Centrum för kognitiv semiotik (CCS)

Humanistiska och teologiska fakulteterna | Lunds universitet


Constructions, Conflations and Confusions: Mapping Patterns and the Cognitive Linguistic Typology of Motion Events

Chris Sinha and Jordan Zlatev (Centre for Cognitive Semiotics [CCS], Lund University)


Talmy’s influential motion event typology (e.g., Talmy 1985, 1991) classifies languages on the basis of the patterns of lexical conflation, or co-lexicalization, of semantic participant roles (Figure, Ground, Motion, Path and Manner) of the motion construction. We raise some critical questions about the exclusive focus in this typology on the mapping pattern of conflation, and about the presupposition (shared with most other typologies) that typological categories apply at the level of languages. Our main points can be summarized as follows:

  1. Conflation is not the only relevant phenomenon underlying differences in lexicalization patterns. Equally ubiquitous in the language of space and motion is a complementary phenomenon, which Sinha and Kuteva (1995) term distributed spatial semantics) and which is key to the theoretical framework of holistic spatial semantics (Zlatev 2003). In conflation, more than one participant role is mapped to a single lexeme/morpheme; in distribution, one participant role is mapped (obligatorily or optionally) to more than one lexeme/morpheme.

  2. There is disagreement in the literature over the extent to which languages that employ serial verb constructions can be accommodated within the Talmian typology (Slobin, 2004; Zlatev and Yangklang, 2004; Talmy, 2009). We shall argue, using analyses of Amondawa (a Tupi language of Amazonia; Sampaio, Sinha and Silva Sinha, 2009) and Thai (Zlatev & Yangklang, 2004), that the resolution of this controversy requires taking account of distribution as well as conflation patterns.

  3. Finally, we shall argue (using examples from English, French and Swedish) that motion event typology can best be thought as applying at the level of construction type, with languages being located in a multi-dimensional space of variation ecompassing both conflation and distribution.


Sampaio, W., Sinha, C. & Silva Sinha, V. da. (2009) Mixing and mapping: motion, path and manner in Amondawa. In Jiansheng Guo, Elena Lieven, Nancy Budwig, Susan Ervin-Tripp, Kei Nakamura, Şeyda Őzçalişkan (eds.) Crosslinguistic Approaches to the Study of Language. Research in the tradition of Dan Isaac Slobin. London and New York: Psychology Press, pp. 649-667.

Sinha, C. and T. Kuteva (1995) Distributed spatial semantics. Nordic Journal of Linguistics 18: 167-199.

Talmy, L. (1985) Lexicalization Patterns: Semantic Structure In Lexical Forms. In Shopen, T. (ed.) Language Typology And Syntactic Description. Vol. 3, Grammatical Categories and The Lexicon. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

Talmy, L. (1991) Path to realization: a typology of event conflation. Proceedings of the 17th Annual Meeting of the Berkeley Linguistics Society, 480-520.

Talmy, L. (2009) Main verb properties and equipollent framing. In Jiansheng Guo et al. (eds.) op cit.

Zlatev, J. (2003). Holistic spatial semantics of Thai. In E. Casad and G. Palmer (eds.) Cognitive Linguistics and non-Indo-European Languages, 305-336 Berlin: Mouton de Gruyter.

Zlatev, J. & Yangklang, P. (2004) A third way to travel: The place of Thai in motion event typology. In S. Strömqvist and L. Verhoeven (eds.) Relating Events in Narrative: Cross-linguistic and Cross-contextual Perspectives, 159-190. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Earlbaum.