Similarity and Variation in the Distribution of Spatial Expressions Across Three Languages

Abstract

Languages universally encode spatial relationships between objects. However, speakers employ a variety of different language-specific expressions, which may encode culture-specific information about objects and/or different spatial concepts. We ask whether aspects of the encoding of spatial relations across languages nevertheless show common underlying spatial concepts as reflected in the distributions of spatial expressions over spatial sub-types. We examine a set of hypothesized distinctions within the spatial relational concepts of Containment and Support across three typologically distinct languages: English, Hindi, and Mandarin. We find support for two related hypotheses concerning common patterns of variation in (a) speakers' use of select "basic" spatial expressions, and (b) languages' inventory and distribution of expressions across hypothesized Containment and Support subtypes. The results underscore the presence of strong universal similarities in both the extension of basic spatial expressions across relations and in the principles governing the diversity of expressions available for encoding particular relations.


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