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The human body in cognition, brain and typology


Majid,  Asifa
Language and Cognition Group, MPI for Psycholinguistics, Max Planck Society;

Enfield,  N. J.
Language and Cognition Group, MPI for Psycholinguistics, Max Planck Society;

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Majid, A., Van Staden, M., & Enfield, N. J. (2004). The human body in cognition, brain and typology. Talk presented at the Fourth International Forum on Language, Brain, and Cognition – Cognition, Brain, and Typology: Toward a Synthesis. Tohoku University, Sendai, Japan. 2004-09-12 - 2004-09-13.

The human body is unique: it is both an object of perception and the source of human experience. Its universality makes it a perfect resource for asking questions about how cognition, brain and typology relate to one another. For example, we can ask how speakers of different languages segment and categorize the human body. A dominant view is that body parts are “given” by visual perceptual discontinuities, and that words are merely labels for these visually determined parts (e.g., Andersen, 1978; Brown, 1976; Lakoff, 1987). However, there are problems with this view. First it ignores other perceptual information, such as somatosensory and motoric representations. By looking at the neural representations of sesnsory representations, we can test how much of the categorization of the human body can be done through perception alone. Second, we can look at language typology to see how much universality and variation there is in body-part categories. A comparison of a range of typologically, genetically and areally diverse languages shows that the perceptual view has only limited applicability (Majid, Enfield & van Staden, in press). For example, using a “coloring-in” task, where speakers of seven different languages were given a line drawing of a human body and asked to color in various body parts, Majid & van Staden (in prep) show that languages vary substantially in body part segmentation. For example, Jahai (Mon-Khmer) makes a lexical distinction between upper arm, lower arm, and hand, but Lavukaleve (Papuan Isolate) has just one word to refer to arm, hand, and leg. This shows that body part categorization is not a straightforward mapping of words to visually determined perceptual parts.