepts. Within the domain of ‘cutting and breaking’, for example, it is said that languages categorize events into different numbers of groups, and posit category boundaries in different places (e.g. based on the locus of separation in the acted-on object, the manner of cutting, and so on), but these differences are outlined within a shared semantic space defined in terms of a few cross-linguistic dimensions of contrast (Majid, Boster & Bowerman 2008). Other studies have recognized that some semantic notions can also be distributed across elements in phrase- and clause-level constructions, in addition to the lexical content of verbs. Now, the linguistic encoding of placement and removal events may compromise either of the two patterns of conflation and distribution of semantic elements.

One of the major assessments of this volume is the fact that, by controlling the data under comparison using standardized stimuli, it is possible to explore a variety of potential semantic distinctions encoding ‘putting and taking’ events among unrelated languages: (a) the nature of the Figure (e.g. rigid vs. flexible); body part of the agent vs. separate object (granular vs. liquid vs. solid; size, shape, and so on); (b) the nature of the Ground: animate vs. inanimate, body part of the Agent vs. separate location (floor vs. higher levels, container vs. supporting surface); (c) the spatial relation between Figure and Ground: containment vs. support; the two tightly or loosely fitted to each other; Figure vertically vs. horizontally oriented with respect to Ground; (d) types of instruments; (e) manner (e.g. dropping, throwing, pouring, placing), which varies the agentive control over the Figure: whether control is retained until the Figure reaches its goal vs. relinquished before the Figure completes its motion.

Among the major findings, it is reported that the crosslinguistic patterns of conflation and the distribution of semantic elements involving ‘putting and taking’ events are complex enough that they cannot be explained in terms of a dichotomy, e.g., ‘verb-framed’ and ‘satellite-framed’ language types. Although there is considerable variation in the extension patterns used to describe various kinds of placement and removal events, there are also many commonalities among the types of semantic distinctions that recur across languages. With respect to asymmetries in the encoding of goal-oriented vs. source-oriented events, most articles provide evidence for a more precise description involving placement (i.e. goal-oriented) versus removal (i.e. source-oriented) predicates, though the latter may involve a more complex structure when expressed.

In sum, this volume contains an extensive yet careful examination of cross-linguistic data, as well as insightful discussions regarding the encoding used when placing objects in a standing or lying position, or removing said objects from these topological relations. All the papers are written by specialists on the respective languages using data they themselves gathered for the purpose of this investigation. The authors handle a variety of phenomena within the domains of motion and locative descriptions with extraordinary uniformity; the sixteen contributions are clearly organized, rigorously edited and very readable. In terms of readership, the book will be of interest to those seeking a comprehensive study of locative descriptions brought about by an external agent, particularly those concerned with language, cognition and language variation.


Bowerman, M., M. Gullberg, A. Majid, and B. Narasimhan. 2004. Put project: The crosslinguistic encoding of placement events. In Field Manual, Vol 9, A. Majid (ed), 10-18. Nijmegen: Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics.

Ameka, F.K. and S. C. Levinson (eds). 2007. The typology and semantics of locative predication: postural, positional and other beasts. Special Issue of Linguistics 45. Berlin: Mouton de Gruyter.

Evans, N. A. Gaby, S. Levinson, A. Majid (eds). 2011. Reciprocals and semantic typology [Studies in Typological Linguistics 98]. Amsterdam: John Benjamins.

Levinson, S. C., S. Meira, and the L&C Group. 2003. ‘Natural concepts’ in the spatial topological domain - Adpositional meanings in crosslinguistic perspective: an exercise in semantic typology. Language 79(3): 485-516.

Levinson, S. C. and D. Wilkins (eds). 2006. Grammars of space. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Majid, A. and M. Bowerman. 2007. Cutting and breaking events: A cross-linguistic perspective. Special issue of Cognitive Linguistics 18(2).

Majid. A. N. Evans, A. Gaby, and S. Levinson. 2011. The grammar of exchange: A comparative study of reciprocal constructions across languages. Frontiers in Cultural Psychology 2 (34), 1-15.

Newman, J. (ed). 2009. The Linguistics of Eating and Drinking. [Studies in Typological Linguistics 84]. Amsterdam & Philadelphia: John Benjamins.

Newman, J. (ed). 2002. The Linguistics of Sitting, Standing, and Lying. [Studies in Typological Linguistics 51]. Amsterdam & Philadelphia: John Benjamins.

Newman, J. (ed). 1998. The Linguistics of Giving. [Studies in Typological Linguistics 36]. Amsterdam & Philadelphia: John Benjamins.


Lilián Guerrero has a Ph.D. in Linguistics from the University at Buffalo. She is a full-time researcher at the Seminar of Indigenous Languages in the Instituto de Investigaciones Filologicas, Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México (UNAM). Her main academic interests have been related to the syntax and semantics of Uto-Aztecan languages spoken in Northwest of Mexico, in particular the Yaqui language. She is currently engaged in the study of certain properties of argument structure in simple and complex constructions, including the linguistic description of locative situations.

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