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Faculty of Modern and Medieval Languages and Linguistics


Expressing the Self: Cultural Diversity and Cognitive Universals


Projecting one's self-image through language is at the centre of our everyday life. However, there is a gap in current research regarding the link between the diversity of ways languages employ for self-expression and the rich levels of self-awareness rooted in human cognition. This project seeks to fill in this gap through an unprecedented integration of methods from linguistics, philosophy and cognitive science. 

Expressing the Self (ES) is a research project funded by the Leverhulme Trust (Grant ID/Ref: RPG-2014-017, project dates 1 June 2014 - 6 October 2017). It aims at investigating ways of referring to oneself across languages by mapping them onto various types and degrees of self-awareness in cognition, thereby shedding new light on the concept of the self and its culture-specific manifestations, and contributing essential insights into the communication of self-information in cross-cultural contexts, in formal and informal settings, as well as interpretation and translation.

Linguists and philosophers routinely classify self-referring expressions in terms of the binary distinction between indexicals (e.g. personal and demonstrative pronouns) and non-indexicals (e.g. definite descriptions and proper names). However, it appears that this distinction breaks down in view of the immense diversity in the means languages employ for self-reference. Cross-linguistically, at least three types of expressions are known to cut across the indexical/non-indexical distinction.

Firstly, honorifics for the first person enable the speaker to refer to herself from the first person perspective, but not in an immediately-given way that requires no conceptual mediation. Many languages of Southeast and East Asia exhibit this characteristic, to mention only Thai, Burmese, Javanese, Khmer, Korean, Malay, or Vietnamese. Secondly, in some languages, the first-person pronouns can be used to attribute the immediate access to oneself to a third party. The Amharic sentence that literally translates as ‘Mary says that I am a genius’ can mean that Mary says that she herself is a genius. In Chinese, the word for ‘self’ (ziji) exhibits similar characteristics. Thus the Chinese sentence that literally means ‘Mary thinks self is innocent’ is the default way to report Mary’s belief that she herself is innocent. These examples affirm a category of self-referring expressions that convey the immediate access to the self, grasped from the other-person perspective. Thirdly, impersonal pronouns used for generalised self-reference appear to blur the distinction between indexicals and non-indexicals for the first-person. Familiar examples include ‘one’ in English and ‘on’ in French. Next, impersonal reflexives in Polish serve a similar function of detachment and generalization of perspective, frequently adding also the sense of reduced volition or responsibility. 

In a word, the cross-linguistic data argue against there being a universally applicable category of first-person indexicals which couples the first-person perspective with the immediate access to the self. They present a serious challenge to the extant formal semantic and philosophical approaches to self-reference that are based largely on the binary indexical/non-indexical distinction deduced almost exclusively from English data. 

At the most general level, the aims of the project are (i) to investigate the immense diversity in the ways languages employ for self-reference; (ii) to explicate such diversity in terms of a set of cognitive components to the concept of the self; and (iii) to draw out the ways in which languages differ in the recruitment of morpho-syntactic and contextual resources to express these components. Having addressed these three problems, we will be in a position to move to a theoretical discussion concerning the semantic universals and culture-specific conceptual building blocks that constitute the meaning of self-referring expressions. The languages to be surveyed include Amharic (a Semitic language spoken in Ethiopia), Chinese, English, French, Japanese, Korean, Polish, and Thai.

More details on the central questions and methodology of the project can be found in the project proposal; this site also provides information on the project team, the papers it has produced, the activities related to it.