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Expressing the Self: Proposal


While 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), it appears to us that this distinction breaks down in view of the immense diversity in the ways languages employ for self-reference. We propose a brand-new account on self-reference which explains such diversity in terms of the rich levels of self-awareness identified in developmental psychology.

At the heart of this interdisciplinary project is the new idea that there are several universal components to the concept of the self that underlie the cross-linguistic diversity in expressing the self. They include: 

  1. Awareness of the ecological self, i.e. the self as the agent of one’s perceptions and actions in the ‘here-and-now’;
  2. Awareness of the interpersonal self, i.e. the self as a participant in social interactions in the ‘here-and-now’;
  3. Awareness of the temporal self, i.e. the self as an enduring being over time;
  4. Awareness of the conceptual self, i.e. the self represented in a concept that is made up of symbolic and abstract representations, just as other individuals are represented in concepts about them;
  5. Awareness of the meta-conceptual self, i.e. the self represented in a second-level concept that is made up of other people’s conceptual representations of it.

These components represent increasingly detached perspectives on the self, and are predicted to constitute a crosslinguistically applicable continuum onto which the various means employed for self-reference can be mapped. 

This idea will be pursued by addressing the following research questions:

  1. What are the cognitive paradigms of self-reference?
  2. For the eight carefully selected languages, what are the markers of the paradigms identified in [1]? Regarding a paradigm, is it realised exclusively by morphosyntactic structures, or does its conveyance also involve inference from context?
  3. How do the typologically diverse languages surveyed in our project differ with respect to the patterns of self-reference identified in [2]?

We propose to address our research questions by: 

  • Undertaking an unprecedented cross-linguistic survey to test how different types and levels of self-awareness are expressed in eight languages (selected on the basis of semantic differences in self-reference): Amharic (a Semitic language spoken in Ethiopia), Chinese, English, French, Japanese, Korean, Polish, and Thai.
  • Developing a theory of self-reference that builds on empirically-tested semantic universals, drawing upon psychological insights to analyse a wide range of cases of self-reference across eight languages and pioneering a cognitive explanation for the cross-linguistic diversity in self-reference.

The project raises brand-new research questions, approached through novel methods which integrate philosophical arguments and psychological findings with cross-linguistic data. While we significantly depart from current research paradigms, we predict ground-breaking insights into self-expression by linking variation in self-reference with types and degrees of self-awareness in cognition.