Construal in Language and the effects of linguistic alternations

Construal in language: A visual-world approach to the effects of linguistic alternations on event perception and conception
Published: 09 Feb 2020

Language provides a variety of ways to express events. To describe a scene we can say “The nurse vaccinated the policeman.” or, alternatively, “The policeman was vaccinated by the nurse.”.

There is nothing much in the scene itself that would force us to use one or the other description. There seems to be ‘something in us’, however, that has a preference: we can decide to foreground the nurse or the policeman to satisfy our communicative needs. Thus, the truly exciting question is: does this have any effect on our conversation partner? Does our choice affect how others view the situations that we describe?

We investigated this question by tracking the eyes of native speakers of English while they looked at static scenes after they had heard it described in one of two possible ways. We found (among many other interesting things) that the description of a scene does affect how it is viewed: it either changes the order in which the participants of a scene are accessed or it changes the amount of attention each participant receives.

The results of our study have been published in Cognitive Linguistics. The paper is Open Access and can be downloaded free of charge from the link above.

The data is available through the University of Birmingham Research Archive (UBIRA). The R code can be accessed and downloaded from GitHub.

You can also read more about the larger theoretical context of the study on our blog.