I have been reading The Stuff of Thought by Steven Pinker which is a survey of different ways language gives clues to how the mind works. (See my related entry dated September 28, 2007) In the fourth chapter, he gives a very enlightening portrayal of how language describes objects in space.
“Languages tend to have terms for contact, vertical alignment, attachment, containment, and proximity, as if there were a cognitive alphabet of spatial relationships more basic than the prepositions of a given language.” (p. 178)
“A light bulb is considered to be in a socket when its base is inserted, since that allows it to be illuminated, but a person is not in a car if only his arm extends in through a window, since that doesn’t allow the car to move him or even shelter him.” (p. 187) The meaning of the preposition in depends on the objects that are being described.
“If Sally has one big stone and Jenny three much smaller stones, who has more? The question by itself is unanswerable: it depends on whether you mean “more stone”, or “more stones.” (p. 173) The meaning of more depends on whether it is referring to the number of objects (stones) or the mass/volume/weight of the object (stone).
“The part of the mind that interfaces with language treats objects schematically. … Every morsel of matter has a length, a width, and a thickness, but when we speak of these morsels we pretend that some of the dimensions aren’t there. … A road, a river, or a ribbon is conceptualized as an unbounded line (its length which serves as its single primary dimension) fattened out by a bounded line (its width which serves as a secondary dimension), resulting in a surface.” (pp. 179, 180)
”Since words and syllables aren’t free, languages economize when they can. … Imagine you are in a rainstorm, ten feet away from an overhanging ledge. Move one foot toward it, you still get wet. Move over another foot; you still get wet. Keep moving, and at some point you no longer get wet. Continue to move another foot in the same direction, you don’t get any dryer. So nature has set up a discontinuity between the segment of the path where gradual changes of position leave you equally wet and the segment where gradual changes leave you equally dry. And it is exactly at that discontinuity that one would begin to describe your position using under rather than near.” (P 186)
“Spatial terms quantize space at the cusps where causal events play out differently on each side. As your palm gradually [wraps] around a marble, the curvature at which you stop saying the marble is on the hand and start saying it’s in is more or less the shape that would prevent it from rolling off when you jiggle it.” (P 186)
Dr. Pinker’s premise in this book is that language reflects our thoughts. By disecting our language, we get a glimpse of how the thought engine behind the language works. We use count nouns and mass nouns in language because our minds see countable items such as chairs or dogs and our minds also see non-countable mass objects such as water or furniture. We use a preposition like along to describe proximity to a one-dimensional line and we use inside to describe containment in a two or three dimensional object.
All languages take slightly different approaches to describing space, but there are similarities that can possibly be used to infer an underlying brain structure that helps define our language. “Most of the world’s languages divide the space around the speaker into just two regions, though about a quarter of them (including Spanish) make a three-way distinction among ‘near me’, ‘far from me’, and ‘in between,’ and a very few go to four, adding ‘very far from me’.” (p. 178) He is referring to the English terms here (near me) and there (far from me).
“Not all languages carve [spatial relationships] up in the same way. Presumably this is because each language trades off expressiveness, precision, word length, and vocabulary size in a different way. But the quantization of spatial relations is universal, and causally important relations like contact, attachment, alignment, verticality and proximity make their appearance in all the spatial vocabularies of the world.” (p. 187)
The book is an excellent example of Dr. Pinker’s writing – it is entertaining while at the same time being specific and to the point. He digs into the issues and comes at them from all aspects – cognitive psychology, neuro-science, pathology, and child language acquisition. He is an academic, and at the same time he presents his material in a way that is concise and engaging.