Animacy, commonly defined as the distinction between living and non-living entities, is a useful notion in cognitive science and linguistics employed to describe and predict variation in psychological and linguistic behaviour. In the (psycho)linguistics literature we find linguistic animacy dichotomies which are (implicitly) assumed to correspond to biological dichotomies. We argue this is problematic, as it leaves us without a cognitively grounded, universal description for non-prototypical cases. We show that ‘animacy’ in language can be better understood as universally emerging from a gradual, cognitive property by collecting animacy ratings for a great range of nouns from Japanese and Persian. We used these cognitive ratings in turn to predict linguistic variation in these languages traditionally explained through dichotomous distinctions. We show that whilst (speakers of) languages may subtly differ in their conceptualisation of animacy, universality may be found in the process of mapping conceptual animacy to linguistic variation.
Few cognitive distinctions are as salient as that based on animacy. Classifying an entity in the world as either living or non-living has direct consequences for the way we conceptualise it, and in turn its behavioural entailments and affordances – the way we predict it to act and the way we are expected or able to act upon it. A cognitive classification of animacy has been widely attested in a great number of studies in varying psychological and developmental domains. Perhaps not surprisingly, given its apparent cognitive relevance, a great number of the world's languages exhibit some effect of animacy (Dahl and Fraurud, 1996; Yamamoto, 1999; Vihman and Nelson, 2019).
But is animacy universal? The answer is contingent on the level of animacy examined. Linguistics has identified at least three relevant levels (de Swart and de Hoop, 2018; Bayanati and Toivonen, 2019) easily conflated as in our paragraph above: 1) biological, ontological or ‘actual’ animacy, the extent to which an entity is living or non-living according to certain biological criteria; 2) cognitive, semantic or construed animacy, the way we conceptualise the entity based on some notion of attributed ‘animate’ morphology or behaviour, and 3) linguistic or formal animacy, the ultimate grammatical reflection of the assumed cognitive animacy classification process.
These three levels are crucially different in kind. Whilst a definition of biological animacy is no trivial matter (cf. e.g. Bedau and Cleland, 2010; Machery, 2012), the eventual outcome is presumably universal. As a physical property of entities in the world, biological animacy is universally fixed; that is, culturally and cognitively independent. Furthermore, biological animacy is traditionally dichotomous: a two-way distinction between living and non-living entities. Cognitive and linguistic animacy allow for considerably more variation, both in universality as in granularity. Cross-linguistic comparison has shown that linguistic animacy is not dichotomous, but follows an implicational hierarchy. Even in its most basic form, this hierarchy distinguishes at least three categories (e.g. Aissen, 2003; Croft, 2003; cf. Gardelle and Sorlin, 2018 for an overview):