NEXT FRIDAY: Invitation - USYD Department of Linguistics Research Seminar

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Sebastian Fedden

May 6, 2016, 3:47:58 AM5/6/16
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Dear colleagues,


Our USYD Department of Linguistics Research Seminar continues with a presentation by:


Assoc Prof Suzanne Kemmer, Rice University


Figure-Ground Reversal in Fictive Motion


Fri, 13 May 2016, 12.30-2.00pm

Rogers Room, John Woolley Bldg A20, The University of Sydney, NSW 2006


You’re welcome to bring your lunch to the talk. After the talk we’ll have our Linguistics Afternoon Tea.


You will find the abstract below.







This talk is part of a collaborative project with Dr. Sai Ma, University of Auckland.

Talmy (2000) observed that language displays Figure-Ground (F-G) organization in various aspects of grammar. This attentional asymmetry is most obvious in the clausal organization of locational predicates. In The bike is near the house, one entity, the bike, is selected as the attentionally-prominent subject (cognitively speaking, a Figure); the other, the house, serves as a cognitive reference point, a Ground, in this case for location purposes. When perceptual scenes are described, such as the scene of a house and nearby bike, linguistic F-G organization most naturally aligns with the perceptual F-G organization of the scene as in the above sentence with bike as subject: The bike is both the linguistic and the perceptual Figure. But since linguistic constructions can be used to manipulate attentional focus, linguistic Figure and Ground need not align with perceptual Figure and Ground. The same perceptual scene of house and bike can be described by The house is near the bike. But this sentence is natural only in contexts where the bike, perceptually more Figure-like due to its size and movability, has characteristics that make it a useful linguistic reference point and thus a Ground. Talmy (2000:316) gives the example of a case in which the particular bike described is very famous. A famous bike in a location known to the interlocutors can reasonably serve as a landmark for locating a house we want to focus our attention on. The lack of alignment between linguistic and canonical perceptual organization is what we term Figure-Ground reversal.

 Figure-Ground reversal, it turns out, relates to fictive motion (FM) expressions in an interesting way. It will be shown that in naturally-occurring FM descriptions, F-G reversal is common in English and Chinese, exemplified in (1) and (2):

(1) On both sides of the road large trees bent forward over us

(2) 的洋楼在夜的云霄中扑迎着雪花 ‘The towering western-style building rushes at the snow in the clouds at night’

We analyze such FM examples as Figure-Ground reversal, and moreover, suggest that this pattern is part of a general interaction of FM with F-G organization.

Studies of fictive motion have so far focused on aspects of the motion event rather than the participants Figure and Ground. By observing the participants as well, we can draw generalizations that deepen our understanding of FM and relate two phenomena previously understood quite separately.



Talmy, L. (2000). Toward a Cognitive Semantics (Vol. 1). Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press.

Dr Sebastian Fedden | Lecturer in Linguistics

School of Letters, Art and Media | Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences


N367, John Woolley Bld A20 | The University of Sydney | NSW | 2006

T +61 2 9351 7518  | F +61 2 9351 2434


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