LINGUIST List 14.2458

Wed Sep 17 2003

Review: Cognitive Science: Levinson (2003)

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  1. Thora Tenbrink, Space in Language and Cognition

Message 1: Space in Language and Cognition

Date: Wed, 17 Sep 2003 00:43:49 +0000
From: Thora Tenbrink <>
Subject: Space in Language and Cognition

Levinson, Stephen C. (2003) Space in Language and Cognition:
Explorations in Cognitive Diversity, Cambridge University Press,
Language, Culture and Cognition 5.

Announced at

Thora Tenbrink, University of Bremen, Germany


''Space in Language and Cognition'' was written by the Director of the
Language andCognition department of the Max Planck Institute for
Psycholinguistics (MPIP) in Nijmegen. The book draws on research
carried out by MPIP members during the past decades, summing up
insights on the topic of spatial thinking gained in field work in many
different cultures. Specifically, Levinson is concerned with spatial
frames of reference. Based on the finding that some cultures rely on
absolute frames of reference both in language and cognition - in
contrast to cultures like ours that mainly employ intrinsic and
relative frames of reference - he addresses the controversial issue of
the relation between language and thought.

Chapter 1, The Intellectual Background: Two Millenia of Western Ideas
About Spatial Thinking -- In this introductory chapter, Levinson
motivates the research on spatial reference frames in relation to the
fact that many basic scientific notions with regard to space are
deeply rooted in Western conceptions about the world. Thinking about
locations in terms of 'place' rather than 'space', for example, has an
equally long tradition as a preference for 'relative' and 'egocentric'
rather than 'absolute' dimensions, and it is commonly assumed that
language universally reflects such basic conceptions. Many accounts of
spatial cognition do not seriously allow for any far-reaching
variability, being based on the facts about language and thought that
are observable in the researchers' cultural home environment.

In contrast, Levinson aims at pointing out systematic differences in
spatial thinking that were previously excluded or neglected by experts
because of a pervasive bias towards Western cultural traditions. Thus,
the fact that Western languages make heavy use of the human body for
spatial notions (as pointed out, e.g., by Clark 1973) does not prove
that this is universally true. Spatial relationships expressed in
terms of one (e.g., relative) reference frame cannot be translated
without further information into a different reference frame (e.g.,
absolute). Since the languages of the world differ profoundly in the
range of reference frames they provide, it is clearly premature to
draw conclusions from the facts of only one kind of language about any
innate or universal concepts they are assumed to reflect.Levinson
maintains that no direct one-to-one mapping between non-linguistic
concepts and the semantics of linguistic expressions should be
assumed, but points out that, with regard to reference frames,
fundamental diversity is not only found on the linguistic level but
also in non- linguistic codings of spatial scenes.

Thus, although language cannot be regarded as a direct window to
cognition, distinctions expressed in language clearly need to be
supported by cognition. His conclusion (from the facts presented in
the later chapters of the book) is that ''human spatial thinking is
quite heavily influenced by culture, and more specifically by
language; when languages differ in crucial respects, so does the
corresponding conceptualization of spatial relations'' (p 18). That
this is a non- trivial finding is obvious through the fact that much
scientific research is concerned not only with spatial concepts and
language, but also with other domains, such as time, that are
generally assumed to be based on, or at least closely related to, the
domain of space.

Chapter 2, Frames of Reference -- Much of this chapter draws on a
previous, well-received publication of the author, in which he
develops his conception of spatial reference frames (Levinson
1996). First, he points out that - in contrast to some assumptions in
the literature - it is not the objects themselves, or their change of
location, that constitute the differences between different ways of
perceiving spatial relations, but rather the underlying abstract
''coordinate systems''. Then, he summarizes diverse accounts of
spatial reference frames in the literature, points to numerous
contradictions and confusions of terminology, and goes on to propose
his own classification. He distinguishes three basic kinds of frames
of reference: intrinsic, relative, and absolute. This account
cross-cuts many other distinctions previously drawn and re-defines
several conceptions that could not be properly captured using
oppositions like 'egocentric' vs. 'allocentric', or 'deictic'
vs. 'intrinsic'. Levinson's intrinsic frame of reference is based on a
binary relation between referent and relatum (identical to origin),
while the relative frame of reference uses a ternary one between
referent, origin, and relatum. In both frames of reference, the origin
can be the speaker, the addressee, or a third entity. The widespread
term 'deictic' is not - in Levinson's view - a sensible
characterisation for spatial frames of reference since it confuses
binary and ternary relations, which are logically different. Absolute
frames of reference rely on arbitrary fixed bearings, 'cardinal
directions', which can be related to compass bearings (although they
usually do not correspond directly to them). Using such a system
requires maintaining one's orientation with respect to the fixed
bearings at all times. As Levinson shows in detail in later chapters,
people using languages that rely on absolute frames of reference are
in fact permanently aware of their 'absolute' orientation, although it
is not clear how they do it, i.e. how it is possible that people use
an 'internal compass' that people in Western cultures simply do not
have available. Obviously, such people need to maintain a constant
background calculation of cardinal directions, no matter where they
are, whether or not they are in familiar surroundings, and in which
direction they are oriented.

Chapter 3, Linguistic Diversity -- In this chapter, Levinson presents
in more detail how the semantic parameters outlined in the previous
chapter are selected and arranged in different languages. An overview
shows the ways in which a ''Where''-question (the availability of
which apparently is a language universal) can be answered by either
employing a frame of reference or by using placenames, deictic
expressions and gestures, or by relying on contiguity or topology. In
this classification, 'deictic' expressions are not used in frames of
reference but rather as a means of providing landmarks, such as 'here'
and 'there', yielding radial specifications without an underlying
coordinate system. The three frames of reference can also be applied
to the vertical dimension, which does not play a major role in this
book, but is briefly outlined in the present chapter. Furthermore, the
frames of reference are differentiated into further subgroups,
including some observations with regard to the area of motion, and
some information about distributional patterns across languages is

Chapter 4, Absolute Minds: Glimpses into Two Cultures -- This chapter
provides some deeper insight into two cultures (Hopevale and Tenejapa
communities) where absolute frames of reference play a major role.
Levinson presents fascinating anecdotes as well as detailed
statistical results from the investigation of both linguistic and
non-linguistic features in field work carried through by himself and
other MPIP researchers. The methods used are described in some detail,
and it is pointed out in which ways the investigations can be said to
be significant or still require continuation or improvement. The
analysis shows how the two communities differ in some crucial respects
and still share fundamental cognitive properties based on the fact
that they both rely on absolute frames of reference in language and

Chapter 5, Diversity in Mind: Methods and Results From a Cross-
linguistic Sample -- In this chapter, cross-cultural investigations
are examined in detail testing - and confirming - the hypothesis that
there is a correlation between linguistic and non-linguistic codings
of comparable spatial scenes. After establishing the details of this
correlation, Levinson rules out further possible determinants other
than language itself that could bring about this parallelism. His
conclusion is that ''populations converge on a particular non-verbal
coding strategy largely because they have learnt to do so by
communicating with each other'' (p 213), i.e., language is the driving
force that leads to the different cultural strategies with regard to
the choice of frame of reference.

Chapter 6, Beyond Language: Frames of Reference in Wayfinding and
Pointing -- While previous chapters concentrated on language and non-
linguistic coding abilities such as those needed in memory and
reasoning, this chapter addresses two further areas reflecting aspects
of spatial cognition, namely, wayfinding and gestures during speaking.
It turns out that people living in cultures relying on absolute frames
of reference are specifically - and astonishingly - good at finding
their way home even in unfamiliar surroundings, as well as at
estimating directions even to places where they have never been
before. This implies that these people integrate information about
the location of places into a mental map (without ever using a real
one), including angles and distances in relation to other places. This
kind of mental map is fundamentally different to the kind of
'strip-map' (Tolman 1948) readily available to people in cultures
utilising primarily relative frames of reference. This amazing ability
of 'absolute speakers' seems to be imparted through language: when
talking, these people use gestures indicating absolute directions even
in telling narratives, thereby reflecting correctly the orientations
and spatial arrangements referred to in their story. Such gestures can
point in all directions, even 'through' (i.e., behind) the body.

Chapter 7, Language and Thought -- The last chapter can be
characterised as an empirically motivated philosophical essay about
the nature of the relationship between language and thought, and about
the implications with regard to theories of conceptual structure as
well as the Whorfian hypothesis of linguistic relativity. Levinson
contends that, in contrast to claims that language merely reflects
underlying concepts, language facilitates cognitive development,
making available the concepts to be developed, and permanently
(re)structuring cognition. A brief look into language acquisition data
supports this hypothesis via the fact that no frame of reference seems
to be innate; none is acquired before the age of four, and which frame
of reference is acquired first depends on the predominant one in the
respective culture. Thus, fixed arbitrary bearings equivalent to
'north' are acquired by children in 'absolute' cultures between the
ages of four and six - the same age at which Western children acquire
the supposedly innate intrinsic frame of reference that our languages
rely so much upon. In a comprehensive overview (p 314), Levinson
proposes a list of universals of frames of reference in language and
associated cognition, such as: ''All combinations of frames of
reference are possible in a language, except that a relative frame of
reference implies an intrinsic one''. This list exemplifies the
fundamental contrast between Levinson's findings and such widespread
(Western traditional) ideas as those recapitulated in Chapter 1.


This book is a highly valuable accomplishment in several respects: It
summarizes the findings of many years of research in various different
cultures carried out by a number of MPIP field workers in an
interesting and highly readable way. It disproves several popular
hypotheses and traditional assumptions with regard to spatial language
and concepts. It presents a comprehensive overview over the range of
variability in spatial reference and non-linguistic spatial concepts,
and it goes beyond the restricted domain of spatial cognition to
contribute to scientific debates momentous to many different areas of
research in various disciplines. In addition to the book's own virtues
it should be pointed out that field research on the lesser known
languages and cultures of the world is a tremendous achievement in
itself. To work out such detailed and well-informed results as
presented in this book (as well as, of course, in the many other
publications of the MPIP and other institutions) requires years of
commitment to the hardships of adapting to a fundamentally different
culture. Clearly, experiments carried through only with the help of an
uninformed interpreter (which is often done to avoid the many problems
associated with extensive field work) could never provide nearly as
much insight.

In the following, I offer some ideas and remarks that hopefully give
rise to further engagement with the topic.

In his overview of spatial reference in Chapter 3, Levinson
concentrates on expressions that could answer the question as to
''where'' an object (or a place) is located. His overview contains
also descriptions of other kinds of spatial reference, but - similar
to most other research in this field - it neglects one broad issue,
namely, how objects are differentiated from other (similar or
different) objects using qualitative spatial expressions (cf. Moratz
et al. 2001), answering a question such as ''which object (do you
mean)?''. As it turns out in our own experience in human-robot
interaction (where this kind of 'group-based' reference is a useful
way of mediating between the interlocutors' perceptions), this issue
is not trivial in that there is no one-to-one correspondence between
the frames of reference as worked out by Levinson and group-based
strategies of referring.

Also research findings addressing further issues are largely left out
of Levinson's overview, such as those concerning application (or
acceptability) areas in comprehension and production (e.g., Zimmer et
al. 1998), the question how linguistic modifications and combinations
of referring expressions are used for non-prototypical reference areas
(e.g., Vorwerg 2001), or alternative methods of localising such as the
employment of quantitative rather than qualitative expressions,
specifying angles and distances, or relying on an object's features,
which are all pervasive in spatial communication. Levinson also does
not pursue the fact that an absolute frame of reference - using
compass directions - does indeed serve several communicative functions
(not only in external maps!) in Western societies. That communicative
functions can play a major role in the choice of frames of reference
is shown by Senft (2001) for absolute and relative frames of reference
in Kilivila. This issue could clearly have received more attention in
this book (Levinson mentions the matter briefly when describing
situation- specific vs. unspecific experimentation). Thus, Levinson's
intuitively appealing characterisation of frames of reference should
be viewed as a (useful) simplification of a complex area of
research. Of course, considering the book's aims it stands to reason
that one must abstract from some details in order to be able to grasp
the overall pattern that Levinson develops convincingly.

In spite of the detailed theoretical definitions of the three frames
of reference it is not always transparent how, in a given situation,
the relevant reference frame should be determined. Take Levinson's
example (p 270) in which ''the knife is to the right of the fork'':
the same configuration is achieved by employing an intrinsic reference
frame using a person seated at the table as origin, so that the fork
is on the left of the person, while the knife is on the right. It
stands to reason that people's good memory of scenarios like this rely
more on the everyday functional application (using an intrinsic frame
of reference) than on a context-free conceptualization of a knife
being located to the right of a fork (using a relative frame of
reference). Similarly, the comparison of gestures, wayfinding
abilities, and route descriptions of 'absolute' and 'relative'
speakers suffers from the fact that route descriptions mostly rely on
an intrinsic reference frame based on a 'generic wanderer' (Herrmann &
Grabowski 1994) rather than a relative one, and gestures are equally
likely to rely on the speaker's intrinsic features rather than on a
third entity (in Ch. 6 Levinson offers a distinction between intrinsic
and relative reference frames reflected in gestures which, to my mind,
needs further motivation).

Concerning the Whorfian hypothesis, Levinson seems to pursue the idea
that communication shapes thought to a certain degree; however, mostly
his emphasis is on the role of language rather than language use. That
this is a fundamental difference becomes clear considering the
century- old distinctions between langue and parole, or competence vs.
performance, etc. A terminological confusion (if it is only such)
could therefore lead to some major misconceptions.

My observations are in no way intended to diminish the author's
accomplishment in presenting this book. It is strongly recommended to
all researchers and students of spatial cognition and beyond,
presenting both new ideas and a framework that is relevant to a broad
range of sub-areas in the field.


Clark, H. H. 1973. Space, time, semantics, and the child. In
T.E. Moore (ed.), Cognitive development and the acquisition of
language, pp. 28- 64. New York: Academic Press.

Herrmann, T. & J. Grabowski. 1994. Sprechen. Psychologie der
Sprachproduktion. Heidelberg: Spektrum.

Levinson, S. 1996. Frames of reference and Molyneux's question: Cross-
linguistic evidence. In P. Bloom, M. Peterson, L. Nadel and M. Garrett
(eds.), Language and space, pp. 109-69. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Moratz, R., K. Fischer, & T. Tenbrink. 2001. Cognitive Modelling of
Spatial Reference for Human-Robot Interaction. International Journal
On Artificial Intelligence Tools, 10:4, World Scientific Publishing,

Senft, G. 2001. Frames of spatial reference in Kilivila. Studies in
Language 25:3, 521-555.

Tolman, E.C. 1948. Cognitive maps in rats and men. The Psychological
Review 55(4):109-45.

Vorwerg, C. 2001. Raumrelationen in Wahrnehmung und Sprache:
Kategorisierungsprozesse bei der Benennung visueller
Richtungsrelationen. Wiesbaden: DUV.

Zimmer, H.D., H.R. Speiser, J. Baus, A. Blocher, & E. Stopp. 1998. The
Use of Locative Expressions in Dependence of the Spatial Relation
between Target and Reference Object in Two-Dimensional Layouts. In C.
Freksa, C. Habel & K.F. Wender (eds.), Spatial Cognition. An
Interdisciplinary Approach to Representing and Processing Spatial
Knowledge (pp. 223-240). Berlin: Springer-Verlag.


Thora Tenbrink is a research assistant in the newly established DFG
Collaborative Research Center SFB/TR8 "Spatial Cognition: Reasoning,
Action, Interaction" (Bremen & Freiburg, Germany). Her research
interests focus on the fields of discourse analysis and text
linguistics; previous work has dealt with discourse relations and
information structure, presuppositions and non-temporal implications
of temporal connectives, especially 'before' and 'after'. Her current
focus is on empirical research on spatial reference systems in human-
robot interaction. Her dissertation project deals with discoursal
applicability conditions and features of spatial (and temporal where
applicable) expressions in human-robot interaction.
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