The distinctions between red and yellow or arm and hand may seem self-evident to English speakers, but they are not: Languages differ in the named distinctions they make. To help understand what constrains word meaning and how variation arises, we examined name choices in English, Dutch, Spanish, and Japanese for 36 instances of human locomotion. Naming patterns showed commonalities largely interpretable in terms of perceived physical similarities among the instances. There was no evidence for languages jointly ignoring salient physical distinctions to build meaning on other bases, nor for a shift in the basis of word meanings between parts of the domain of more vs. less importance to everyday life. Overall, the languages differed most notably in how many named distinctions they made, a form of variation that may be linked to linguistic typology. These findings, considered along with naming patterns from other domains, suggest recurring principles of constraint and variation across domains.
ASJC Scopus subject areas