LINGUIST List 15.296

Tue Jan 27 2004

Review: Semantics: Tyler & Evans (2003)

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  • Thora Tenbrink, The Semantics of English Prepositions

    Message 1: The Semantics of English Prepositions

    Date: Tue, 27 Jan 2004 10:24:43 -0500 (EST)
    From: Thora Tenbrink <>
    Subject: The Semantics of English Prepositions

    Tyler, Andrea & Vyvyan Evans (2003) The Semantics of English Prepositions: Spatial Sciences, Embodied Meaning, and Cognition. Cambridge University Press.

    Announced at

    Thora Tenbrink, University of Bremen, Germany


    This book is a comprehensive account of English spatial prepositions in the cognitive linguistics tradition. Pursuing a ''principled polysemy'' approach, the authors present an analysis of the semantic networks of altogether 15 spatial prepositions, giving a detailed case study of 'over' and sketching the basic features of the other particles. Many of the presented insights are well-founded in the literature -- major sources are Langacker (e.g., 1987, 1991), Talmy (e.g., 2000), and Grady (1997) -- while others are original. Central to the book is the methodology developed to identify primary and secondary senses associated with each preposition.

    While it is the authors' conviction that all other senses of a preposition are derived from an originally and primarily spatial sense, the relationship is nevertheless not viewed as metaphorical as in various previous approaches, but as experiential. In their view, experiencing regular and motivated correlations of events and scenarios in the real world motivates the integration of such regularities into language. In this way, 'up' became associated with 'more', since it is a regular experience in spatial scenarios that larger amounts correlate with increased vertical extension (e.g., liquid in a glass). Together with pragmatic strengthening it may then happen that concepts that were originally simply associated with other concepts in the usage of a certain preposition, come to be expressed by that preposition even without the presence of the original concept. Thus, in 'The prices have gone up' there is no longer a spatial sense of vertical direction involved. Basically, Tyler and Evans' approach is in line with previous analyses in the cognitive linguistic tradition, distinguished mainly in their methodology that is designed to steer away from the traditional, rather vague conception of underlying metaphorical relationships, towards a more systematic investigation of how such cognitive dependencies may be explained.


    Chapter 1. The nature of meaning.

    The first chapter serves as an introduction presenting the main aspects of the authors' theoretical views: Spatial prepositions have developed their semantic potential on a transparent experiential basis. The meanings associated with each particle are related in systematic and motivated ways (underscoring the adopted principled polysemy in contrast to homonymy or monosemy approaches). As a general trait, linguistic expressions are underdetermined; they serve as prompts for meaning construction, which is a conceptual process. In other words, language does not directly refer to the real world but to human conceptualizations of it. The human conceptual system, in turn, is a product of how we experience and interact with the real world. In this way, linguistic expressions and their usage are shaped by our experience. In comprehension, the selection of a particular meaning out of the available meaning potential is determined by conceptual integration in the given context.

    Chapter 2. Embodied meaning and spatial experience

    In this chapter, the authors develop their ideas as to how the functional nature of spatial scenes give rise to correlated non-spatial inferences, a process they term ''experiential correlation'' (cf. Grady 1997). For instance, spatial relations such as containment are interconnected with experiences such as being protected, being constrained and delimited, etc., which constitute functional rather than spatial relations. Similarly, perceptual resemblances can lead to perceived shared characteristics, as exemplified by 'She's just a twig.' The authors propose that underlying such a sentence is not metaphorical transfer but rather a ''process which relies on conscious human perceptual organization'', which, just as experiential correlation, leads to the conceptualization of one kind of entity in terms of another.

    Chapter 3. Towards a model of polysemy networks: spatial scenes and conceptualization

    In the third chapter, the authors warn that the polysemy approach can lead to the fallacy of exaggerating the number of distinct senses associated with a preposition. To avoid this problem, they propose a methodology for determining a particle's ''primary sense'' and filter out further distinct senses that are not derivable from the context. For the primary sense, the following criteria are put forward:

    1. earliest attested meaning, 2. predominance in the semantic network (the unique spatial configuration that is involved in the majority of the distinct senses found in the network), 3. use in composite forms, 4. relations to other spatial particles, 5. grammatical predictions.

    To determine further distinct senses, a candidate sense must 1. contain additional meaning not apparent in any other senses associated with a particular form, and 2. there must be instances of the sense that are context independent (the distinct sense could not be inferred from another sense and the context in which it occurs). For the primary sense, a spatial proto-scene can be depicted that is an abstraction of real-world spatial scenes represented by the particle. Furthermore, each primary sense is associated with a functional element (such as ''containment'' for 'in').

    Chapter 4. The case of over

    In this chapter, Tyler and Evans provide a detailed analysis of 'over' on the basis of their proposed methodology to illustrate how it can be applied. They offer a spatial proto-scene for 'over' in which the trajector is higher than but within potential contact of the landmark. The associated functional element is that landmark and trajector are conceptualized as being within the sphere of influence of each ofter. Contrary to previous analyses, the authors claim that 'over' does not have an associated ''Path'' sense, neither in its primary sense nor in its other distinct senses. They go to some length in explaining how, according to their analysis, all path interpretations in 'over' sentences can be derived from the context. Furthermore, the proposed semantic network of 'over' is presented in full, giving evidence as to how each distinct sense - such as the ''Above-and-beyond'', the ''Completion'' and the ''Transfer'' senses, among others - may have been derived from the primary sense.

    Chapter 5. The vertical axis

    The notion of a ''contrast set'' is introduced. The authors point out that lexemes often do not constitute oppositional pairs, but are simultaneously dependent on and independent of other lexemes. Thus, the contrast set 'over', 'above', 'under' and 'below' divides up the vertical axis into four distinct spatial locations. But the functional elements associated with each particle are dependent on the implications of each specific spatial proto-scene and are therefore not complementary in the same way as the spatial meanings. With regard to the spatial arrangement, a (subjective) sense of proximity is claimed to be associated with 'over' and 'under', as contrasted with distality in 'above' and 'below'. As a consequence, the latter prepositions do not allow for contact, and they are not conceptualized as involving possible influence between trajector and landmark. But the semantic network of 'under' does not mirror that of 'over' because entities that are lower in verticality are often less accessible; therefore, there are fewer experiential correlations associated with 'under' than with 'over'.

    Chapter 6. Spatial particles of orientation

    Chapter 6 deals with particles whose semantics - according to the authors' analysis - involves orientation of either trajector ('up', ''down'', ''to'', ''for'') or landmark (''in front of'', ''before'', 'behind', ''after''). A clear distinction between orientation, path, and motion is made; these three concepts are often conflated in other approaches since they often occur together. Before/after differ from in front of/ behind in that they involve a sense of sequence: the trajector is construed as leading/following the landmark.

    Chapter 7. The bounded LM

    In this chapter, prepositions are analysed that are sensitive to boundedness on the part of the landmark: 'in', 'into', 'out', 'out of' and 'through'. Bounded entities are defined as those that possess an interior, a boundary and an exterior. Often, they are associated with the notion of containment, which itself entails several functional consequences which are reflected in the various senses of 'in' (and partly 'out' as well).


    Altogether, the book gives an impressive insight into the semantic networks of spatial prepositions, showing clearly and (for the most part) convincingly how new meanings develop from established ones on the basis of experiential correlations. Accounting for such processes in language without simply relying on the often too vague concept of ''metaphorical extension'' which has frequently been claimed to be responsible for the usage of similar forms in different domains is a major achievement. Furthermore, the notion of ''contrast set'' is very useful in accounting for the relationships of prepositions to each other, which are often not sufficiently explained by opposing features. Thus, the basic approach is both innovative and convincing and will provide thought-provoking impulses for a broad readership.

    In the following, I will point to some specific weaknesses that do not diminish the value of the book's achievements as a whole. The book is readable and well-edited, providing a clear general structure and a detailed keyword index. However, one major shortcoming on this scale is the pervasive usage of large footnotes - sometimes extending over almost one page. The footnotes often do not relate directly to the main text but digress considerably from the current train of thought. At times, issues dealt with in footnotes are taken up later in the main text, providing no new information: in those cases, the earlier footnote should either be left out or simply refer to the later main text. Another problem related to the book's structure concerns the fact that, in spite of the authors' constant reference to their own proposed methodology, they do not present a comprehensive overview of the proposed criteria for determining the primary and further senses, for example, in the form of a list with detailed and specific information with regard to how the criteria should be applied, which could be used for reference. Furthermore, in spite of the fact that they refer to ''semantic networks'', which could easily be visualized, they only provide a graphical depiction of the network of 'over', but not for the others. Since diagrammatic representations are often amazingly informative with regard to the implied relations (which is obvious through the depictions of proto-scenes provided throughout), the authors thus abstain from a valuable and feasible way of conveying insights about the analyses of the other 14 prepositions that could not be presented in detail.

    In line with previous approaches in the cognitive linguistics tradition, the authors mostly rely on their own intuitions regarding the potential usage of the prepositions under analysis. They provide convincing naturalistic examples that seem to cover the variations of usage fairly well. However, as the authors note themselves in the conclusion, without a systematic corpus-based analysis this remains speculative. Considering the authors' proposal that one important ingredient of the proposed methodology is the criterion of predominance, this is a major drawback. The authors' proposed methodology is altogether fairly convincing. However, it is not always transparent in how far it is actually put to use in their analysis. This may in part be due to the fact that a comprehensive summary of the methodology is missing, in part to the fact that they do not apply the criteria systematically one after the other, and in part to the fact that some of the proposed criteria (e.g., the ''predominance'' criterion and those proposed for determining additional distinct senses) still very much depend on subjective assessment. Thus, the reasons for the decisions made are sometimes not traceable and therefore still open to discussion.

    One major point of discussion would be the authors' claims about prepositions that are not predominantly spatial in current usage, such as 'before' or 'of'. In the analysis of 'before' they propose a spatial ''In-advance-of'' sense involving an ''in tandem'' configuration for the proto-scene, from which a temporal sense is derived. While the view that 'before' should be regarded as originally spatial is quite prevalent in the literature, it does not become clear from the present analysis how this could be proved (nor can this view be regarded as self-evidently true since it is subject to much controversy). The authors themselves acknowledge that 'before' in current usage is mostly regarded as a predominantly temporal preposition, and that the etymological aspect in this case does not suffice for determining the proto-scene. Even the earliest uses of 'before' were overwhelmingly sequential and temporal - two facets of meaning both involving time. Thus, their proposal of a spatial primary sense of before seems to be due to their theoretical orientation towards spatial scenes, rather than objective criteria. That temporality in ordinary 'before'-sentences is crucial perhaps becomes most evident when contrasting them with one of the few occurrences of locational 'before':

    (1) They knelt before the Queen. vs. (2) They knelt before the Queen did.

    (1) can be characterized by a functional locational interpretation, as outlined by Tyler and Evans. But crucially, 'before' does not temporally divide the scene into an earlier and a later event, as is the case in (2), where two events happen at two different times. No specific orientation (such as an ''in tandem'' configuration) of the participants is needed. Thus, the two senses of 'before' differ fundamentally with regard to the temporality they are capable of expressing, contrary to the authors' claim that there is an underlying spatial proto-scene which corresponds closely to both. It should further be noted that Tyler and Evans (like many other authors dealing with these terms) do not comment on the striking fact that 'before' and 'after', unlike most other terms under analysis, can also be used as a conjunction - often with very similar semantics (though regularly with different implications) as the prepositional form, as in: 'They arrived before Bill (did).'

    In the case of 'of', they state that ''it appears to be one of only a few spatial particles, which, in synchronic terms, seems to have become largely dissociated from its spatial origin''. In other words: What makes the particle ''spatial'' for the authors is its etymology rather than any of the other objective criteria proposed to determine a particle's spatial proto-scene.

    Considering these problems, one wonders whether what is stated in the book's cover abstract really reflects the authors' stance, namely, that ''all English prepositions originally coded spatial relations'' (a statement which accords with the book's title, which strangely does not restrict the book to spatial prepositions). If that were the case, explanations for prepositions like 'during', 'despite', 'since', etc. must be regarded as missing in the book. Quite naturally, however, the authors do not attempt to provide spatial proto-scenes for such uncontroversially non-spatial prepositions (although, notably, it is surely not impossible to find spatial representations for abstract relationships of other kinds denoted by prepositions).

    Altogether, the book is highly recommended to all researchers interested in the semantics and usage of spatial expressions as well as the underlying cognitive processes. It offers new insights and a promising general approach to the treatment of semantic networks.


    Grady, Joseph. 1997. Foundations of meaning: Primary metaphors and primary scenes. PhD dissertation, Dept. of Linguistics, UC Berkeley.

    Langacker, Ronald W. 1987, 1991. Foundations of cognitive grammar. Vol I (1987): Theoretical Prerequisites. Vol II (1991): Descriptive Application. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.

    Talmy, Leonard. 2000. Toward a Cognitive Semantics, 2 vols. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.


    Thora Tenbrink is a research assistant in the DFG Collaborative Research Center SFB/TR8 "Spatial Cognition: Reasoning, Action, Interaction" (Bremen & Freiburg, Germany). Her dissertation project deals with the question how objects and events are localised relative to other objects and events using spatial and temporal expressions in natural discourse. 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.