Construal of motion events and linguistic relativity: Comparing German and Spanish speakers

University essay from Lunds universitet/Kognitiv semiotik; Lunds universitet/Masterprogram: Språk och språkvetenskap

Abstract: This thesis investigates a possible influence of language on thought in the domain of motion event descriptions using a cognitive-semiotic framework. Previous studies (e.g., von Stutterheim et al., 2012) have claimed that speakers of languages who construe situations as temporally ongoing through morphological aspect tend to focus more on the action itself and less on other details such as possible endpoints than speakers of languages without morphological aspect. Such differences in linguistic construal also seemed to enhance memory of the landmarks in question: a form of linguistic relativity. There are, however, a number of theoretical and empirical issues surrounding such claims. While previous studies have focused extensively on endpoints, this study explored whether the assumptions about endpoints could also be extended to starting points. To test for linguistic relativity effects, the study consisted of two tasks: a description and a memory task. Speakers of German (no morphological aspect) and Spanish (morphological aspect) were presented with a series of short video clips of everyday motion events and asked to describe these. Subsequently, screenshots of the target items were used to check the speakers’ memory of the landmarks. The findings revealed that Spanish speakers indeed linguistically construe the events as temporally ongoing to a much higher degree than the Germans speakers. This, however, did not correlate with a lesser encoding of landmarks, where both language groups mentioned equally many landmarks. Further, while both speaker groups remembered endpoint-landmarks to a similar extent, starting point-landmarks were better remembered by the Spanish speakers. Finally, a positive correlation between landmark mentioning and memory was observed irrespective of language. Thus, the results show that linguistic construal may indeed enhance memory. However, they also justify the need to distinguish between different kinds/levels of construal that influence our conception a given situation, which, in return, may affect memory, amounting to a rather weak form of linguistic relativity.

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