The following text is an abstract of a presentation held at the Hawaii International Conference on Arts and Humanities, 12-15 January 2003, in Honolulu, Hawaii, USA.
Spatial relations in some unrelated languages – typological similarities and differences
The following submission is an abstract of a Work-in-Progress Report within the project Information Structure in a Typological Perspective, with Special Reference to Samoan. The report presents a theoretical analysis of spatial relations. The languages of the study are English, Greek, Persian, and Samoan. Some reference is done to Finnish, Japanese, Swedish, and Turkish.
All languages possess different overt expressions of relations in time and space. A common way among the languages of the world is the use of prepositions (e.g. English in, on, to etc) but also suffixes (e.g. Finnish -ssa, -lla etc). The spatial prepositions and suffixes denote the relation of a Trajector to a physical Landmark, as in the example The vase (Trajector) is on the table (Landmark). However, not only the overt expression but also the relation itself is a subject of variation among languages. The system in the Samoan language, probably also in the other Polynesian languages including Hawaiian, displays a special pattern, unlike that in English.
Spatial relations cover several dimensions or locations. This study concerns the following: 1) interiority/exteriority (cf. English in/outside), 2) superiority/inferiority (cf. on/under), and 3) anteriority/posteriority (cf. in front of/behind). These three dimensions include a) a static position at the Landmark, b) a motion to it, and c) a motion from it.
The spatial system in English and Swedish as well as in other Indo-European languages in Europe tends to relate the Trajector directly to the Landmark (lit. on the table). The same principle goes for Finnish being a Finno-Ugric language, with the overt difference that the relations are not expressed by prepositions but by suffixes (pöydällä). In Greek, no doubt an Indo-European language, displays however a slightly different pattern, where the Trajector is related to an imaginative region of the Landmark. This is observed to a higher extent in Persian, also an Indo-European language spoken in West Asia. The most obvious and striking patterns are however seen in Samoan, where the region plays a significant role. The word luga denotes a region above the Landmark (the rock).
Sam. SÇ oso ´ese mai le tamaititi mai luga o le ma´a.
PAST jump away ART boy from upside of ART rock
Engl. The child jumped down from the little rock.
The observations have unveiled a pattern of spatial relations across genetic language families and across overt expressions. Seen from a systematic typological point of view, the differences may indicate universal similarities in regarding the world in general, common for all humans.
The findings, both of this specific study and of the project Information Structure in a Typological Perspective, with Special Reference to Samoan, are highly relevant for topics like ethnic studies, literature, second language studies, psychology, translation, information technology and others. The issue of Information structure is a cross-disciplinary topic, and future research is therefore highly desired.