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Review of  Perception and Cognition in Language and Culture

Reviewer: Thiago Costa Chacon
Book Title: Perception and Cognition in Language and Culture
Book Author: Alexandra Y Aikhenvald Anne Storch
Publisher: Brill
Linguistic Field(s): Semantics
Cognitive Science
Issue Number: 24.2864

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This volume focuses on descriptive and functional-typological issues of how languages code perception and cognition in the lexicon, grammar and discourse. It is the outcome of an international interdisciplinary workshop, “Migration of Ideas”, held at University of Cologne in 2010. The book has a substantial introduction by the editors plus nine chapters contributing original data and analysis from languages in three distinct regions of the world: West Papua and New Guinea, South America, and Africa, the latter represented by six chapters. A diverse set of contributions treat two main theoretical questions:

(1) lexicalization patterns of perception verbs, their grammatical nuances, and the semantic complexity of different domains of perception and cognition (cf. Viberg 1983, Sweetser 1990, Evans and Wilkins 2000);

(2) evidentiality, mirativity, and modality (cf. Chafe and Nichols 1986, DeLancey 1997, 2001, 2012, Aikhenvald 2004, 2012).

Seven chapters address primarily (1), while (2) is the main concern of Chapters 3 and 4, and to a lesser extent Chapter 2. Cognition is discussed with regards to verbs denoting cognitive processes and emotions, but more often it comes up as a secondary issue arising from its relationship to perception verbs, mirativity and evidentiality. Culture is discussed in the points of correlation between social norms, worldview, and pragmatic principles concerning the linguistics of perception and cognition.

I assess each chapter individually, followed by an overall evaluation.

Chapter 1: Linguistic expression of perception and cognition: a typological glimpse, Alexandra Y. Aikhenvald and Anne Storch.

This forty-page introduction surveys different frameworks for investigating perception in languages and its correlation with cognition and culture, with a rich, diverse discussion of different types of data. Section 1 anticipates key issues that are treated in the book and sets the relativistic spirit and typological orientation of the book, illustrated by a citation from Franz Boas (1938: 132) that “languages differ not in what one can say but rather in what kind of information must be stated”.

Section 2 discusses how evidentiality, mirativity and other grammatical means for coding information source, types of information and types of knowledge. The relevance of perception to evidentiality is highlighted by systems in which a “visual evidential” contrasts with a “non-visual evidential” and the case of evidentials dedicated exclusively to one particular modality of perception other than vision (p. 7), despite the fact that in most languages it is actually firsthand vs. non-firsthand information source that forms the basic semantic opposition. Subsection 2.2 focuses on the coding of information source through other grammatical means, mainly demonstratives. Cognition comes into discussions of mirativity (defined as a way to express a type of information that is surprising or new to the speaker or hearer’s unprepared mind), information source, and as a by-product of epistemic extensions of some evidentials (e.g. degrees of certainty), a fact that recalls earlier insights into evidentiality as an ''attitude toward knowledge'' (Chafe 1986).

Section 3 deals with the lexical expression of perception and cognition. It offers informative cross-linguistic discussions about verbs referring to the five traditional sensory-perception modalities: seeing, hearing, touching, smelling and tasting. An excellent summary of the semantic complexity and polysemy of verbs of perception and cognition is presented along with an overview of how context and grammar can frame the function of these verbs. The section also discusses how languages code perception and cognition by means other than verbs, such as by body part terms, ideophones and discourse practices, which serve as link between the linguistic perspective of perception and cognition and culture. Culture is centrally discussed in Section 4, which explores how cultural norms from different societies treat the different senses in everyday social interactions, knowledge systems, and cosmological beliefs, highlighting the importance of seeing/eye versus hearing/ear and perceiving/body in different cultures and languages.

The heart of the chapter, though, lies in the discussion of the main typological studies of perception verbs: Viberg (1983), Sweetser (1990), and Evans and Wilkins (2000). Following the seminal work of Evans and Wilkins (2000), the authors show several cases that contradict Sweetser’s claim that “vision -- rather than other senses -- is the only source of semantic extensions from perception to cognition” (p. 21).

With regard to Viberg’s typological investigation, two main points of criticism are highlighted: (1) Viberg’s three typological parameters for the typology of perception verbs (ACTIVITY-CONTROLLED, EXPERIENCE-UNCONTROLLED and COPULATIVE/STATE) are criticized as being often “a corollary of the construction in which one single lexeme is used” (p. 20). Despite the fact that the authors’ claims are empirically well grounded, they do not, in fact, invalidate Viberg’s parameters, which can capture important cross-linguistic lexical distinctions (e.g., ‘listen to’ [activity-controlled] vs. ‘hear’ [experience-uncontrolled]) and grammatical implications (e.g., ‘he is looking at/*seeing the birds’ [‘look at’ = activity; ‘see’ = experience]). (2) Viberg’s claim of the unidirectionality of intrafield extensions yielded by the hierarchy SEE > HEAR > TOUCH > SMELL/TASTE is regarded as being weakened by “a dubious assumption of intrafield polysemies” (p. 20) and falsified by counterexamples. Instead of endorsing traditional concepts such as “polysemy” and the opposition between “intrafield” (i.e. across different perception domains) versus “transfield” (from perception to cognition) semantic extensions, the authors suggest as an alternative the intentionally vague terms of “meaning complex” and “semantic systems”. This seems to work well for cases of generic verbs such as ‘to perceive’, which cover multiple perception and cognitive domains, but it may be less useful when diachronic or synchronic data can elucidate a basic or prototypical meaning, and corresponding paths of semantic extensions. Reported case as counterexamples to Viberg’s “intrafield” semantic extensions are Maslova (2004) and Chapter 7 of this volume.

In the conclusion, the rich and diverse lexical system of sensory-perception expression is contrasted with the more limited closed grammatical system of evidentiality, suggesting few common threads between the two. Observations about the cultural motivations underlying the ranking of vision or hearing as culturally more important are accompanied by complex generalizations on the correlation between language and culture. The concluding words point out that “no ‘hierarchy’ of senses is universal” (p. 37), i.e., that each of the five senses can be primary and preferential according to different linguistic and pragmatic circumstances.

Chapter 2. Knowing, smelling and telling tales in Luwo,
Anne Storch

This chapter provides an overview of different lexical, grammatical and discourse phenomena related to perception and cognition in Luwo, Southern Sudan. It describes a small evidential system that contrasts firsthand and non-firsthand information source. The semantic overtone of non-firsthand evidential is interpreted as a type of inference. Perception is presented as a diverse lexical phenomenon which, in addition to the verbs expressing the five sensory means of perception, also covers an array of smell terms analyzed as an independent word class and a list of verbs related to fine-grained nuances in the perception of taste. Moving to cognition, Luwo has a dedicated ‘know’ verb. This verb’s derived stem refers to olfactory perception when it occurs in a sort of middle verb construction involving an anticausative derivation. The correlation of ‘know’ with ‘smell’ contradicts the general tendency in the language for cognition to be expressed by other, polysemous verbs with a high degree of agentivity and telicity based in visual experiences (e.g. ‘see’, ‘find out’, ‘detect’, ‘realize’, ‘discover’). This correlation is also unusual typologically. The chapter closes with an eloquent analysis of ideophones in narrative contexts; in Luwo, ideophones mostly refer to things one can see; they are both an important tool for storytellers and important resources in the transmission of cultural knowledge.

3. Source of information and unexpected information in !Xun -- evidential, mirative and counterexpectation markers,
Christa König

This chapter describes four non-obligatory clitics coding evidentiality, mirativity and counter-expectation in !Xun, a fairly isolating Central Khoisan language. Evidentials contrast firsthand versus non-firsthand information, the latter including overtones of inference, assumption, modality and even mirativity. The mirativity marker is used when the speaker expects that what is being stated will cause surprise to the addressee; it is also used to highlight the main point within a narrative. The counter-expectation marker has a function that is ambiguous between mood and a deontic modality; it is structurally similar to the imperative mood construction and expresses the idea that the situation presented by an utterance should not be taking place. Markers of evidentiality, mirativity and counter-expectation occur in the modality slot of !Xun verbs, where one also finds epistemic and deontic modals. These facts, along with the optionality of the entire system and the overlapping semantics and syntax with modality and mood, suggest that evidentiality, mirativity and counter-expectation bear a very close relationship to mood and modality in the language. This supports König’s initial statement that the !Xun system encodes “aspects of information”, a broader and welcomed perspective that allows for a more holistic treatment of cognition and grammar.

4. A Quechuan mirative?,
Willem F.H. Adelaar

This chapter provides a comprehensive analysis of mirativity in Tarma Quechua and related languages. Markers coding mirativity are part of the tense paradigm, though “this is related to grammatical organization, rather than to genuine temporal semantics” (p. 100). Mirativity in Tarma Quechua is similar to the same category in !Xun (Chapter 3) in the sense it codes new or unexpected information for the addressee and not necessarily for the speaker. It can be combined with any aspectual category, as well as with the “certainty” and “reported” evidentials, but never with the “conjectural” evidential since “mirativity refers to facts or events that are not in doubt” (p. 103). Mirativity cannot be combined with negation in Tarma Quechua, just like aspect morphemes, which do not co-occur with negation. There are complex grammatical interactions between the category of mirativity and the semantic focus on the addressee. This leads Adelaar to ask whether the Tarma Quechua mirative should be equated with the miratives described elsewhere in the typological literature or whether it should be analyzed as a different category. Resemblances between the Quechua and !Xun miratives (Chapter 3) point to a need for refining the definition of mirativity cross-linguistically.

5. Seeing, hearing and thinking in Korowai, a language of West Papua,
Lourens de Vries

This chapter analyzes the linguistics of perception and cognition in Korowai, a non-Austronesian language of West Papua. It focuses on how Korowai speakers can communicate about events of seeing, hearing, thinking and inner states, and contextualizes perception and cognition within the lexicon, grammar and culture. De Vries highlights the Korowai view of the “opacity of the mind of others” (p. 117) and relates this to the behavior of perception verbs, their extensions into the domain of cognition, and the different lexical and grammatical ways that speakers can talk about thinking and emotional inner states. There is one verb for hearing and another for seeing, and both code controlled and uncontrolled ‘seeing/looking’ and ‘hearing/listening’. They also code meanings related to the social domain (e.g., ‘watch over’, ‘pay attention’) and cognition (e.g., ‘know’, especially in perfective/resultative aspect), provided the object of the verb is visible or audible. ‘Thinking’ (including emotional inner states) as a controlled event takes intestine-related idioms and a verb referring to ‘shoot, plant, insert’. The verb ‘say’ is also used to refer to controlled thinking in quotative constructions, often accompanied by idioms referring to guts, gall and intestines. Uncontrolled thinking is expressed through a copula/inchoative verb and intestine-related nouns; syntactically, the “thinking person” is demoted to an experiencer role in non-subject function.

6. Perception and cognition in Manambu, a Papuan language from New Guinea, Alexandra Y. Aikhenvald

Aikhenvald presents a clear and thorough grammatical and semantic analysis of the linguistics of perception and cognition in Manambu, an Ndu language of New Guinea. Two verbs of perception are discussed: ‘seeing’, which also codes ‘look, taste, experience, try, read’; and ‘hearing’, which also refers to ‘listen, smell, obey, think about, worry, remember’. There is also a more specialized ‘touch’ verb, and two cognition verbs: ‘understand, know’ and ‘think that X, have an opinion’. The locus of cognitive and emotional activities or states is the “inside” (i.e. ‘core, liver, bone marrow’, etc.). Cognition and perception verbs are analyzed as a special class of verbs. Sub-meanings within seeing and hearing verbs are analyzed on the basis of grammatical frames, such as case markings, imperatives, directional, reduplication and combination with body parts (eye and ear). On the basis of grammatical and semantic distinctions, Aikhenvald analyzes ‘sight’ as the basic meaning of the polysemous seeing verb, but the verb referring to hearing is treated as more complex and no basic meaning can be distinguished between perception and cognition, contrary to the rationale of semantic extensions in the typological literature. Aikhenvald concludes that ‘seeing’ is actually a special lexeme, given its semantic uniqueness when compared to hearing and other verbs in that language, which tend to have a generic meaning. She suggests that the uniqueness of ‘seeing’ has analogues in Manambu culture, where sight is marked as a source of power and threat.

7. From body to knowledge: perception and cognition in Khwe-||Ani (Central Khoisan),
Matthias Brenzinger and Anne Maria Fehn

This chapter explores the semantics of perception verbs in three closely related Khoisan languages, Kwe, ||Ani and T’sixa, and further compares them with other neighboring and related languages. The chapter provides an elaborate connection between language and culture, and an interesting debate about the typology of perception and cognition. Kwe-||Ani has verbs covering the entire set of perception modalities: specific verbs referring to ‘see’ and to ‘hear’ and another verb referring to the other sensorial modalities, ‘taste; smell; touch’. This verb is analyzed as a generic verb, with a principle meaning “perceive food”, but with extensions into internal and external feeling, “covering a mode of perception that is essentially ‘holistic’” (p. 162). The intrafield extensions of this verb are analyzed as being from ‘taste’ to ‘smell’ and ‘touch’, contradicting Viberg’s (1983) hierarchy, where one would expect the ‘smell’ verb to extend to ‘taste’. While all verbs of perception can extend into the cognitive domain, usually through serial verb constructions with the verb ‘know’, the verb referring to ‘smell; taste; touch’ is seen as having primacy over the other perception verb in transfield extensions. The authors argue that the primacy of ‘smell; taste; touch’ in perception and cognition is strongly related to a holistic cultural and linguistic understanding of “body-perception” and “perception of the world” (i.e. knowledge and cognition) in Khoeid cultures. This is found in other domains of the language of cognition as well; for example, the verb “to know” also refers to “forehead”.

8. Perception verbs and their semantics in Dongolawi (Nile Nubian),
Angelika Jakobi and El-Shafie El-Guzuuli

This chapter focuses on the description of the lexical expression of perception verbs and their extensions into cognitive and social domains in Dongolawi, a language spoken in the Nile Valley in Northwen Sudan. Closely following Viberg’s (1983) typology, the authors illustrate how the five sensory perception modalities are lexicalized by different verbs as predicates that code activity-oriented, experience-oriented and phenomenon-oriented expressions of perception. Attention is also given to how different grammatical frames condition the meaning of perception verbs. While seeing is the sole perceptual predicate with semantic extension into the cognitive domain (‘seeing’ can refer to ‘examining, checking, finding out, thinking about’), the language includes a more diverse and specialized set of cognition verbs.

9. Excite your senses -- glances into the field of perception and cognition in Tima,
Gertrud Schneider-Blum and Gerrit J. Dimmendaal

This chapter discusses the meaning and grammar of perception and cognition verbs in Tima, an endangered language spoken in the Nuba Mountains in Sudan. The authors explore the different ranges of meanings of perception verbs following Viberg’s (1983) typological parameters. The language has verbs denoting each of the five modalities of sensory perception. These verbs do not form a special lexical subclass. The authors pay careful attention to the grammatical differences between each verb and in the grammatical processes involved in the semantic extensions of perception verbs, such as the use of a high-transitivity marker, ideophones, pluractionality, instrumental constructions, antipassive, telicity, tense/aspect and constituent order. The verb ‘see’ may also refer to ‘watching, looking, taking care of, considering; the verb ‘hear’ may also refer to ‘listening, sounding, obeying’. The language also has dedicated lexical items referring to touching, tasting and smelling. Cognition is expressed by independent verbs, specifically ‘think’ and cognitive extensions of the verb ‘find’, such as ‘discovering, remember, understanding, knowing, being acquainted with’.

10. Perception in Lussese (Bantu, J10),
Marilena Thanassoula
This chapter discusses perception as a holistic cultural and linguistic phenomenon in Lussese, an endangered Bantu language spoken in Uganda. Thanassoula shows that the verb “hear” has a rich polysemy, coding ‘hearing’ and ‘feeling/perceiving’, including tastes, odors, emotions and cognition (e.g., ‘understand’). More specifically, olfactory and gustatory perception is coded by the same set of verbs, which also code uncertainty on future matters and personal tastes (e.g., ‘like’). The verbs of visual perception are more restricted in meaning than the verb of auditory perception, but Thanassoula uses evidence from the rich terminology and detailed cultural evaluation of color terms to argue that the visual domain of perception should not be rendered as less complex than the auditory domain. In the conclusion, the author raises important questions about the methodology of linguistic description and typology, such as the validity of semantic hierarchies of senses and the assignment of a basic meaning for verbs with holistic semantics.

This book is an important contribution to deeper understanding of the linguistic expression of sensory perception and its correlation with cognition and culture. It brings fresh and diverse questions and approaches that in due time will help refine and expand previous research. The high points for me, as a descriptive linguist, are the following:

(i) A holistic approach to perception and cognition as a multimodal and fluid phenomenon, which allows for an analysis of perception as it is lexicalized in different terminological systems (such as ideophones, color terms, terms for different tastes and textures, etc.) and in multiple grammatical nuances.

(ii) The relevance of emotions and inner states to the description of perception and cognition in different languages, suggesting a pattern that is central to expanding the discussion of perception and cognition.

(iii) The presentation of data that suggest extensions from perception to cognition from heterodox sensory modalities, such as ‘smell’ (chapter 2) and ‘taste’ (chapter 7), as well as unusual intrafield extensions, such as from ‘taste’ to ‘smell’ (chapter 7).

(iv) The use of cultural practice and worldview as explanatory bases for correlations between the lexicalization patterns and grammatical behavior of perception and cognition verbs, suggesting that in addition to transfield semantic extensions of perception to cognition (cf. Evans and Wilkins 2000), intrafield extensions and the semantic complexity of perception terms are also related to cultural standards (especially Chapters 2, 5, 6, 7 and 10).

The book provides potentially rich directions for the description and typology of perception and cognition, but it was not meant to provide a single, programmatic framework. Rather its best quality is the diversity of approaches for descriptive and typological investigation of sensory perception and its expression in the lexicon, grammar and discourse. It is also a valuable resource for anyone interested in learning from ongoing explorations into the interconnectedness of perception, cognition and culture. Chapter 1 gives the whole book coherence by highlighting research questions one faces when analyzing the linguistic expression of perception and cognition in individual languages, as well as the challenges surrounding the typology of perception verbs. Most of the descriptive chapters in this volume are centered on similar descriptive and functional-typological concerns, although they all present different methods and perspectives. Ultimately, this positively reflects distinct alternative approaches.

As the editors say throughout Chapter 1, typological investigation into the realm of perception and cognition is still in its early stages, and providing a clear-cut correlation between grammar, lexicon and culture is a complex task. This has certainly motivated the non-systematic, albeit original, highly informative and provocative typological and theoretical perspectives that we find throughout the book. Some books set frames, others expand them. The present book clearly belongs to the latter kind.

Aikhenvald, A. 2004. Evidentiality. Oxford/New York: Oxford University Press.

____. 2012. The essence of Mirativity. Linguistic Typology 16: 435-85.

Boas, Franz. 1938. Language. In General Anthropology, Franz Boas (ed.). Boston, New York: DC Heath. 124-45.

Chafe, W. 1986. Evidentiality in English conversation and academic writing. In Evidentiality: the linguistic coding of epistemology, ed. by Wallace Chafe and Johanna Nichols. Norwood, New Jersey: Alex Publishing. 261-72.

Chafe, W. and Nichols, J. 1986. Evidentiality: the linguistic coding of epistemology. Alex Publishing: Norwood, New Jersey.

DeLancey, S. 1997. Mirativity: The grammatical marking of unexpected information. Linguistic Typology 1: 33-52.

____. 2001. The mirative and evidentiality. Journal of Pragmatics 3: 371-84.

____. 2012. Still mirativity after all these years. Linguistic Typology 16: 529-64.

Evans, N. and D. Wilkins. 2000. In the mind’s ear: the semantic extensions of perception verbs in Australian languages. Language 76: 546-92.

Sweetser, Eve. 1990. From Etymology to Pragmatics. Metaphorical and Cultural Aspects of Semantic Structure. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Viberg, Åke. 1983. Verbs of perception: a typological study. Linguistics 21: 123-62.
Thiago Chacon is a linguist working on Amazonian languages. His research focuses on language description and typology, lexicography and historical-comparative linguistics. He has been involved with language documentation and conservation among Tukanoan languages in the Northwest Amazon and more recently on Yanomami languages.

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