Concepts in the Brain: The View From Cross-linguistic Diversity

Concepts in the Brain: The View From Cross-linguistic Diversity

by David Kemmerer


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For most native speakers of English, the meanings of ordinary words like "blue," "cup," "stumble," and "carve" seem quite natural and self-evident. It turns out, however, that they are far from universal, as shown by recent research in the discipline known as semantic typology. To be sure, the roughly 6,500 languages around the world do have many similarities in the sorts of concepts they encode. But they also vary greatly in numerous ways, such as how they partition particular conceptual domains, how they map those domains onto syntactic categories, which distinctions they force speakers to habitually attend to, and how deeply they weave certain notions into the fabric of their grammar. Although these insights from semantic typology have had a major impact on the field of psycholinguistics, they have been mostly neglected by the branch of cognitive neuroscience that studies how concepts are represented, organized, and processed in our brains. In Concepts in the Brain, David Kemmerer exposes this oversight and demonstrates its significance. He argues that as research on the neural substrates of semantic knowledge moves forward, it should, to the extent possible, expand its purview to embrace the broad spectrum of cross-linguistic variation in the lexical and grammatical representation of meaning. Otherwise, it will never be able to achieve a truly comprehensive, pan-human account of the cortical underpinnings of concepts. Richly illustrated and written in an accessible interdisciplinary style, the book begins by elaborating the different perspectives on concepts that currently exist in the parallel fields of semantic typology and cognitive neuroscience. It then shows how a synthesis of these approaches can lead to a more unified and inclusive understanding of several domains of concrete meaning—specifically, objects, actions, and spatial relations. Finally, it explores a number of intriguing and controversial issues involving the interplay between language, cognition, and consciousness.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780190682620
Publisher: Oxford University Press
Publication date: 03/21/2019
Pages: 368
Product dimensions: 9.30(w) x 6.50(h) x 1.10(d)

About the Author

David Kemmerer has been a professor at Purdue University since 2000. He explores the complex relationships between semantics, grammar, perception, and action, often bringing together neuroscientific and cross-linguistic perspectives. He has published over 60 articles and chapters as well as a textbook called Cognitive Neuroscience of Language.

Table of Contents


Part I: Two perspectives on concepts

1. The perspective from semantic typology

The apparent naturalness of one's own language
Lexical semantics
Grammatical semantics

2. The perspective from cognitive neuroscience

Flexible, multilevel models of the neural substrates of concepts
Representational similarity spaces in the brain
What about the neural substrates of grammatical semantics?
Linguistic communication as brain-to-brain coupling

Part II: Conceptual domains

3. Objects

Plants, animals, and artifacts
Body parts
Split possession
Nominal classification systems

4. Actions

Motion events
Events of cutting, breaking, and opening
Events of putting and taking
Serial verb constructions
Verbal classification systems

5. Spatial relations


Part III: Broader questions

6. How do language-specific concepts relate to cognition?

Many forms of cognition do not depend on language-specific concepts
Language-specific concepts nonetheless do influence some forms of cognition
Shared neural substrates for verbal and nonverbal semantic tasks: Insights and uncertainties

7. Are we ever conscious of concepts?

Competing views
Implications for neuroscientific theories of consciousness

Final remarks


Language index

Author index

Subject index

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