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The Lexicalisation of Perceptual Experience

Project description

How languages evolve to reflect our experiences

Language is the method of human communication – either spoken or written. To accommodate new ideas and inventions, language is constantly evolving. To reflect our experiences and changing lives and cultures, it’s not just the words that change but how we use them. The EU-funded LexPex project will delve into the question of whether our cognitive architecture plays a role in constraining the variability of language. This interdisciplinary project will investigate how basic perceptual experiences like seeing, hearing and smelling are encoded by verbs across languages. It will also examine whether cognitive biases shape aspects of this lexical field.


Previous research suggests there may be underlying regularities in how languages encode perceptual experiences and in how perceptual language evolves over time. This points to the possibility that our cognitive architecture plays a role in constraining the variability in this domain of language. Substantiating this is highly relevant for the cognitive sciences, in light of recent proposals that many aspects of cognition may be more culture-specific than previously thought and that there are few, if any, universals of language. The present project takes up this goal by investigating how basic perceptual experiences (e.g. seeing, hearing, smelling) are encoded by verbs across languages and examining whether cognitive biases shape aspects of this lexical field. First, I will undertake a large-scale typological survey of perception verb lexicons to assess the extent to which they exhibit systematic patterns. Second, I will extend the search for regularities to the phylogenetic dimension, by examining whether perception verb vocabulary evolves along the same constrained pathways across three language families. Third, I will provide the first behavioural evidence to bear on the question of whether recurrent typological patterns in perception verb lexicons have their origins in cognitive biases, by conducting a novel artificial language learning experiment. This interdisciplinary project represents an ideal synergy between my research profile (linguistic typology, language change, psycholinguistics), the supervisor’s (Prof. Asifa Majid, cross-cultural psychology, word meaning) and that of the partner institution supervisor (Prof. Fiona Jordan, evolutionary and linguistic anthropology). Through its novel contribution to lexical typology, cognitive psychology, and language evolution, and by its advanced training in state-of-the-art technical skills, the project offers the ideal opportunity to relaunch my scientific career following a three-year hiatus raising two children.


Net EU contribution
€ 201 352,26
Wellington square university offices
OX1 2JD Oxford
United Kingdom

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South East (England) Berkshire, Buckinghamshire and Oxfordshire Oxfordshire
Activity type
Higher or Secondary Education Establishments
Other funding
€ 0,01

Participants (1)