Motion verbs along the horizontal and vertical axes

A sorting experiment

Keywords: verb meaning, motion verbs, classification, experimental semantics

In this paper, the meaning of motion verbs is analysed by means of a sorting task. The aim of the study was to identify the degree to which motion verbs in Estonian express horizontal and/or vertical motion. For that, 95 frequent motion verbs of Estonian were presented one by one to 39 native-speaking participants. Their task was to classify the verbs into one of the four pre-defined categories: ‘upward motion’, ‘horizontal motion’, ‘downward motion’, ‘don’t know’. Multidimensional scaling and a clustering technique were then used for statistical data analysis. The results show four main clusters of the verbs: 1) verbs of downward motion (e.g., kukkuma ‘fall’ and sukelduma ‘dive’); 2) verbs of upward motion (e.g., tõusma ‘rise’ and ronima ‘climb’); 3) verbs of horizontal motion (e.g., ujuma ‘swim’ and kõndima ‘walk’); 4) verbs of ambiguous meaning (e.g., rühkima ‘forge, plod’ and kiikuma ‘swing’). In each of the categories, some verbs are more prototypical than the others. Furthermore, the categories blend into each other, indicating that their boundaries are somewhat fuzzy. An in-depth analysis of the classifying choices indicates that when deciding upon the meaning of an isolated word, a speaker may use various strategies. Given that motion verbs are well known for their semantic complexity, the study also shows that a classification based on just one semantic feature is not only possible, but also enables the classification to be more transparent.


Piia Taremaa (b. 1982), PhD, University of Tartu, Institute of Estonian and ­General ­Linguistics, Research Fellow in General Linguistics (Jakobi 2-446, 51005 Tartu),