When: Wednesday 12 December, 13.00–14.30
Where: C 397, Södra huset, Frescati


The last decades has shed new light on the variability of semantic categories across cultures. However, a complete account of categorization has to be able to account for both cross-linguistic variation while taking into consideration the developmental trajectory that children must go through to become adult-like in their behavior. For example, Russian speakers distinguish two shades of blue with distinct words (i.e., goluboy and siniy) but English speakers typically name all shades of blue with a single term, blue. In memory and perception, adult speakers also behave in ways concordant with their lexical semantic categories. A similar pattern is seen in the categorization of sounds.
While English and Dutch speakers, for example, describe pitch variation in term of height (i.e., high vs. low), Farsi and Turkish speakers use a different spatial metaphor and describe pitch variation in terms of thickness (i.e., thick vs. thin). And in non-linguistic tasks, speakers behave in accordance with their linguistic categories too.

Prelinguistic infants are not blank slates when it comes to the categorization of color and sound. They appear to have discrete categories and can map cross-modally. So, what exactly are the categories that infants begin with, and how exactly do they become language-specific as adults? Do children begin with all categories that are expressed in all languages - akin to what is found in phonology - and later come to lose distinctions? Or do they only start with a subset - perhaps those that are found commonly across languages - and then build from there? This talk reviews the state-of-the-art on this developmental puzzle.

Asifa Majid received a Ph.D. from the University of Glasgow in 2001. She has been a Visiting Scholar at a number of institutions and is currently a fellow at Swedish Collegium for Advanced Study, Uppsala. In her research, Majid investigates concepts in language and cognition by conducting large-scale crosscultural studies and by tracing the way in which concepts develop over a child’s lifetime within different cultural contexts. She has focused on a number of semantic domains; from simple perception to concrete objects and from more complex dynamic events to the navigation of spatial expanses.

Majid has utilized state-of-the-art methods in several large-scale cross-linguistic projects, as well as conducting fieldwork on Jahai, a minority language of the Malay Peninsula. The results of these investigations have been published in a number of peer-reviewed journals, such as Cognition, Psychological Science, and Cognitive Linguistics. Her work is notable for its attempts to bridge disciplinary gaps, as is evident from the special issues she has co-edited, for example “Parts of the Body: Cross-linguistic Categorisation”, a special issue of Language Sciences (2006); “Cutting and Breaking Events: A Crosslinguistic Perspective”, a special issue of Cognitive Linguistics (2007); and “The Senses in Language and Culture”, a special issue of The Senses & Society (2011). She was recently a recipient of the VICI grant from the Netherlands Organisation for Scientific Research (NWO).

Maria Koptjevskaja Tamm  & Tomas Riad