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The cross-linguistic categorization of everyday events: A study of cutting and breaking

Majid, A., Boster, J. S., & Bowerman, M. (2008). The cross-linguistic categorization of everyday events: A study of cutting and breaking. Cognition, 109(2), 235-250. doi:10.1016/j.cognition.2008.08.009.
The cross-linguistic investigation of semantic categories has a long history, spanning many disciplines and covering many domains. But the extent to which semantic categories are universal or language-specific remains highly controversial. Focusing on the domain of events involving material destruction (“cutting and breaking” events, for short), this study investigates how speakers of different languages implicitly categorize such events through the verbs they use to talk about them. Speakers of 28 typologically, genetically and geographically diverse languages were asked to describe the events shown in a set of videoclips, and the distribution of their verbs across the events was analyzed with multivariate statistics. The results show that there is considerable agreement across languages in the dimensions along which cutting and breaking events are distinguished, although there is variation in the number of categories and the placement of their boundaries. This suggests that there are strong constraints in human event categorization, and that variation is played out within a restricted semantic space.
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