Abbreviated Project Proposal

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The Linguistics of Temperature - Abbreviate research proposal

Temperature phenomena are universal, relatively easily perceptible by humans and crucial for them, but their conceptualisation involves a complex interplay between external reality, bodily experience and evaluation of the relevant properties with regard to their functions in the human life. The meanings of temperature terms are, thus, both embodied and perspectival. Rather than reflecting the external world objectively, they offer a naïve picture of it, permeated with folk theories that are based on people’s experience and rooted in their culture (cultural models). Languages differ as to how many temperature terms they have and how these categorize the temperature domain in general Closely related languages can show remarkable differences in their uses of temperature adjectives, even when these are cognates to each other; conversely, temperature systems can show remarkable areal patterns. Temperature terms can belong to different word classes, even within one and the same language (adjectives – ”cold”, verbs – ”to freeze”, nouns – ”coldness”). Languages vary in their word-class attribution of temperature concepts: thus, for instance, many languages lack temperature adjectives. Word-class attribution and, further, lexicalization of temperature expressions and the possible syntactic constructions in which they can be used are sensitive to their semantics.

Temperature meanings are often semantically related to other meanings, either synchronically (within a polysemantic lexeme) or diachronically. Thus, temperature concepts often serve as source domains for various metaphors and are extended to other perceptional modalities (‘hot spices’, ‘warm colour’). Temperature meanings can also develop from others, e.g., ‘burn, fire’ >’hot’, or ’ice’ > ’cold’. Finally, the meanings of temperature terms can also change within the temperature domain itself, e.g. ‘warm, hot’ > ‘lukewarm’, as in Lat. tep- ‘warm’ vs. English tepid ‘lukewarm’. While some languages show extensive semantic derivation from the temperature domain, others lack it or use it to a limited degree. Languages vary as to which temperature term has predominantly positive associations in its extended use (cf. ‘cold’ in Wolof vs. ‘warm’ in the European languages), partly due to the different climatic conditions.

Temperature terms have, on the whole, received relatively little attention. Cross-linguistic research on temperature is mainly restricted to Sutrop (1998, 1999) and Plank (2003), which focus on how many basic temperature terms there are in a language and how they carve up the domain among themselves. There has been no cross-linguistic research on the grammatical behaviour of temperature expressions, apart from a few mentions.

In theoretical semantics, temperature adjectives have mainly figured in discussions of lexical fields, antonymy and linguistic scales (cf. Lehrer 1970, Cruse & Togia 1995, Sutrop 1998, cf. also Clausner & Croft 1999). Koptjevskaja-Tamm & Rakhilina 2006 suggest that linguistic categorization of the temperature domain is sensitive to several parameters, that are important and salient for humans and can be distinguishable by simple procedures relating to the human body. Within the Natural-Semantic Metalanguage, Goddard & Wierzbicka (2006) propose the general formula for describing the language-specific meanings of temperature terms via reference to fire.

Extended uses of temperature words have been studied indirectly in cognitive linguistics, primarily in research on the metaphors underlying emotions, e.g. AFFECTION IS WARMTH (Lakoff & Johnson 1997:50) and ANGER IS HEAT (Kövecses 1995, also Goossens 1998; cf. also Shindo 1998-99). An important question raised in Geeraerts & Grondelaers (1995) is to what degree such extensions reflect universal metaphorical patterns or are based on common cultural traditions. The current empirical evidence for the suggested metaphors is still relatively meagre.


Clausner, T.C. & W. Croft. 1999. Domains and image schemas. Cognitive Linguistics, 10, 1:1¬–31. Cruse, D.A. & P. Togia 1995. Towards a cognitive model of antonymy. Lexicology, 1.113–41.

Geeraerts, D. & S. Grondelaers 1995. Looking back at anger: Cultural traditions and metaphorical patterns. In Taylor & MacLaury (eds.), 153-179.

Goddard, C. & A. Wierzbicka 2006. NSM analyses of the semantics of physical qualities: sweet, hot, hard, heavy, rough, sharp in cross-linguistic perspective. Studies in Language, 34(1): 675 – 800.

Goossens, L. 1998. Meaning extensions and text type. English Studies, 79.120–43.

Koptjevskaja-Tamm, M. & E. Rakhilina 2006. "Some like it hot": on semantics of temperature adjectives in Russian and Swedish. STUF (Sprachtypologie und Universalienforschung), a special issue on Lexicon in a Typological and Contrastiv Perspective, ed. by Leuschner, T. & G. Giannoulopoulou, 59 (2).

Kövecses, Z. 1996. Anger: Its language, conceptualization, and physiology in the light of cross-cultural evidence. In Taylor & MacLaury (eds.), 181-196

Lakoff, G. & M. Johnson 1999. Philosophy in the flesh. New York: Basic books.

Lehrer, A. 1970. Static and dynamic elements in semantics: hot, warm, cool, cold.

Plank, F. 2003. Temperature Talk: The Basics. A talk presented at the Workshop on Lexical Typology at the ALT conference in Cagliari, Sept. 2003.

Shindo, Mika. 1998-9. An analysis of metaphorically extended concepts based on bodily experience. A case study of temperature expressions. Papers in linguistic science, 4:29–54, 5: 57–73.

Sutrop, U. 1998. Basic temperature terms and subjective temperature scale. Lexicology, 4.60–104.

Sutrop, U. 1999. Temperature terms in the Baltic Area. Estonian: Typological studies, ed. by Mati Erelt, 185–203. Tartu: University of Tartu.

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