Bringing Stories to Life
Animacy in Narrative and Processing
What does it mean to be alive? An age-old question, and not one this thesis will pretend to answer. Instead, we will be exploring the many ways in which life enters into our language. We refer to this as animacy, a linguistic distinction between living and non-living entities. Animacy has been widely successful as an explanation for grammatical variation, but we note that a simple distinction between animate and inanimate is ill-equipped to handle the incredible creative potential of language – in our stories, we readily transform inanimate objects like peanuts, paintings and toys into living, breathing characters. We have chosen to take these transformations seriously, using narrative as the lens through which we may enrich the meaning of linguistic life.
This thesis shows through a series of studies that linguistic animacy is indeed not a distinction between living and non-living entities, but rather an expression of how alive we consider entities to be. This consideration, it turns out, is influenced by many factors, some of which may be derived from the linguistic context. We demonstrate that stories can bring objects to life through linguistic means; specifically, through the ascription of Agency and Experience. Agency and Experience – being able to act on and perceive the environment – are two roles strongly associated with life, and we conclude that this behaviour is central to the linguistic expression of animacy as well.