Trans Internet-Zeitschrift für Kulturwissenschaften 16. Nr. Juni 2006

5.6. Border Zones: Travel, Fantasy and Representation

Herausgeberin | Editor | Éditeur: Ludmilla Kostova (University of Veliko Turnovo, Bulgaria)

Dokumentation | Documentation | Documentation

Between Cognition and Cultural Discourse: A Liminal Approach to Causation in Language

Boryana Bratanova (University of Veliko Turnovo, Bulgaria)

Thought is the blossom; language the bud; action the fruit behind it.

Ralph Waldo Emerson

There came a time when the risk to remain tight in the bud was
more painful than the risk it took to blossom.

Anais Nin


In the multifaceted process of verbal interaction the constant transgression of boundaries can be explored with reference to various paradigms. From a cognitive perspective language diversity corresponds to diversity in human conceptualization where liminality relates closely to mapping cognitive content onto the appropriate language frame. However, the different voices of cross-cultural communication often blur the dynamic and unstable borders of linguistic categorization. Contact between cultures invariably stirs the pendulum of language signalling potential language change.

In line with similar observations, the present paper dwells on the wider and wilder area of human conceptualization focusing specifically on the language - cognition interface in the intricate tangle of cultural discourse. This interface is explored with reference to the liminality of causation - a category, which correlates with the ultimate outcome of (anti-) aesthetic manipulation. Special emphasis is laid on how the stimulus - reaction correlation evokes mapping of mental spaces in the respective cognitive domains, which gives rise to multifarious causative situations. The general framework of analysis compares and juxtaposes English and Bulgarian as two languages which conceptualize causation in divergent mental spaces. The liminality of causation engenders heterogeneous patterns in the two languages, which are in the spotlight of attention throughout the study.


Causation as a Liminal Category

The category of causation yields an interdisciplinary approach since causal relations underlie changes not only in the physical world but also changes of concepts in the mental world of the cognizer. The probing into the complex ontology of causes and effects motivates the multi-layered exploration of the category. Thus causation can be studied in the light of its reference to biology (causation as the driving force of evolution), medicine (aetiology - the causes of diseases), physics (force and energy transmission as preliminaries for physical manipulation). As far as the humanities are concerned, causation is an object of study of a variety of disciplines including philosophy (the existential aspect of causation), logic (causation as a relation of transition), linguistics (how causal relations are encoded in language), rhetoric (manipulation and causation by means of speech acts), and cultural studies. A thorough analysis of the ontology of causation presupposes recourse to these various fields of study, which makes it possible to define causation as a transdisciplinary category.

The invariable property of every causative situation relates to the fact that it embraces two events - the causing event (event A) and the caused event (event B) (cf. Shibatani 1976: 1-2). In order for these two events to be bound in a causal chain(1) it is necessary for a participant in event A known as theCauser, by crossing the boundary which provides relative autonomy of the two events, to affect a participant in event B known as theCausee. Hausman stresses the asymmetry of causal relations pointing out that if A causes B, generally B does not cause A, i.e. R (A, B) ≠ R (B, A) (Hausman 1998: 1). It is important to bear in mind that the occurrence of a particular causing event triggers the potential occurrence of a whole paradigm of caused events. Which one(s) of the latter would be activated depends on the particular causative situation. The opposite holds true as well - the occurrence of a particular caused event is not tied to one particular causing event only but to a paradigm of events.

From a socio-cultural point of view this feature can be clearly outlined by resorting to idiomatic expressions, which reflect the cognitive perspective of language speakers. Thus one and the same cause (separation) refracted through the cognitive prism of English and Bulgarian speakers yields opposite results. While in English absence makes the heart grow fonder in Bulgarian unseen eyes easily fade away from memory. A similar divergence in conceptualization can be seen in the English all work and no play makes Jack a dull boy while Bulgarians see work as making people more beautiful unlike laziness which makes them uglier(2). The strongly asymmetrical nature of causation makes it possible for one and the same effect to be conceptualized as having different causes. Referring to the English and Bulgarian set expressions again, in English money is the root of all evil while in Bulgarian, apart from money, the cause of all evil can also be indolence, egotism, etc.

In the philosophical context (cf. Eells 1991: 127-144) theories based on the probabilistic nature of causation dominate over theories based on its regularity (probabilistic causation vs. regularity theories). Hitchcock ( 2002) defines probabilistic causation in the following manner:

A causes B if and only if P(B | A) > P(B | not-A)

It becomes clear that for two events A and B to be bound in a causal relationship the probability of B to result from A should be higher than the probability of B to result from any other event different from A. In such instances A functions as potential Causer for B. However, according to Wittgenstein (1937), the category of causation in the strict sense features two additional situational parameters - directionality and agency. He defines cause as that part of an event which might be pushed away , and the event itself be presented as a process or an accomplished change of state without specifications as to its original cause.

The concepts mirroring the cause and effect relations are formed gradually on the basis of human contact with the world. The power of manipulation of the Causer over the Causee depends on various factors but it is generally considered that the degree of causation is higher if the Causer is agentive and volitional (e. g. a human being or a natural force). That is why causation complies with the notion of cognitive category as defined by Rosch ( 1983), Lakoff (1987), Langacker ( 1987) and Taylor (1989). Unlike the traditional view on categories stemming from Aristotle, cognitive categories have no fixed boundaries, which makes it possible to introduce a scalar approach to the study of category membership. As a cognitive category causation demonstrates both gradience and liminality since it verges on the borderline of transitivity, agentivity, the concept of change, etc.

On the other hand not all instances of causation can be put on the same plane because in language one and the same lexeme sometimes encodes various force dynamic configurations(3). Thus in English the verb break stands for a dozen of Causer - Causee interactions as demonstrated by to break one’s leg / one’s skin, to break one’s heart, to break a loaf, to break a bank, to break the ice, to break the ground, to break an agreement / an appointment, to break barriers, to break the world record, and to break a leg (idiomatic meaning). In Bulgarian to this list can be added also to break one’s head when experiencing difficulties, while some of the English expressions can be encoded by different Bulgarian verbs denoting a greater or lesser degree of causation. For instance breaking one’s heart in Bulgarian is seen as shattering one’s heart (razbivam), breaking the ice is conceptualized as melting the ice (stopiavam), and breaking barriers is rather removing barriers (premahvam).

The liminality of causation is motivated also by the fact that it can be seen as mapping series of states onto the temporal and spatial axes. The causative situation itself comprises a causing event, a caused event and a transition between them. In terms of the cognitive schemata defined by Lakoff each causative situation can be analyzed in terms of the SOURCE - PATH - GOAL (the SPG ) schema. The latter arises from our experiece related to the movement of the human body over "a sequence of contiguous locations connecting the source and the destination" (Lakoff 1987: 275). The properties of the SPG schema account for its function as the basic cognitive schema which accounts for movement both real and fictive, i.e. "motion with no physical occurrence" , and only conceptual significance (Talmy 2000: 99). However both types of motion result in factual / factitive change of state or location.

The motivation of discussing causation as a liminal category related to movement and transgressing the boundaries of series of individual states along the PATH lies in the parameters defining the causative situation itself. The basic conditions for defining a situation as causative are formulated by Shibatani (1976: 1 - 2) and Talmy (1976: 58) as follows :

The initiation of the causing event at moment t 1 functions as the SOURCE of the motion, the occurrence of the causing event at t 2 as its GOAL and the PATH is characterized by energy transmission overcoming the natural resistance of the Causee.

When conceptualizing causation the trajectory of the movement is more or less established with the Causer functioning as landmark. The longer the causal chain, the longer the trajectory and the more complex the energy transmission. In cases when the causative situation includes only two participants the Causee is affected more than in situations with three or more participants. The degree of affectedness of the Causee is dependent also on the parameter [± animateness] of the latter - a Causee with energy of its own would be more resistant to change than an inanimate one. It is on the basis of such observations that Lakoff and Johnson postulate a conventional metaphor which accounts both for ontological and linguistic aspects of causation:

CLOSENESS IS STRENGTH OF EFFECT... The CLOSER the form indicating CAUSATION is to the form indicating the EFFECT, the STRONGER the causal link is.

(Lakoff and Johnson 1980: 128-132)

Therefore, from a linguistic point of view, the longer the causative structure, the weaker the effect on the Causee as seen by they laughed him out of the room vs. they made him leave the room by laughing at him. The degree of clause integration can also be accounted for on the basis of the above metaphor since it is a mapping of the degree of integration of the participants in the causative situation itself.


Cross-Cultural Perspective on Iconicity in Language

The linguistic means of expressing causation provide fruitful ground for a partial yet exemplary survey of the mapping of mental spaces, frames and causal configurations onto the appropriate language structure. The principle of iconicity in language as put forward by Haiman (1983, 1985) has to do with the iconic motivation of language structures. According to this principle, the linear organization of linguistic structures roughly corresponds to the ordering of the referents of the linguistic items in the extralinguistic world as conceptualized by the speaker, i.e. there is a mapping between the semantic pattern of the utterance and its syntactic component. Applied to the study of causative structures, this principle postulates that the semantic complexity of causal relations corresponds to the complexity of structures that encode them. Generally speaking, the greater the number of components in a causative structure, the more complex the relations between the causing and the caused event in the causative situation itself. It should also be taken into account that the linear structure of the clause is considered to be an iconic mapping of the temporal succession of events which the structure encodes. Referring to causative structures again, this means that there would be symmetry on both sides of the symbolic limen outlining the linear and the conceptual structure of the linguistic expression.

The proximity of the elements designating the Causer and the Causee in the causative structure is related also to the communicative effect of the utterance. The closer these elements, the higher the energy input that the structure encodes. This becomes obvious when language provides choice between seemingly synonymous structures which differ in their connotative meaning as in the general marched the soldiers <-> the general made the soldiers march. In this case the choice is between an atomic structure (consisting of one verbal lexeme) and a periphrastic construction. However, the atomic structure encodes greater proximity and stronger coercion on behalf of the affecting over the affected participant, which accounts for its higher communicative markedness and effect. This regularity underlies some discourse strategies related to (anti-) aesthetic manipulation where longer structures usually soften the overall communicative effect by extending the causative situation to include the original Causer as well. From a cognitive point of view this involves a difference in terms of perspective as seen from:

(1) Did you lie to your parents?
John made me lie to my parents.

(2) Betty yelled him into submission.
Betty’s anger rose, she yelled at him and he was forced to submit.

Utterances (1) and (2) above demonstrate how one and the same situation can be encoded by linguistic structures, which differ as far as politeness is concerned. It also points to the fact that the overall effect of the utterance largely depends on which part of the event is highlighted and which is backgrounded.

The study of causation as a liminal category invariably requires a survey of the iconic motivation of causative structures in more than one language - English and Bulgarian in this case. Despite the fact that both languages feature one and the same cognitive model of causation via atomic and periphrastic structures, some language- specific properties account for asymmetries within the system of English and Bulgarian causatives. Bulgarian has a large paradigm of prefixes attached to verbal stems making it possible in this way to coin new verbs from other verbs by means of prefixation. Thus causative verbs are formed not only from non-causative ones but also from already existing causative verbs. Since affixation is not a productive means of verb coinage in English; it is demonstrated only by a small number of causative verbs such as enable, length en, and belittle. Due to these peculiarities, the atomic causatives in Bulgarian outnumber those in English where the majority of them have periphrastic counterparts.

The inventory of the two languages provides different ways for speakers to construct their utterances. As far as causation is concerned, in Bulgarian alternative event construal is usually encoded by alternative linguistic structures. Where Bulgarian provides a choice between atomic and periphrastic causatives, English structures mostly follow the established periphrastic pattern as demonstrated by:

(3) Negovata istoria ia razsmia.
* His story her made laugh -> His story made her laugh.

(4) Negovata istoria ia nakara da se razsmee.
* His story her made to herself laugh -> His story made her laugh

Example (3) shows a case of prefixed atomic causative in Bulgarian (the verb razsmeia being derived from the non-causative smeia se, laugh, by means of the causative prefix raz-) while (4) is the same causative verb as part of a periphrastic construction. In both these instances the causative pattern in English is invariably periphrastic.

The above observation suggests that Bulgarian provides a symmetrical structural mapping unlike the ongoing tendency towards underspecification in English. On the other hand, the explicit causative verbs in the periphrastic causative constructions in Bulgarian outnumber those in English, and each has a different shade of meaning. While in English these verbs are more or less reducible to make, get, have, cause, force, convince, persuade , compel, and order, in Bulgarian the paradigm is much larger. This regularity might be illustrated by the following correspondences - the verbs karam, nakarvam, predizvikvam in Bulgarian roughly correspond to make and have in English; the verbs hvashtam, natiskam, vruzvam correspond to get;prichiniavam, porazhdam, to cause. Other similar cases include the verbs zastaviam, prinuzhdavam, nasilvam corresponding to force and compel;ubezhdavam, sklaniam, pridumvam, ugovariam, uveshtavam - to convince, persuade and coax; zapoviadvam, narezhdam, razporezhdam - to order; urezhdam, opraviam - to the periphrastic structure make something possible for someone. All these examples outline a reproductive pattern of concept-to-form mapping in the two languages. Since the principle of iconicity postulates that difference of form usually signals difference of meaning, in Bulgarian the structuring of linguistic expression is closer to the structure of the cognitive model of causation than it is in English. Despite the close contact between the two languages and the huge influence, which English has over Bulgarian at present, this pattern seems quite stable.

Discussing causation as a liminal category is motivated also by the fact that it is defined in its opposition to events occurring spontaneously, i.e. without a Causer. While Bulgarian marks this opposition explicitly, in English there is a large number of homonymous verbs with no explicit marker for spontaneous action, as seen in:

(5) a. Momicheto schupi chashata.
* Girl - the broke glass - the -> The girl broke the glass.

b. Chashata se schupi.
* Glass - the itself broke -> The glass broke.

In this respect Bulgarian is again more iconic, compared to English. However, increased cross-cultural communication and bilingualism have marked some dynamic changes in Bulgarian. As far as the opposition spontaneous - causative is concerned the vector of these changes points towards a pattern of dropping the reflexive anti-causative marker se in uniformity with the English model. From an anthropological perspective, the cognition of cause-and-effect relations comes after the cognition of events as occurring spontaneously. Referring to the principle of iconicity, the spontaneous - causative distinction should be marked in language and be present in the basic - derived structure distinction. However, increased cross-cultural communication invariably results in innovations in language within the context of unifying social tendencies.



The heterogeneous nature of language can be studied with recourse to various limens both actual (the ones between units of language structures) and symbolic (the language and mind phenomena). The transgression of these boundaries is a prerequisite for the bud of language to blossom and evoke a particular response in the addressee. However, just like no two buds or blossoms are alike, no two language structures encode identical event construal as demonstrated by the survey of English - Bulgarian causal asymmetries in this paper. Cultural hybridity inevitably engenders restructuring of cognitive models and domains, one aspect of which is linguistic hybridity. On a larger scale these unifying aspects of languages invariably point to the ongoing quest for the lingua franca of today.

© Boryana Bratanova (University of Veliko Turnovo, Bulgaria)


(1) The term causal chain is borrowed here from Lewis (1973) and refers to events related causally. If C, D and E are three events where event D is causally dependent on C and event E is causally dependent on D it means that E is causally dependent on C as well.

(2) In these examples I refer to two Bulgarian sayings - Nevideni ochi lesno se zabraviat (Unseen eyes easily fade away from memory) and Rabotata krasi choveka, a murzelat go grozi (Work makes one more beautiful while laziness makes them uglier).

(3) The concept of force dynamics is put forward by Talmy (1988). Starting from the prototypical cases of causation where there is direct physical contact between the Causer and Causee, Talmy develops his theory outlining a comprehensive paradigm based on various patterns of causal relations as well as configurations of force and energy transmission.


Eells, E. 1991. Probabilistic Causality. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Haiman, J. 1983. Iconic and economic motivation. - In: Language59, 781-819.

Haiman, J. (ed.). 1985. Iconicity in Syntax. Amsterdam: John Benjamins.

Hausman, D. 1998. Causal Asymmetries . Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Hitchcock, C. 2002. Probabilistic causation. - In: E. Zalta (ed.). The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Fall 2002 Edition). http://plat

Lakoff, G. 1987. Women, Fire, and Dangerous Things. Chicago & London: The University of Chicago Press.

Lakoff, G. and M. Johnson. 1980. Metaphors We Live By. Chicago & London: The University of Chicago Press.

Langacker, R. 1987. Foundations of Cognitive Grammar Vol. 1 . Stanford: Stanford University Press

Lewis, D. 1973. Causation. - In: Journal of Philosophy 70 , 556-567.

Leyton, M. 1992. Symmetry, Causality, Mind. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Rosch, E. 1983. Prototype classification and logical classification: the two systems. - In: E. Scholnick (ed.) New Trends in Cognitive Representation: Challenges to Piaget’s Theory. Hillsdale, N. J.: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 73-86.

Shibatani, M. 1976. The grammar of causative constructions: a conspectus. - In: M. Shibatani (ed.). Syntax and Semantics 6: The Grammar of Causative Constructions. New York: Academic Press, 1-40.

Talmy, L. 1976. Semantic causative types. - In: M. Shibatani (ed.). Syntax and Semantics 6:The Grammar of Causative Constructions. New York: Academic Press, 43-116.

Talmy, L. 1988. Force dynamics in language and cognition. - In: Cognitive Science12, 49-100.

Talmy, L . 2000. Toward a Cognitive Semantics Vol. 1: Concept Structuring Systems. Cambridge, Mass. & London: The MIT Press.

Taylor, J. 1989. Linguistic Categorization: Prototypes in Linguistic Theory. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

Wittgenstein, L. 1937. Cause and effect: intuitive awareness. - In: PhilosophiaVol. 6 Nos. 3-4, 391-445, 1976.

5.6. Border Zones: Travel, Fantasy and Representation

Sektionsgruppen | Section Groups | Groupes de sections

TRANS       Inhalt | Table of Contents | Contenu  16 Nr.

For quotation purposes:
Boryana Bratanova (University of Veliko Turnovo, Bulgaria): Between Cognition and Cultural Discourse: A Liminal Approach to Causation in Language. In: TRANS. Internet-Zeitschrift für Kulturwissenschaften. No. 16/2005. WWW:

Webmeister: Peter R. Horn     last change: 21.2.2006     INST