I have been reading about prepositions, as research for a short video that I am going to make. In part this is a development from my recent video work Turning Tables, which was about the influence of language on egocentric or geocentric spatial thinking.
Whilst working on this video I came across articles describing experiments in which linguists experimentally test use of prepositions (in, on, over etc) in relation to different visual scenes. (For example see “The Seamntics of English Prepositions” by Andrea Tyler and Vyvyan Evans). It seems that until quite recently it was commonly held that prepositions mapped spatial relationships between objects, in a fairly straightforward way, as if prepositions would map easily onto Euclidean geometry. More recent experiments have shown that things are not quite so simple, our use of a particular term is also influenced by 1) dynamic-kinematic aspects of the scene. 2) knowledge of object function.
For example, in relation to the first point and looking at the image, top left, where the horizontal arrows represent movement of the bowl from side to side, people are more likely to identify the top ball (identified by the diagonal arrow) as being in the bowl when it moves with the bowl, rather than when the scene is static. In relation to the second point, whether you describe an object as a ‘plate’ or a ‘dish’ apparently influences whether someone will describe a second object as being ‘on’ or ‘in’ the plate/dish. People also respond differently to items stacked in a jug vs. in a bowl and the difference is more marked when the containers are filled with liquid (when the jug seems to be fulfilling its salient function).
But why am I interested in this? Well, it’s part of a broader and ongoing exploration of the relationship between language, perception and the world. Tyler and Evans write: “If one assumes that language directly reflects the real world, then one assumes that the objectively metric properties and principles of Euclidean geometry…will form the basis of linguistic descriptions of spatial scenes” (p.21)
However, as explained, experiments show that we do not base word choice only on geometry. So they posit the idea of ‘mental models’ which act as a kind of interim stage between perception and description of a scene. When we look at an arrangement of objects we compare it to a storehouse of mental models that we have built up through experience. The model for the word ‘in’ is based on containment and locational control. The model for the word ‘on’ is to do with support and locational control.
The crux of this is that there is a bodily and experiential basis for meaning. Grammar is not just a set of abstract rules, but is based on our interaction with the physical world. This is a central notion in a book that captured me a few years’ back, Stephen Pinker’s “The Stuff of Thought” (which incidentally also contained reference to some of the experiments outlined above, although I’d forgotten that). On the one hand, the idea that grammar derives from our interaction with the world and yet is insufficient to specify it completely seems very simple and intuitive, Tyler and Evans go on to say:
“Things meaningful to us precisely when have important consequences. e.g. if we let go of a cup without placing it on a larger object, it will fall to the floor.” (p.24). and quoting another linguist, Langacker: “Linguistic expressions are not meaningful in and of themselves, but only through the access they afford to different stores of knowledge that allow us to make sense of them.” (p.17).
On the other hand, exploration of the relationship between language, meaning and the world tap into larger questions about how the mind works and about the nature of being human. What is intrinsic, what is universal and what is learned?
Tyler and Evans talk about non-spatial uses of terms ‘in’ and ‘on,’ such as when we say were are ‘in trouble’ or ‘on the dole.’ Where some linguists have suggested these are distinct, unrelated uses, Tyler and Evans posit that these are metaphorical extensions of a primary, spatial meaning. For example, we use ‘in’ when we are contained by a particularly strong emotional state. This is an idea that I grasp in theory, but haven’t really got my head around how all the meanings of the presuppositions can be reached by this sort of metaphorical extension (take a look in a dictionary and each word has 10-15 meanings laid out). Perhaps some of them are easy to trace and some of them are more like dead metaphors, retained in language but we’re not sure quite where from.
The question remains of how I am going to turn some of these ideas into a video without it seeming really boring or didactic? I must remember that I am not doing linguistics, but using some ideas taken from the field to make an artwork. My current thinking is that I will play around with mocking up some of the in/on experiments and combine this with a soundtrack of a voice intoning some different uses of the words ‘in’ and ‘on,’ but I need to test this to see if it works.