Coding cognition: A case-study of Dutch-Turkish and Dutch-Moroccan Arabic language users in the Netherlands

Date: 29 September 2017

Venue: Stadscampus - Hof van Liere - Willem Elsschotzaal - Prinsstaat 13 - 2000 Antwerpen (route: UAntwerpen, Stadscampus)

Time: 3:00 PM - 5:30 PM

PhD candidate: Bram Vertommen

Principal investigator: Prof. dr. Jef Verschueren; prof. dr. Karen Lahousse

Short description: Doctoraatsverdediging Bram Vertommen - Faculteit Letteren en Wijsbegeerte, Taalkunde


The information we share with other people has many different shapes. Some information describes or recalls experienced events. Other information refers to dreams, imaginations or intentions. Yet other information deals with how we try to make sense of the complex reality around us: e.g., tendencies or generalizations we can induce from recurrent things we experience, and predictions we can make about particular phenomena.

It is widely acknowledged that experience- or imagination-based reports involve different cognitive operations than generalizations that result from inductive reasoning. Moreover, this difference has been proven to be linguistically relevant, in that it can be signaled by specific linguistic elements.

In the dissertation I propose a heuristic that measures the impact of the conceptual distinction above – between information that contains direct perception (or imagination) based input and information that does not – on language choice in two bilingual varieties spoken by second-generation heritage speakers in the Netherlands (Nortier 1990; Backus 1996; Boumans 1998; Eversteijn 2011).

These varieties are characterized by intensive and consistent alternations from a grammatical structure defined by one language (e.g., Dutch) to a grammatical structure defined by the other (e.g., Turkish or Moroccan Arabic), and vice versa. Through my heuristic I intend to demonstrate that, unlike many alternations previously investigated in multilingual studies (Auer 1998), the ones in the data sets under scrutiny do not tend to signal local extralinguistic or interactional aspects (e.g., a change of participant constellation, a change of activity type) Rather, I argue that sentences are in one or the other language because crucially different cognitive operations underlie the information expressed by these sentences.

Central in the heuristic is the logical distinction between categorical judgments (e.g., Manon is a dancer) and thetic judgments (e.g., (What is happening?) – Manon is dancing on the lawn) (Kuroda 1972). Contrary to the common view that both judgments are difficult to empirically verify (Sasse 1996), I argue that these notions can be operationalized if closely related and syntactically reflected conceptual distinctions are taken into account. First, categorical judgments tend to depict fundamentally different types of states-of-affairs (i.e., general states) than thetic judgments do (i.e., transitory events). Second, I claim that the states-of-affairs contained in categorical and thetic judgments are subject to different subtypes of quantification: categorical judgments depict universally quantified states-of-affairs whereas thetic judgments deal with existentially quantified states-of-affairs. A universally quantified state-of-affairs is construed as being true under well-defined general conditions. In an existentially quantified state-of-affairs one or multiple manifestations of this state-of-affairs are pointed at.  

The results of the corpus-based quantitative analysis strongly suggest that the formal variation between Dutch and Turkish or Moroccan Arabic in the bilingual data is paired with a conceptual distinction between categorical and thetic judgments (as defined above). This particular pairing of form and meaning also provides evidence for the fact that language choice, and the alternation between two languages, can be considered an integral part of the ‘grammar’ of the bilingual varieties used in the analyzed data sets.


  • Auer, Peter (ed.). 1998. Code-switching in conversation: language, interaction and identity. London: Routledge.
  • Backus, Ad. 1996. Two in one: bilingual speech of Turkish immigrants in the Netherlands. Tilburg: Tilburg University Press.
  • Boumans, Louis. 1998. The syntax of codeswitching: analysing Moroccan Arabic/Dutch conversations. Tilburg: Tilburg University Press.
  • Eversteijn, Nadia. 2011. “All at once”: language choice and codeswitching by Turkish-Dutch teenagers. Saarbrücken: Lap Lambert Academic Publishing AG & Co. KG.
  • Kuroda, Sige-Yuki. 1972. The categorical and the thetic judgment: evidence from Japanese syntax. Foundations of language 9(2). 153-185.
  • Nortier, Jacomine. 1990. Dutch-Moroccan Arabic code switching among Moroccans in the Netherlands. Dordrecht: Foris Publications.
  • Sasse, Hans-Jürgen. 1996. Theticity. Arbeitspaper Nr. 27 (Neue Folge). Köln: Institut für Sprachwissenschaft, Universität zu Köln.

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