2004, Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics
Narasimhan, Bhuvana; Bowerman, Melissa; Brown, Penny; Eisenbeiss, Sonja; Slobin, Dan
The concept of 'event' has been posited as an ontological primitive in natural language semantics, yet relatively little research has explored patterns of event encoding. The study of Bhuvana Narasimhan and her team at the MPI for Psycholinguistic explored how adults and children describe placement events (e.g., putting a book on a table) in a range of different languages (Finnish, English, German, Russian, Hindi, Tzeltal Maya, Spanish, and Turkish). Results show that the eight languages grammatically encode placement events in two main ways, but further investigation reveals fine-grained crosslinguistic variation within each of the two groups. Children are sensitive to these finer-grained characteristics of the input language at an early age, but only when such features are perceptually salient. Our study demonstrates that a unitary notion of 'event' does not suffice to characterize complex but systematic patterns of event encoding crosslinguistically, and that children are sensitive to multiple influences, including the distributional properties of the target language in constructing these patterns in their own speech.