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Review of  Motion Encoding in Language and Space

Reviewer: Agnieszka Lyons
Book Title: Motion Encoding in Language and Space
Book Author: Mila Dimitrova-Vulchanova Emile van der Zee
Publisher: Oxford University Press
Linguistic Field(s): Psycholinguistics
Cognitive Science
Subject Language(s): Bulgarian
Norwegian Bokmål
Persian, Iranian
Issue Number: 24.2044

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This volume, edited by Mila Vulchanova and Emile van der Zee, is the sixth volume in the Oxford University Press ‘Explorations in Language and Space’ series (ed. Emile van der Zee). It comprises 11 chapters which explore the question of motion encoding in language, bringing together research in a range of disciplines including linguistics, computer science, and psychology. Following the introductory Chapter 1 (“Introduction”), all the remaining chapters are divided into two parts. Part I (“Motion encoding across languages: multiple methods and applications”) consists of five chapters which consider the parameters at play in motion encoding through studies on Estonian, English, Norwegian, Bulgarian, Italian, German, Russian, Persian, and Tamil. Part II (“Granularity”) includes five chapters which focus on the role of levels of spatial resolution, or granularity, in encoding motion in language.

In the introduction to the volume, the editors set the scene for the remaining chapters by presenting two reasons for investigating motion encoding in language. Firstly, they show that detecting and identifying motion plays an important part in human communication and life, impacting our anticipation of actions and navigation. Secondly, they highlight the significance of motion- and space-encoding for cognitive and linguistic functioning. The scope of the volume is set against existing research on motion encoding in spatial language, i.e., those parts of natural language that describe perceived space. Van der Zee and Vulchanova, recognising that the thematic organisation of chapters in edited volumes may mean that some general issues remain unrepresented, define the binding theme for the chapters that follow. This recurrent theme consists of the parameters and features determining the possibilities of motion-encoding and the question of ways in which linguistic variation and analysis can be approached. They point to the variety of themes and methodologies covered in the volume and offer a snapshot of the chapters which follow.

Part I begins with a chapter titled ''Distinctions in the linguistic encoding of motion: evidence from a free naming task'' (Chapter 2), in which Mila Vulchanova, Liliana Martinez, and Valentin Vulchanov present results of a free naming experiment aimed at establishing how motion is encoded in five languages: Bulgarian, Russian, English, Norwegian, and Italian. The authors analyse a number of conceptual features (e.g. medium, phase, velocity, posture, method of propulsion, species, path orientation, and figure orientation) which seem relevant for the linguistic categorisation of biological motion, with the main focus being its 'manner'. The results are presented in the form of dendrograms for each language and show, in line with the findings of Malt et al. (2010) and Wolff and Malt (2010), that the cross-linguistic encoding of motion is limited by the physical properties of the world and differs between the analysed languages with respect to the pervasiveness and consistency of features.

In Chapter 3 (“The encoding of motion events in Estonian”), Renate Pajusalu, Neeme Kahusk, Heili Orav, Ann Veismann, Kadri Vider, and Haldur Õim present a study whose aim is to establish how motion events are encoded in Estonian based on a sub-corpus of 1,168 sentences extracted from the Word Disambiguation corpus of Estonian. The chapter focuses on the use of phrases other than the verbal phrase itself, i.e., noun phrases (NP), prepositional phrases (PP), and adverbial phrases (AdvP), and includes a brief consideration of verb phrases. After an overview of Estonian verbs of motion, the chapter discusses the categories of SOURCE, GOAL, ROUTE, and LOCATION and their encoding in Estonian (the highly frequent verb 'käima' (to go to and from) is discussed in a separate section). The authors find that these categories are important in encoding motion in satellite-based languages (Talmy 2000) such as Estonian.

Yury Lander, Timur Maisak, and Ekaterina Rakhilina, in Chapter 4 (“Verbs of aquamotion: semantic domains and lexical systems”), discuss research presented earlier at a few conferences and workshops concerned with cross-linguistic comparisons of lexicons within a single semantic field, that of the verbs of aquamotion, i.e., expressions of motion/being in a liquid medium (p. 68). The distinction proposed in the chapter is that between the semantic domains of SWIMMING, SAILING, DRIFTING, and FLOATING, which are said to be present in most of the 50 analysed languages, and thus assumed to be universal. The authors find that languages can be divided into three types (i.e. middle, rich, and poor) based on their type of aquamotion system.

Using participant instructions as data, Andi Winterboer, Thora Tenbrink, and Reinhard Moratz discuss the use of prepositions, such as 'to the left' and 'in front of', as directional instructions to a robot in Chapter 5 (“Spatial directionals for robot navigation”). They observe that respondents spontaneously use more directionals and motion verbs such as 'go' (e.g. go left), rather than goal-based descriptions (e.g. go to the black box). The authors also report on the improved efficiency of their direction-based instructions after introducing some basic changes to the robot's lexicon and its motion possibilities.

In Chapter 6 (“The role of structure and function in the conceptualization of direction”), Alexander Klippel, Thora Tenbrink, and Daniel R. Montello analyse verbal route directions in English in order to determine which aspects of spatial situation are verbalised at decision points in city street networks, depending on the structure of a decision point (e.g. an intersection), the action itself (e.g. a change of direction), and the availability of disambiguating features, such as landmarks. The data were coded with respect to seven conceptual categories: main direction concept (the primary direction change indicated), use of verbs, redundancy (the presence of more than one description in relation to a single decision point), scene (when competing alternative directions are described), reference to structure (of an intersection), ordering concepts (e.g. distinguishing the intended route segment from competing branches), and landmark use (to either help identify the correct decision point or confirm that correct identification took place). Based on this experiment and their general experience studying route directions, the authors propose a number of general categories to characterise strategies users resort to in direction-giving.

Part II of the volume is concerned with the role of granularity and scale in motion encoding in language. In Chapter 7 (“Granularity in taxonomy, time, and space”), Jeffrey M. Zacks and Barbara Tversky provide a comprehensive overview of the concept of granularity (i.e. spatial scale) and relate it to language. They argue that cognitive processing is dependent on the level of taxonomy adopted by communicators, e.g., referring to the same object as 'a recliner', 'a chair', or 'a piece of furniture' evokes different sets of contrasting objects. The authors also discuss mental representations created when dealing with large-scale and small-scale spaces and situations in which people are likely to adopt 'inside' and 'outside' perspectives of reasoning.

In Chapter 8 (“Granularity in the cross-linguistic encoding of motion and location”), based on the analysis of descriptions of motion into contained spaces, Miriam van Staden and Bhuvana Narasimhan describe cross-linguistic similarities and differences in event boundary placement at the clause level. Granularity is dealt with from three perspectives: with regard to the placement of event boundaries, event classification, and the level of detail provided. Based on data from a number of different languages (i.e. English, Dutch, Hindi, Tidore, Tzeltal, Kalam, and Kilivila), the authors suggest that lexis, grammar, and typical discourse preferences influence the level of specificity in encoding motion and location in the analysed languages. They argue that although the ability to segment events is inherent to speakers of “more or less” (p. 134) all languages, there is substantial variety in the level of granularity in which events are described between languages.

The use of the spatial-temporal prepositions 'before' and 'after' to encode the location of one stationary object with respect to another within a motion event context constitutes the focus of Mark Tutton's chapter (Chapter 9, “Granularity, space, and motion-framed location”). The analysis is based on two understandings of granularity: as the amount of locative information carried by the prepositions under investigation and as the scalar division of space. He finds that motion-framed locative prepositions (e.g. 'before' and 'after') encode the spatial scene differently to static locative prepositions (e.g. 'in front of' and 'behind'). Finally, he discusses factors influencing these phenomena, recognising the implications they have for 'thinking for speaking', i.e. that speakers must consider motion before using language.

Hedda A. Schmidtke (Chapter 10, “Path and place: the lexical specification of granular compatibility”) proposes formal tools for the representation of granularity-dependent concepts, such as 'point-like' and 'proximity', through the analysis of the German constructions 'an...vorbei' ('past') and 'an...entlang' ('along'). The analysis shows that, while both constructions characterise the intermediate course of path, the use of 'entlang' requires a reference object (Ground) that is extended, whereas the use of 'vorbei' is compatible with an atomic, or point-like, referent. Schmidtke shows that her model can be used to explain the unacceptability of certain expressions in German.

Urpo Nikanne and Emile van der Zee's research in Chapter 11 (“The lexical representations of path curvature in motion expressions: a three-way path curvature distinction”) analyses the different ways in which path curvature is expressed in Finnish and Dutch motion verbs. They propose that such encoding can represent curvature at three levels: no reference to the shape of a path in their lexical semantics (GL0 verbs, e.g., mennä 'to go'); focus on the overall shape of the path (GL1 verbs, e.g., kaartaa 'to go along a curved path'); or focus on the fine-grained aspects of a path of motion (GL2, e.g., mutkitella 'to zigzag'). The authors find that path curvature can also be encoded in special constructions, such as NPs and PPs, or derived from certain Manner of Motion (MoM) verbs.

The volume also contains biographical information of all the contributors as well as a list of abbreviations and an index of subjects.


The reviewed volume contains chapters based on ongoing empirical research by a group of researchers specialising in a range of disciplines including linguistics, psychology, computer science, language technology, geography, and engineering. Chapters within this volume, through the employment of diverse methodologies, explore issues arising from the study of motion-encoding in spatial language in two wider areas: encoding of motion across languages and the issue of granularity. The volume is characterised by a good level of internal coherence and logical structure in presenting such a wide variety of topics and methods.

This diversity, however, presupposes different levels of assumed knowledge between chapters. Some, e.g., Chapter 6 (“The role of structure and function in the conceptualization of direction”) and Chapter 7 (“Granularity in taxonomy, time, and space”), are suitable for readers with any level of familiarity with the topic and domain, whereas others, e.g., Chapter 10 (“Path and place: the lexical specification of granular compatibility”), assume a certain level of previous knowledge of semantics. A reader new to linguistics wishing to consult the Abbreviations section will also encounter some difficulties. Although the list does include explanations of most of the abbreviations used in the chapters, there are some that have not been included in the list or explained anywhere in the relevant chapters, e.g., 'PSS' and 'COM' on p. 55. This is linked to a consistency issue.

The Index is also disappointingly concise and the choice of phrases listed in it is not sufficiently comprehensive or logical. For example, 'gesture' is featured in the index, even though there are only three brief mentions in the book, whereas 'curve' or 'curvature' are not, in spite of all of Chapter 11 being devoted to them. It would also be helpful if the numbers of the most informative pages for each reference term were indicated, e.g., bolded. Additionally, although most terms in the Index are spelt using lower case, some seem to be presented with random capitalisation, e.g., 'Gesture' or 'Production' are capitalised for no apparent reason.

“Motion Encoding in Language and Space” continues the series ‘Explorations in Language and Space’ with another clearly written and rigorously investigated volume which broadens our understanding of the interrelationships between motion, space, and language. The few editorial problems do not impact the general value of the volume, which presents new research that tackles a wide range of issues and will constitute a valuable resource for scholars already involved in research into language and space.


Malt, B. and Wolff, P. (eds). 2010. Words and the Mind. How Words Capture Human Experience. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Malt, B., Gennari, S., and Imai, M. 2010. Lexicalization Patterns and the World-to-Word Mapping. In: B. Malt and P. Wolff (eds) 2010. pp. 29-57.

Talmy, L. 2000. Toward a Cognitive Semantics, Vol. I & II. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
Agnieszka Knaś is a doctoral candidate at the Department of Linguistics, Queen Mary, University of London, United Kingdom. Her research interests include multimodality and embedded multimodality, electronically mediated communication, space and place construction in discourse, and co-presence in a joint communicative space. Her PhD research focuses on physical self-presentation and self-positioning in the discourse of text-messages.

Format: Hardback
ISBN-13: 9780199661213
Pages: 256
Prices: U.K. £ 70.00
U.S. $ 135.00