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Verbs as linguistic markers of agency: The social side of grammar

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European Journal of Social Psychology

Published online on


Basic grammatical categories may carry social meanings irrespective of their semantic content. In a set of four studies, we demonstrate that verbs—a basic linguistic category present and distinguishable in most languages—are related to the perception of agency, a fundamental dimension of social perception. In an archival analysis of actual language use in Polish and German, we found that targets stereotypically associated with high agency (men and young people) are presented in the immediate neighborhood of a verb more often than non‐agentic social targets (women and older people). Moreover, in three experiments using a pseudo‐word paradigm, verbs (but not adjectives and nouns) were consistently associated with agency (but not with communion). These results provide consistent evidence that verbs, as grammatical vehicles of action, are linguistic markers of agency. In demonstrating meta‐semantic effects of language, these studies corroborate the view of language as a social tool and an integral part of social perception.