Universiteit Leiden

nl en


The persistence of space: formalizing the polysemy of spatial relations in functional elements

On the 20th of June, Camil Staps successfully defended a doctoral thesis. Leiden University Centre for Linguistics congratulates Camil on this achievement!

Camil Staps
20 June 2024
Leiden University Repository

Languages frequently make use of spatial vocabulary to describe abstract notions. For instance, the spatial preposition by (‘by the house’) can also describe relations in the temporal and causal domain (‘by Monday’; ‘hit by John’). This dissertation shows that when a spatial term is extended into an abstract domain, some of its spatial meaning persists. Speakers rely on a spatial representation of the abstract domain, which they use to reinterpret the spatial term to obtain an abstract meaning. 

On the basis of Western European languages, the proposal is formalized for causal prepositions (e.g., French ‘de’ and ‘par’ in passives) as well as demonstratives referring to information content (e.g., the use of English ‘that’ to introduce complement clauses). The proposals are further tested in corpus studies using Biblical Hebrew. Data from the Hebrew Bible additionally show that the analysis can be extended to the use of prepositions for describing social relations. 

This research shows that spatial meaning often persists when grammaticalization takes place. Use of spatial vocabulary in abstract domains is not metaphorical but deeply embedded in cognition, shaping the conceptualization of abstract relations. In this way, the study of language contributes to our understanding of the human mind.

This website uses cookies.  More information.