LINGUIST List 24.2044

Tue May 14 2013

Review: Cognitive Science; Psycholinguistics: Dimitrova-Vulchanova & Van der Zee (2012)

Editor for this issue: Rajiv Rao <>

Date: 02-May-2013
From: Agnieszka Knas <>
Subject: Motion Encoding in Language and Space
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Book announced at

EDITOR: Mila Dimitrova-VulchanovaEDITOR: Emile van der ZeeTITLE: Motion Encoding in Language and SpacePUBLISHER: Oxford University PressYEAR: 2012

REVIEWER: Agnieszka Knas, Queen Mary, University of London


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

In the introduction to the volume, the editors set the scene for the remainingchapters by presenting two reasons for investigating motion encoding inlanguage. Firstly, they show that detecting and identifying motion plays animportant part in human communication and life, impacting our anticipation ofactions and navigation. Secondly, they highlight the significance of motion-and space-encoding for cognitive and linguistic functioning. The scope of thevolume is set against existing research on motion encoding in spatiallanguage, i.e., those parts of natural language that describe perceived space.Van der Zee and Dimitrova-Vulchanova, recognising that the thematic organisation ofchapters in edited volumes may mean that some general issues remainunrepresented, define the binding theme for the chapters that follow. Thisrecurrent theme consists of the parameters and features determining thepossibilities of motion-encoding and the question of ways in which linguisticvariation and analysis can be approached. They point to the variety of themesand methodologies covered in the volume and offer a snapshot of the chapterswhich follow.

Part I begins with a chapter titled ''Distinctions in the linguistic encodingof motion: evidence from a free naming task'' (Chapter 2), in which MilaDimitrova-Vulchanova, Liliana Martinez, and Valentin Vulchanov present results of a freenaming experiment aimed at establishing how motion is encoded in fivelanguages: Bulgarian, Russian, English, Norwegian, and Italian. The authorsanalyse a number of conceptual features (e.g. medium, phase, velocity,posture, method of propulsion, species, path orientation, and figureorientation) which seem relevant for the linguistic categorisation ofbiological motion, with the main focus being its 'manner'. The results arepresented in the form of dendrograms for each language and show, in line withthe findings of Malt et al. (2010) and Wolff and Malt (2010), that thecross-linguistic encoding of motion is limited by the physical properties ofthe world and differs between the analysed languages with respect to thepervasiveness 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 astudy whose aim is to establish how motion events are encoded in Estonianbased on a sub-corpus of 1,168 sentences extracted from the WordDisambiguation corpus of Estonian. The chapter focuses on the use of phrasesother than the verbal phrase itself, i.e., noun phrases (NP), prepositionalphrases (PP), and adverbial phrases (AdvP), and includes a brief considerationof verb phrases. After an overview of Estonian verbs of motion, the chapterdiscusses the categories of SOURCE, GOAL, ROUTE, and LOCATION and theirencoding in Estonian (the highly frequent verb 'käima' (to go to and from) isdiscussed in a separate section). The authors find that these categories areimportant in encoding motion in satellite-based languages (Talmy 2000) such asEstonian.

Yury Lander, Timur Maisak, and Ekaterina Rakhilina, in Chapter 4 (“Verbs ofaquamotion: semantic domains and lexical systems”), discuss research presentedearlier at a few conferences and workshops concerned with cross-linguisticcomparisons of lexicons within a single semantic field, that of the verbs ofaquamotion, i.e., expressions of motion/being in a liquid medium (p. 68). Thedistinction proposed in the chapter is that between the semantic domains ofSWIMMING, SAILING, DRIFTING, and FLOATING, which are said to be present inmost of the 50 analysed languages, and thus assumed to be universal. Theauthors 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, andReinhard Moratz discuss the use of prepositions, such as 'to the left' and 'infront of', as directional instructions to a robot in Chapter 5 (“Spatialdirectionals for robot navigation”). They observe that respondentsspontaneously use more directionals and motion verbs such as 'go' (e.g. goleft), rather than goal-based descriptions (e.g. go to the black box). Theauthors also report on the improved efficiency of their direction-basedinstructions after introducing some basic changes to the robot's lexicon andits motion possibilities.

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

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

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

The use of the spatial-temporal prepositions 'before' and 'after' to encodethe location of one stationary object with respect to another within a motionevent context constitutes the focus of Mark Tutton's chapter (Chapter 9,“Granularity, space, and motion-framed location”). The analysis is based ontwo understandings of granularity: as the amount of locative informationcarried by the prepositions under investigation and as the scalar division ofspace. 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 influencingthese phenomena, recognising the implications they have for 'thinking forspeaking', i.e. that speakers must consider motion before using language.

Hedda A. Schmidtke (Chapter 10, “Path and place: the lexical specification ofgranular compatibility”) proposes formal tools for the representation ofgranularity-dependent concepts, such as 'point-like' and 'proximity', throughthe analysis of the German constructions 'an...vorbei' ('past') and'an...entlang' ('along'). The analysis shows that, while both constructionscharacterise the intermediate course of path, the use of 'entlang' requires areference object (Ground) that is extended, whereas the use of 'vorbei' iscompatible with an atomic, or point-like, referent. Schmidtke shows that hermodel can be used to explain the unacceptability of certain expressions inGerman.

Urpo Nikanne and Emile van der Zee's research in Chapter 11 (“The lexicalrepresentations of path curvature in motion expressions: a three-way pathcurvature distinction”) analyses the different ways in which path curvature isexpressed in Finnish and Dutch motion verbs. They propose that such encodingcan represent curvature at three levels: no reference to the shape of a pathin their lexical semantics (GL0 verbs, e.g., mennä 'to go'); focus on theoverall shape of the path (GL1 verbs, e.g., kaartaa 'to go along a curvedpath'); 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 beencoded in special constructions, such as NPs and PPs, or derived from certainManner of Motion (MoM) verbs.

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


The reviewed volume contains chapters based on ongoing empirical research by agroup of researchers specialising in a range of disciplines includinglinguistics, psychology, computer science, language technology, geography, andengineering. Chapters within this volume, through the employment of diversemethodologies, explore issues arising from the study of motion-encoding inspatial language in two wider areas: encoding of motion across languages andthe issue of granularity. The volume is characterised by a good level ofinternal coherence and logical structure in presenting such a wide variety oftopics and methods.

This diversity, however, presupposes different levels of assumed knowledgebetween chapters. Some, e.g., Chapter 6 (“The role of structure and functionin the conceptualization of direction”) and Chapter 7 (“Granularity intaxonomy, time, and space”), are suitable for readers with any level offamiliarity with the topic and domain, whereas others, e.g., Chapter 10 (“Pathand place: the lexical specification of granular compatibility”), assume acertain level of previous knowledge of semantics. A reader new to linguisticswishing to consult the Abbreviations section will also encounter somedifficulties. Although the list does include explanations of most of theabbreviations used in the chapters, there are some that have not been includedin 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 init is not sufficiently comprehensive or logical. For example, 'gesture' isfeatured in the index, even though there are only three brief mentions in thebook, whereas 'curve' or 'curvature' are not, in spite of all of Chapter 11being devoted to them. It would also be helpful if the numbers of the mostinformative 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 inLanguage and Space’ with another clearly written and rigorously investigatedvolume which broadens our understanding of the interrelationships betweenmotion, space, and language. The few editorial problems do not impact thegeneral value of the volume, which presents new research that tackles a widerange of issues and will constitute a valuable resource for scholars alreadyinvolved in research into language and space.


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

Malt, B., Gennari, S., and Imai, M. 2010. Lexicalization Patterns and theWorld-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: MITPress.


Agnieszka Knaś is a doctoral candidate at the Department of Linguistics, QueenMary, University of London, United Kingdom. Her research interests includemultimodality and embedded multimodality, electronically mediatedcommunication, space and place construction in discourse, and co-presence in ajoint communicative space. Her PhD research focuses on physicalself-presentation and self-positioning in the discourse of text-messages.

Page Updated: 14-May-2013