Reference frames in language and cognition: cross-population mismatches

Jürgen Bohnemeyer*, Eve Danziger, Jonathon Lum, Ali Alshehri, Elena Benedicto, Joe Blythe, Letizia Cerqueglini, Katharine Donelson, Alyson Eggleston, Alice Gaby, Yen Ting Lin, Randi Moore, Tatiana Nikitina, Hywel Stoakes, Mayangna Yulbarangyang Balna

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Numerous studies have found evidence of a speech community’s referential practices in discourse being predictive of its members’ behavior in nonverbal tasks. In this article, we discuss a series of exceptions to this alignment pattern, drawing on data from eleven populations of Asia, Europe, the Middle East, North and Central America, and Oceania. These exceptions have not been discussed in conjunction with one another and the striking commonalities across the findings of these studies have gone unnoticed: (a) in discourses referring to small-scale space, either intrinsic frame use is dominant or both relative and geocentric frames are used frequently in addition to intrinsic frames; and (b) in recall/recognition memory, geocentric coding is more common than egocentric coding (in tasks that involve stationary stimulus configurations) in nine of the populations, while in the remaining two, there is evidence of extensive intrinsic coding even in nonverbal cognition. We discuss these findings in light of Haun’s innate geocentrism hypothesis (Haun, D. B. M., C. Rapold, J. Call, G. Janzen & S. C. Levinson. 2006. Cognitive cladistics and cultural override in hominid spatial cognition. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 103(46). 17568–17573). Our data offers partial support for this hypothesis, but simultaneously calls into question whether any extrinsic reference frames are available innately.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)175-189
Number of pages15
JournalLinguistics Vanguard
Issue numberS1
StatePublished - 1 Jan 2022


FundersFunder number
National Science FoundationBSC-1551925, BSC-1053123, BSC-0723694
National Science Foundation
Australian Research CouncilDP120102701, DE130100399
Australian Research Council
Israel Science Foundation680/17
Israel Science Foundation
Ministry of Science and Technology, TaiwanMOST 110-2811-H-002-543
Ministry of Science and Technology, Taiwan


    • language and cognition
    • linguistic relativity
    • semantic typology
    • sociotopography
    • spatial frames of reference


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