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'Natural Concepts' in the Spatial Topological Domain-Adpositional Meanings in Crosslinguistic Perspective: An Exercise in Semantic Typology

Stephen Levinson, Sérgio Meira and The Language and Cognition Group
Language
Vol. 79, No. 3 (Sep., 2003), pp. 485-516
Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/4489463
Page Count: 32
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Since scans are not currently available to screen readers, please contact JSTOR User Support for access. We'll provide a PDF copy for your screen reader.
'Natural Concepts' in the Spatial Topological Domain-Adpositional Meanings in Crosslinguistic Perspective: An Exercise in Semantic Typology
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Abstract

Most approaches to spatial language have assumed that the simplest spatial notions are (after Piaget) topological and universal (containment, contiguity, proximity, support, represented as semantic primitives such as IN, ON, UNDER, etc.). These concepts would be coded directly in language, above all in small closed classes such as adpositions-thus providing a striking example of semantic categories as language-specific projections of universal conceptual notions. This idea, if correct, should have as a consequence that the semantic categories instantiated in spatial adpositions should be essentially uniform crosslinguistically. This article attempts to verify this possibility by comparing the semantics of spatial adpositions in nine unrelated languages, with the help of a standard elicitation procedure, thus producing a preliminary semantic typology of spatial adpositional systems. The differences between the languages turn out to be so significant as to be incompatible with stronger versions of the UNIVERSAL CONCEPTUAL CATEGORIES hypothesis. Rather, the language-specific spatial adposition meanings seem to emerge as compact subsets of an underlying semantic space, with certain areas being statistical ATTRACTORS or FOCI. Moreover, a comparison of systems with different degrees of complexity suggests the possibility of positing implicational hierarchies for spatial adpositions. But such hierarchies need to be treated as successive divisions of semantic space, as in recent treatments of basic color terms. This type of analysis appears to be a promising approach for future work in semantic typology.

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