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Orthographically motivated spatial biases in the conceptual

representation of events: Evidence from Arabic and English

Dana Abdulrahim & Sally Rice
University of Alberta,

The present study is part of an ongoing research project that explores the
possibility of culturally-based influences on cross-linguistic differences observed in
the mental representation of events. Our task capitalized not only on the different
writing system orientations of Arabic and English, but also on possible verbal
Aktionsart (manner and degree of event realization) differences, by having
participants from both languages group sentences they heard into different spatial
categories. We found a significant main effect for writing system orientation, but
none for verbal Aktionsart.

Some current research in the cognitive sciences advances the idea that
language and space map onto each other and, consequently, language may invoke
spatial representations which are grounded in perception and action (Barsalou, 1999).
Previous research on visual imagery (Richardson et al., 2001) has provided evidence
that English speakers consistently assign UP, DOWN, LEFT, and RIGHT arrows to
verbs that involve motion as well as non-motion (e.g. mental state) processes. Two
lines of research in cognitive psychology attempt to account for the directional
(particularly horizontal) biases that arise from such interactions between language
and space: (1) the hemispheric specialization hypothesis (Chatterjee, 2001) which
claims a predominance of LEFT-to-RIGHT directionality across human beings, and (2)
the cultural hypothesis which assumes that other factors may well shape the
speakers’ directional biases – namely writing system directionality (Maass and
Russo, 2003).

Along these lines, Rice and Borgwaldt (2006) investigated the presence and
strength of spatial biases for verbs within sentential contexts among speakers of
English (a LEFT-to-RIGHT writing system) and Arabic (a RIGHT-to-LEFT writing
system). While speakers of English consistently categorized clauses/events such as
The waiter pushed the cart as unfolding in a LEFT-to-RIGHT fashion, no strong
reverse pattern (RIGHT-to-LEFT) was observed among Arabic speakers. Interestingly,
however, the Arabic-speaking participants rated translation equivalents for
clauses/events such as The woman dropped the knife on the floor as UP and events
such as The crane hoisted the container as DOWN. These “counterintuitive” ratings
were assumed to be indicative of cross-linguistic differences in verbal Aktionsart.

The study we report here modifies the previous research design to incorporate
both writing direction and verbal Aktionsart––namely the degree to which an event is
realized––as explanatory factors for spatial categorization biases. In our sentence-
categorization task, speakers of English and Arabic were instructed to assign
directionality (UP, DOWN, LEFT, and RIGHT) to a number of everyday clauses/events
which involved motion as well as non-motion verbs. They simultaneously had to
specify whether they construed the events as still in progress or as already
completed. The significant main effect for writing system orientation, found here,
provides more evidence to support the cultural hypothesis, in that the direction in
which a writing system unfolds strongly determines the way in which events are
construed as unfolding. However, the lack, at this point, of a main effect for verbal
Aktionsart does not discourage us from modifying our methodology and designing
future online experiments that specifically investigate this potential cross-linguistic

Barsalou, L. W. (1999). Perceptual symbol systems. Behavioral & Brain Sciences,
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Chatterjee, A. (2001), Language and space: some interactions. Trends in Cognitive
Sciences, 5(2): 51-61.
Maass, A. and A. Russo. (2003). Directional bias in the mental representation of
spatial events: Nature or culture? Psychological Science, 14: 296-301.
Rice, S. and S. Borgwaldt. (2006). Where do spatial associations come from and how
language-specific are they? 8th Conceptual Structure, Discourse, and
Language Conference, UC, San Diego, 3-5 November.
Richardson, D., M. Spivey, S. Edelman, and A. Naples. (2001). “Language is
spatial”: Experimental evidence for image schemas of concrete and abstract
verbs. Proceedings of the 23rd Annual Meeting of the Cognitive Science
Society, pp. 845–850. Mawhah, NJ: Erlbaum.