Call for Papers: Workshop on Animacy in Language and Cognition

  • 24 Jul 2015 10:56
    Message # 3447710

     Workshop on Animacy in Language and Cognition

    November 9, 2015

    University of Leeds


    Deadline for Abstracts: 14 September 2015

    This workshop aims to bring together researchers from linguistics and other disciplines in order to explore the relationship between language and animacy. Most, if not all, of the world’s languages exhibit “animacy effects”, whereby grammatical structures interact with the relative animacy of noun referents, as represented on hierarchies or scales of varying degrees of granularity, with human discourse participants (first and second person) at one end and inanimate objects at the other (Silverstein 1976; Dixon 1979; Lockwood & Macaulay 2012). Ample cross-linguistic evidence demonstrates that animacy conditions a wide range of (typically gradient) linguistic phenomena, including object case-marking, word order, form of reference, case splits, “inverse” alignment and affixation, agreement, pronoun selection, argument structure patterns, thematic structure and classifier systems.

    Adjacent fields have contributed much to the understanding of why animacy plays such a central role across linguistic domains. Psycholinguistic research has shown that animacy plays a significant role in online language processing and production tasks (e.g. Branigan et al. 2008, Lamers & de Hoop 2005, Mak et al. 2006). Animacy and closely related concepts are seen to have important effects in language acquisition. Very young infants have been shown to be sensitive to properties relevant to animacy (Rakison & Poulin-Dubois 2001), yet the distinction between animate and inanimate undergoes refinement and reorganisation over the course of cognitive development (Gelman & Opfer 2010). Some anthropologists and ethnobiologists interested in the way human cultures establish taxonomies to classify the  natural world (Medin & Atran 1999) see “folkbiology” as an innate property of human cognition and a cultural universal. In evolutionary terms, animacy may be closely related to the conceptualisation of an individual conspecific who persists through time, which may have yielded an adaptive advantage in primates (Dahl 2008, Leopold & Rhodes 2010).

    While there is a broad consensus that sensitivity to animacy is a property central to human cognition, its role in the grammars of the world’s languages is less agreed upon. Within cognitive-functional approaches to linguistics, animacy is seen as a functional primitive which plays a part in structuring human grammars; these theories appeal to human perceptual biases and other functional properties of cognition as forces which shape the form of the world’s languages (Yamamoto 1999; Croft 2003; Dahl 2008; Kittilä, Västi & Ylikoski 2011). In generative linguistics, animacy effects tend to be seen as belonging outside the domain of grammar. Generative analyses of these phenomena usually invoke (binary) feature specification, deternined either through lexical semantics or compositionally (e.g. Chomsky 1965, Woolford 1999, Folli & Harley 2008), or incorporate markedness hierarchies (Aissen 2003). While animacy clearly interacts with grammatical features, assessing the contribution of animacy itself is not a straightforward task within any theoretical approach.

    The aim of this workshop is to increase our understanding of animacy and its role in human language(s) and cognition. We welcome papers which take a broader theoretical and interdisciplinary approach to animacy effects on language in order to explore questions such as the following:

    • How did the cognitive underpinnings of animacy evolve in our primate ancestors, and how did this interact with the emergence and evolution of language?
    • How does the cognitive development of distinctions based on animacy shape and support language acquisition?
    • To what extent should animacy be seen as a linguistic feature independent of contrasts related to personhood or prominence, including definiteness, individuation vs collectivity, specificity, etc.?
    • Animacy effects related to the human vs non-human contrast are well-attested in human grammars, but what sorts of linguistic contrasts do we find based on distinctions at the lower end of the animacy hierarchy?
    • Can generative linguists increase the descriptive adequacy of their models by invoking gradience or other non-binary feature specification in analysing animacy effects?
    •  How does folkbiological classification of biological animacy in the natural world map onto linguistic animacy hierarchies?


    Abstracts should not exceed one A4 or US Letter page with 2.5 cm or 1 inch margins in a 12pt font. All examples and references in the abstract should be included on the one single page, but it is enough, when referring to previous work, to cite 'Author (Date)' in the body of the abstract; you do not need to give the full reference.

    Please submit abstracts by email to by 14 September 2015.


    Diane Nelson, Linguistics and Phonetics, School of Languages, Cultures and Societies, University of Leeds

    Virve Vihman, School of Psychological Sciences, University of Manchester

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