Glossary and notes for Len Talmy’s work on cognitive semantics

I’m starting to read Talmy’s work on folk concepts of space and causality, and I find that I need to keep a glossary of his specialist terms. Maybe this will be helpful to other readers of Talmy, too.

As a quick introduction, you might want to read the Wikipedia page on Force dynamics.

[Why do we think Talmy’s work might be useful to us? We are looking for folk concepts of space, time, causality, and intention that we can formalize and use in a computer simulation of how people attribute causality and intentionality to figures in simple animations. Talmy’s work might provide articulations of the folk concepts we are after. A primary challenge for us is to identify concepts of interest to us (i.e., those that trigger expectations or that are necessary to support explanations) , because most of the concepts that Talmy identifies are powerful generalizations of distinctions made in language but which have little apparent causative power that shapes our thinking. For example, the distinction between moving-to and moving-from seems to have little effect on our expectations of what the moving object will do next, while the distinction between contact and attachment clearly affects our expectations of how two objects will move if rotated, say, around their common center of gravity.]

All page references refer to his book, Toward a cognitive semantics, volume 1.

Glossary (sorted in order of appearance, not alphabetically)

  • veridical – appearing to be true (100c)
  • factive – When two representations of the same thing are contradictory, the one that appears more true is called “factive” (100d)
  • fictive – When two representations of the same thing are contradictory, the one that appears less true is called “fictive” (100d)
  • fictivity – there exist multiple conflicting representations of the same thing, some of which seem more true than others
  • see vs sense – When two percepts of the same thing are contradictory, and one is less palpable and thus more fictive, Talmy calls the perception of the factive one “seeing” and the perception of the fictive one “sensing”. (102a). For example, a static Pac-Man quasi-circle shape is “seen” while the dynamic alternative of a circle having a wedge cut from it is “sensed”.
  • ception – A continuous conceptual space whose dimensions are all related to palpability (aka, the ability to recognize or act on something). (102b)  Intended as a replacement for arbitrary pigeon-holing of phenomena as one of sensation, perception, or conception. (139d)
  • constructional vs experienced fictive motion – “Languages systematically and extensively refer to stationary circumstances with forms and constructions whose basic reference is to motion;” however, there are “differences over the degree to which such expressions evoke an actual sense or conceptualization of motion [in their speakers].” (104c)  While some speakers would report a strong sense of movement for a construction that other speakers would report feeling no such sense, there are some constructions that evoke a sense of motion in almost all speakers.
  • active-determinative principle – For “some” [119b] emanation types of motion, the source role will usually be attributed to the more active or determinative candidate objects. For example, in a radiation path between the Sun and one’s hand, the Sun is perceived as the brighter of the two, and thus the more active, and thus given the role of source. “This principle accounts for the absence of any linguistic formulations that depict the sun as drawing energy from objects.” (117c) “One’s experience of the characteristics of agency may provide one with the model for the active-determinative principle” (119d)
  • extramission – “the notion that sight involves something emerging from the eyes” (124b) “The conceptual model in which the Agent emits a sensory Probe appears to hold sway in the cartoon imagery [of Superman’s X-ray vision].” (125b) Similarly, the expression “to look daggers at” or “the evil eye”.


  1. When fictivity is present, the representations often differ in a single dimension. (100e)
    • State of occurrence – whether something is present or absent
    • State of change – whether something changed or was in stasis
      • State of motion – whether something moved or not (“stationariness”)
  2. There is a general cognitive bias towards dynamism; i.e., things appear to move when they are in fact still, rather than things appearing to remain still when they in fact have moved. (101b)
    • For example, an utterance and a belief might be contradictory, and where greater credence is given to the belief, and the utterance indicates movement while the belief indicates stationariness: “That mountain range goes from Canada to Mexico.”
  3. “Fictive motion in language encompasses a number of relatively distinct categories” (103c), including:
    1. Emanation - “The fictive motion of something intangible emerging from a source.” (105d) “In most subtypes, the entity continues along its emanation path and terminates by impinging on some distal object.” Note the reliance on distal objects in all the examples below.
      1. Orientation paths – “A continuous linear intangible entity emerging from the front of some object and moving steadily away from it.” E.g., “She crossed in front of the TV.”
        1. Prospect paths – e.g., English verbs “face” and “look out”
        2. Alignment paths – e.g., English verb “lie” with path prepositions “toward” or “away from”
        3. Demonstrative paths – e.g., English verb “point” with path prepositions “toward” or “away from”
        4. Targeting paths – An agent aims an object that has a front so that the front follows a desired path “relative to the object’s surroundings” (109d)
        5. Line of sight – E.g., English verbs “look” and “turn” with path prepositions “toward” or “away from”
      2. Radiation paths – (skipped pp. 111-116)
      3. Shadow paths
      4. Sensory paths
    2. Pattern paths – (skipped pp. 129-138)
    3. Frame-relative motion
    4. Advent paths
      1. Site manifestation
      2. Site arrival
    5. Access paths
    6. Coextension paths (e.g., see mountain range example above) –
      1. Talmy83: Virtual motion
      2. Jackendoff83: Extension
      3. Langacker87: Abstract motion
      4. Matsumoto96: Subjective motion
  4. “Palmer (1980) and Palmer and Bucher (1981) found that in certain arrays consisting of co-oriented equilateral triangles, subjects perceive all the triangles at once pointing by turns in the direction of one or another of their common vertices. Moving the array in the direction of one of the common vertices biases the perception of the pointing to be in the direction of that vertex.” (123b)
  5. Anthropologist Pascal Boyer’s study of “ghost physics” (1994) – Belief systems characteristically permit some exceptions to normal physics, such as invisibility or passing through walls, but not other (barely!) conceivable exceptions such as “reverse causality”.
  6. The semi-abstract level of palpability (146)
    1. Sensing of object structure, e.g. envelope/interior similarity across magnitudes of volcano and thimble
    2. Sensing of path structure, e.g., similarity regardless of shape of “across” when a deer runs straight across a field or zig-zags across it
    3. Sensing of reference frames: earth-based, object-based, or viewer-based
    4. Sensing of structural history and future (object is stationary), e.g. a broken flower pot
    5. Sensing of projected paths (object is moving), e.g. a thrown ball currently arcing through the air, or a path through a crowded restaurant
    6. Sensing of force dynamics, e.g. perceived forces among objects thought to naturally be in motion or at rest. Jepson and Richards (93)  found a sideways T is thought to have its two parts “attached” while in an upside-down T, the two parts are perceived merely to be in “contact”. [See Siskind’s AI work on attributing support vs attachment.]
  7. (skipped pp. 154-172, which is the rest of the chapter on Fictive Motion in Language and “Ception”)
  8. Motion-aspect formulas – e.g., Be at, Move to, …, Move from-along (215-6, 245-52)
  9. (skipped to 409)
  10. Force dynamics (to be continued)