March 7th: Analyzing population data in Semantic Typology

Lab will meet this Friday, March 7th at 2 pm in Baldy 603 (NOTE: alternate time and location due to Linguistics Department colloquium). Juergen and PhD student Derry Moore will present. See abstract below for more details.

Analyzing population data in Semantic Typology

Dr. Juergen Bohnemeyer and Derry Moore

Semantic Typology, the study of linguistic categorization across languages, explores the syntax-semantics interface via linguistic variation and universals. To that end, Dr. Juergen Bohnemeyer has been leading a team of researchers in the project “Spatial language and cognition in Mesoamerica” (“MesoSpace”, for short) in investigating the use of spatial frames of reference and meronymies in languages spoken in and around the Mesoamerican sprachbund.

In his portion of the presentation, Bohnemeyer will present findings from the MesoSpace studies on the use of spatial reference frames in language and cognition. Data was collected from 11 populations: speakers of six Mesoamerican languages, two indigenous languages spoken to the north and southeast of the Mesoamerican area, and three varieties of Spanish spoken in Mexico, Nicaragua, and Barcelona, Spain. A series of mixed-model linear regression analyses of the responses to a referential communication task indicates that language, alongside literacy, is an irreducible factor in predicting frame use, contra Li & Gleitman (2002). It also suggests that the use of Spanish as a second language makes an irreducible contribution to the use of relative frames (a subtype of egocentric frames) in the indigenous languages, pointing toward language as one vehicle of the cultural transmission of cognitive practices of spatial reference.

MesoSpace Project members also ran a recall memory experiment with a larger number of participants from the 11 populations. Here, all of the New World populations responded predominantly geocentrically, including the Mexican and Nicaraguan Spanish speakers, even though these, as well as several of the indigenous populations, did not show a clear preference for either egocentric or geocentric coding during the linguistic task. We tentatively suggest that this finding may be in line with results from primate studies (Haun et al 2006), which point toward a geocentric bias in non-human primates. It is conceivable that this geocentric bias is weakly innate in all primates – human and nonhuman – but can be overridden by a learned, culturally (including linguistically) transmitted egocentric bias. A confirmation of this hypothesis would mean that we have come from the rationalist assumption that European-style spatial cognition is universal and innate and that culture is therefore irrelevant to the study of spatial cognition to the empirically motivated conclusion that the spatial cognition of Europeans is in fact quite exotic.

Building upon the MesoSpace line of research, Derry Moore’s Qualifying Paper project explores the interaction of linguistic vs. nonlinguistic determinants of reference frame use within a single linguistic variety, Western Pennsylvania English. Through multivariate statistical methods, his  project examines whether speakers from a single community correlate with each other across the variables of vowel production and reference frame use independent of a set of social and non-linguistic factors.

To this end, Moore conducted a series of tasks with five dyads of speakers from Punxsutawney, a small town located in Western Pennsylvania. The first task, Talking Animals, is a referential communication task designed for the MesoSpace Project by Randi Tucker in order to elicit reference frames from a large number of participants with the goal of exploring inter-speaker variation. The second task is also a referential communication task developed by Moore in order to elicit vowels in a set of target words. The final task was a simple socio-demographic survey.

In his part of the presentation, Moore will introduce his studies, methods, and collected data, as well as the current state of the project. He’ll then lead an open discussion with lab members about potential quantitative methods for this type of multivariate analysis.


Haun, D. B. M., Rapold, C., Call, J., Janzen, G., & Levinson, S. C. (2006). Cognitive cladistics and cultural override in hominid spatial cognition. PNAS, 103, 17568.17573.

Li, P. & L. Gleitman. (2002). Turning the tables: Language and spatial reasoning. Cognition 83(3), 265.294.


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