Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Typology of Motion Verbs

Typological studies of word order (SVO, SOV, VSO etc.) are mainly syntactic, while the typology of motion verbs also involves semantics and lexicalization of meaning.

There are two main categories of languages when it comes to the use of motion verbs: verb-framed and satellite-framed languages.

Motion verb phrases in satellite-framed languages like English typically convey not only motion, but manner or cause as well.

The man ran into the house.
(manner and direction)

Theoretically, Indo-European languages (except Romance languages), Finno-Ugric languages and Chinese are satellite-framed languages.

Verb-framed languages, however, typically use motion verbs that do not convey information about the manner or cause, but express the path of motion:

O homem voltou para casa correndo.

In this case, the manner is conveyed by means of the gerund "correndo", a peripheral element that is not really part of the motion verb.

Romance languages, Semitic languages, Japanese and Korean, for instance, are considered verb-framed languages.

This is not to say that a satellite-framed language like English does not have motion verbs that convey the path rather than the manner, but most of them are borrowed from French: enter, exit, pass, among many others. On the other hand, verb-framed languages are fully capable of expressing manner by means of the aforementioned peripheral gerunds, for instance. Then, what is the exact distinction between the two categories?

This question may be answered with the notions of foregrounding and backgrounding. Whenever verb-framed languages include information about manner, as in the case of "correndo" in the example in Portuguese, this information is highlighted, foregrounded. Nonetheless, when satellite-framed languages include information about path, the information may still remain backgrounded. The inclusion of foregrounded information in a sentence is "more energy-demanding", and it is said that speakers are less prone to do so. Because of that, while verb-framed languages like Portuguese and Spanish seldom include information about manner, satellite-based languages like English and Hungarian often include information about both manner and path.

I've designed an experiment to test this hypothesis and published it in a Facebook Group called "Polyglots". I asked volunteers to describe the pictures below in their native languages:

Illustration by Cynthia Lanzetti

Here are some of their responses:

European Portuguese: O cão tentou morder o homem.
Mas o homem conseguiu fugir para dentro de casa.

French: Sur la première photo, un homme est poursuivi par un chien. Sur la deuxième photo, cet homme se réfugie dans une maison.

Hungarian: 1. a férfi fut a kutya elől a ház felé, miközben a felhő nevet. 2. a férfi befut a házba a kutya elől, miközben a nap nevet.

German: Der Himmel ist bewölkt und der Hund jagt den Mann in Richtung des Hauses. Als der Mann in das Haus flüchtet und der Hund ihm hinterher bellt, beginnt die Sonne zu scheinen.

Dutch: De hond achtervolgt de man naar het huis, terwijl de hemel bewolkt is. Zodra het de man is gelukt om in het huis te vluchten, blaft de hond hem achterna en de zon begint de schijnen.

Spanish:  Un hombre es perseguido por un perro, por lo que corre para entrar a su casa.

Polish: 1. Facet ucieka do domu przed wściekłym psem. 2. Facet dobiegł do domu, a pies przestraszył sie wejść do środka.

Italian: Nella prima vignetta, un uomo sta scappando da un cane e le nuvole sono felici. Nella seconda, l'uomo è riuscito ad entrare in casa ed è il sole ad essere felice.

(Thanks to everyone who participated in the experiment! I've recorded all of your responses for future use.)

NB: Unfortunately, the faces on the cloud and the Sun have attracted more attention than they should and, because of that, some respondents did not emphasize the motion element in their sentences. Not their fault, though, the faces are pretty funny!

And here are some questions I'm asking my students:

1. Do you think these responses match the categorization described above?
2. Think of more examples in your native language. Do motion verbs in your idiolect convey manner, path or both? Does your answer match the categorization for your language?
3. Can you perceive any change in usage over the last few years? Is your language becoming more verb-framed or satellite-framed?

Becoming aware of this distinction is of special importance to translators who translate from a satellite-framed language to a verb-framed one or vice-versa. In most cases, professional translators must use periphrases to convey manner or path in languages that belong to different categories. This is, by the way, one more reason why a particular translated text may sound "strange" or "awkward" - because the (perhaps unseasoned) translator has kept the same syntax/motion verb/conveyance of manner or path as in the original language.

Lastly, one should be aware that any typological statement must always be taken with two grains of salt. Languages are much more organic than the corpora-based quantitative results used in Language Typology, and usage may vary widely throughout time and space. However, these linguistic stereotypes are useful to understand why groups of languages use similar structures to convey the same meaning and to realize how meaning and linguistic structure spread by means of language contact.

Thanks for reading this!

Rafael Lanzetti

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