The Physical Foundation of the Patterning of Physical Action Verbs : A Study of Chinese Verbs

University dissertation from Linguistics and Phonetics

Abstract: This work is a study of verbal semantics with a focus on the discussion and illustration of the role of body parts and the semantic incorporation into verbal roots of the actions that involve various body parts. Following a general discussion of the basic issues of language construction and human body actions with the image schemas of force-dynamics presented in line with the framework of cognitive semantics, it is argued that the event structures of physical action verbs are not arbitrarily constructed but rather the constructions are built through systematic cognitive processes in relation to both human physical reality and concrete reality in the world. With such a view as the guideline, explorations of various componential aspects of verbs of physical action in Chinese are carried out. With a comparative survey of different approaches in the descriptions of motion situation depicted by verbs of motion, a theoretical frame is laid with the introduction of the basic notions, such as, Motion, Contact, Force, Motion Direction, etc. for verbs of physical action. A comparison of the lexicalization patterns between English and Chinese of the action verbs is discussed within the theoretical framework of verbal semantics. Various perspectives are taken for a re-consideration of lexical verbal properties with regard to physical action. The central argument is the view that the link between the semantic features of a verb and the manner by which the real physical action is conducted, either explicitly or implicitly specified in the verb root, is the clue for the explanation and motivation of the syntactic patterns that different sub-classes of physical contact verbs enter into. Further proof for such a close tie is provided with an illustration with corpus data of the combination constructions of directional verbs and VV compounds formed with various bodypart action verbs. Near-synonym verbs of physical action and verbs of Intentional Physical Contact are discussed within the current theory of Chinese verbal semantics (MARVS theory) and cognitive models of the psychological theory. An in-depth study of the polysemy of the verb da, which is the basic verb of the large domain of physical action verbs, is carried out with a comparison with the Swedish equivalent slå.The results have shown that the polysemy of da parallels the extensive polysemy of slå in Swedish. At the same time the interrelatedness of the different meanings motivated by the verb’s conflated notions of Contact and Motion parallels that of the different meaning extensions of the Swedish equivalent slå. It has also been found that the multi-directional extensions of both da and slå reveal the important fact that language uses and changes are directly influenced by human environment, social environment, cultural environment, as well as natural environment. The last section is a comparative study of children’s utterances of physical contact verbs of Mandarin Chinese, Swedish, and English, spoken by infants between ages 1;9.6 to 5;1.6. Following the central theme of the thesis, this empirical study is undertaken from the perspective of language acquisition to show how the different senses depicted by physical contact verbs are perceived in relation to a child’s world in terms of social interaction as well as physical capability.

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