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How language reveals what you're really saying: 'Interesting if it's language-independent'

In a conversation, you provide all sorts of information to the listener. For example, you can indicate that you're certain about something, or that you heard it through someone else. Associate Professor Jenneke van der Wal has been awarded a Vici grant to investigate whether the way people do this is language-dependent.

‘If I say, “You've brought your laptop,” with this intonation, it's not just about bringing the laptop and that you did it, but also about my surprise. The activity is different from what I would expect,’ Van der Wal explains. Providing this kind of additional information in a conversation is also called meta-information.

This meta-information can be inferred from the speaker's intonation, but can also be woven into the grammar. This is the case, for example, in Cinyungwe from Mozambique. ‘Where in Dutch we use the word “wel” (“It is a good idea, even if you might not think so”), Cinyungwe speakers can add a suffix to the verb to express the same thing,’ Van der Wal explains.

Map with houses

All the additional information conveyed in this way seems to belong to one conceptual space. ‘I want to know what that space looks like. You can compare it to making a map of a village. Which houses are on that map? Then we can find out which houses are closer together and which are further away,’ says Van der Wal. This can be done by identifying the information that overlaps.

‘If you say, “The movie must be very good”, then I know you haven't seen the movie yourself. It's an indirect source of information, and I also know there's uncertainty about that information,’ Van der Wal continues. The overlap between 'indirectness' and 'uncertainty' of the information is a sign that the concepts are close to each other in the conceptual space: on the map, they could be neighbours.

Before such a map can be created, data first has to be collected on all different types of meta-information. There's still little known about this in the field of African languages. The researchers don’t know yet exactly which languages will be investigated. This depends on the linguists in Africa who will participate in the research.

Overlap between languages

Ultimately, the goal is not just to map out one language, but multiple African languages. ‘For me, this is the most exciting part of the research. With multiple maps, you can see if they correspond,’ says Van der Wal.

The question here is whether the conceptual space with people is organised in the same way or if it's influenced by the language you speak. ‘It would be interesting if it's a language-independent phenomenon. That it doesn't matter which language you grow up with because the conceptual space is a universal cognitive given.’

Unravelling language

The hope for discovery and new insights are what drives Van der Wal. ‘Every time I talk about the project and think about what we could discover, I think, “This is so cool!”’ she says. ‘Unravelling language is always fun. You understand a little more about the world around you every time, even if it's just a very small piece.’

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