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Rebecca Defina defends thesis on events in language and thought

Events occur all around us in continuous streams of activity, yet we think and talk about them as discrete units. How do we segment events into these units and how do conceptual and linguistic event units relate to each other? Rebecca Defina explored these questions by studying Avatime serial verb constructions and the ways they relate to conceptual event units. She will defend her thesis entitled “Events in language and thought: the case of serial verb constructions in Avatime” on November 3rd.
Rebecca Defina defends thesis on events in language and thought

Serial verb constructions are a type of syntactic construction which combines multiple verbs within a single clause; similar to the English “I’ll go get it”. They have often been claimed to refer to single conceptual events but researchers have struggled to find a way to evaluate this claim. Defina employed multiple methods from linguistics and psychology to test the relationship between serial verb constructions and single conceptual events across three different kinds of thinking: during speaking, memory, and perception. The investigation focused on serial verb constructions in one language: Avatime, a language spoken by around 15,000 people in Ghana.

The relationship between serial verb constructions and single events was tested by analyzing the gestures people produced as they talked. The results show that Avatime serial verb constructions frequently occur with single gestures overlapping the entire construction but not with multiple event gestures. This is in contrast to other constructions which tend to occur with multiple gestures. This suggests Avatime serial verb constructions are, indeed, used to refer to what is being conceptualized as a single event.

This connection between serial verb constructions and single events can also be seen when people perceive events: Avatime speakers who had recently used serial verb constructions tended to segment events more holistically than those who had used a series of distinct clauses. Overall, Defina’s thesis demonstrates the connection between serial verb constructions and single conceptual events. More generally, her studies suggest an alignment between clausal units and conceptual event units during language use and also point to connections between linguistic and conceptual event representations which extend beyond situations of active language use.

Further information

  • Rebecca Defina will defend her thesis on Thursday, November 3 at 10.30 in the Aula of the Radboud University
  • The thesis appears in the MPI series (no. 113) and is available here.
  • For more information rebecca.defina@unimelb.edu.au
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