Universiteit Leiden

nl en
Anna Loh

PhD candidate Camil Staps figured out what ‘out’ means

Words originally intended to indicate space, such as ‘out’, are also regularly used to indicate cause and effect. Why does this happen? And how does it work in other languages? PhD candidate Camil Staps decided to find out.

Camil Staps

‘Space is very important to humans,’ explains Staps. ‘Based on evolution, we are designed in such a way that we need information about space to get around in the world. Because of the central place this concept occupies in our world of experience, I expected different language families to approach this in roughly the same way.’

Literally and figuratively

Staps is referring here to both the literal and the more figurative use of space. In the sentence: ‘Startled by the guests, the cat ran out of the room’, ‘out’ indicates that the cat leaves the room, while in ‘The cat ran away out of fear of the guests’ has a more figurative meaning. ‘You can see in this example that the use of ‘out’ has shifted from origin to cause,’ Staps explains.

A similar shift has also occurred for other words. ‘In many languages, ‘out’ is linked to cause, while words that indicate direction, such as ‘to’, are more likely to express effect,’ Staps explains.

Distance matters

Linguists have long expected this principle to hold true for almost all languages. To support this idea, Staps compared two language families: European languages and Hebrew, for which he used the Bible. ‘I discovered that grammatical words such as prepositions or demonstrative pronouns are indeed used in much the same way,’ he says. ‘I addition to space, they can also indicate causality, for example. Of course, this is still not enough to conclude that these words are used in the same way everywhere, but it does confirm our suspicion.’

This confirmation is further reinforced by the other parts of Staps' PhD thesis, in which he discusses speakers' assumptions about what the hearer already knows and power in social relations. In all these cases, distance appears to play an important role in language use, although there is endless room for discovery.

More precise elaboration

‘In any case, I am glad that this research has allowed me to bring cognitive linguistics a little closer to the rest of linguistics. The importance of space has long been emphasised in cognitive linguistics, but that work is often quite abstract, with pictures. I was able to elaborate the hypothesis more precisely.’

This website uses cookies.  More information.