Goldin-Meadow et al.
do interesting experiments on how speakers of different languages represent events nonverbally, finding that linguistic differences in subject-object-verb placement do not carry over into gestural depictions of the same event. (English, Chinese, and Spanish speakers typically use the order subject-verb-object to describe an event; Turkish speakers use subject-object-verb.) This suggests a natural cognitive sequence for representing events.
To test whether the language we speak influences our behavior even when we are not speaking, we asked speakers of four languages differing in their predominant word orders (English, Turkish, Spanish, and Chinese) to perform two nonverbal tasks: a communicative task (describing an event by using gesture without speech) and a noncommunicative task (reconstructing an event with pictures). We found that the word orders speakers used in their everyday speech did not influence their nonverbal behavior. Surprisingly, speakers of all four languages used the same order and on both nonverbal tasks. This order, actor–patient–act, is analogous to the subject–object–verb pattern found in many languages of the world and, importantly, in newly developing gestural languages. The findings provide evidence for a natural order that we impose on events when describing and reconstructing them nonverbally and exploit when constructing language anew.
The authors speculate:
...that, rather than being an outgrowth of communicative efficiency or the manual modality, actor-patient-act may reflect a natural sequencing for representing events. Entities are cognitively more basic and less relational than actions, which might lead participants to highlight entities involved in an action before focusing on the action itself, thus situating actor and patient before action. Moreover, there is a particularly close cognitive tie between objects and actions, which would link patient to action, resulting in an actor-patient-act order.
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