Spatial communication systems across languages reflect universal action constraints

Kenny R. Coventry, Harmen B. Gudde, Holger Diessel, Jacqueline Collier, Pedro Guijarro-Fuentes, Mila Vulchanova, Valentin Vulchanov, Emanuela Todisco, Maria Reile, Merlijn Breunesse, Helen Plado, Juergen Bohnemeyer, Raed Bsili, Michela Caldano, Rositsa Dekova, Katharine Donelson, Diana Forker, Yesol Park, Lekhnath Sharma Pathak, David PeetersGabriella Pizzuto, Baris Serhan, Linda Apse, Florian Hesse, Linh Hoang, Phuong Hoang, Yoko Igari, Keerthana Kapiley, Tamar Haupt-Khutsishvili, Sara Kolding, Katri Priiki, Ieva Mačiukaitytė, Vaisnavi Mohite, Tiina Nahkola, Sum Yi Tsoi, Stefan Williams, Shunei Yasuda, Angelo Cangelosi, Jon Andoni Duñabeitia, Ramesh Kumar Mishra, Roberta Rocca, Jurģis Šķilters, Mikkel Wallentin, Eglė Žilinskaitė-Šinkūnienė, Ozlem Durmaz Incel

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The extent to which languages share properties reflecting the non-linguistic constraints of the speakers who speak them is key to the debate regarding the relationship between language and cognition. A critical case is spatial communication, where it has been argued that semantic universals should exist, if anywhere. Here, using an experimental paradigm able to separate variation within a language from variation between languages, we tested the use of spatial demonstratives—the most fundamental and frequent spatial terms across languages. In n = 874 speakers across 29 languages, we show that speakers of all tested languages use spatial demonstratives as a function of being able to reach or act on an object being referred to. In some languages, the position of the addressee is also relevant in selecting between demonstrative forms. Commonalities and differences across languages in spatial communication can be understood in terms of universal constraints on action shaping spatial language and cognition.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)2099–2110
Number of pages12
JournalNature Human Behaviour
Issue number12
Early online date30 Oct 2023
Publication statusPublished - Dec 2023

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