LINGUIST List 25.4160

Tue Oct 21 2014

Review: Cognitive Sci; Discourse Analysis; Socioling: Szmrecsanyi, Auer, Hilpert, Stukenbrock (eds.) (2013)

Editor for this issue: Sara Couture <>

Date: 23-Apr-2014
From: Asya Pereltsvaig <>
Subject: Space in Language and Linguistics
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Book announced at

EDITOR: Peter Auer
EDITOR: Martin Hilpert
EDITOR: Anja Stukenbrock
EDITOR: Benedikt Szmrecsanyi
TITLE: Space in Language and Linguistics
SUBTITLE: Geographical, Interactional, and Cognitive Perspectives
SERIES TITLE: De Gruyter linguae & litterae 24
PUBLISHER: De Gruyter Mouton
YEAR: 2013

REVIEWER: Asya Pereltsvaig, Stanford University

Review's Editor: Anthony Aristar


This book is a collection of contributions that were originally presented at a conference series held at the Freiburg Institute for Advanced Studies in the fall of 2009. The overall theme of the conferences and the present volume is “language and space”, but it can be subdivided into three sets of issues: (1) language, space, and geography, (2) grammar, space, and cognition, and (3) language and interactional spaces. While the three perspectives on the theme of “language and space” are quite well-researched within themselves, prior to this conference series they were lacking productive interconnections. The aim of the conferences and of the present book is thus to bring together these three disparate strands of research into one coherent perspective in order to promote the study of language and space.

The editors of the volume explain: “under the rubric of ‘language and space’, linguists have been researching several seemingly unrelated areas of language” (p. 1), based on two very different conceptions of space. One view of space that has characterized Western philosophical thinking since antiquity is the Aristotelian view that space is absolute, that is “existing before and beyond individuals’ acting in space, and even before and beyond the existence of any matter in it” (p. 2). This view of space as a container has dominated common-sense thinking as well, particularly since the early modern era, when it was cemented by the development of map-making techniques which reduce three-dimensional to two-dimensional space. A different tradition conceptualizes space as relative, with the human body or human experience typically serving as the reference point from which all spatial relations originate. Both the absolute and the relative conceptualizations of space play a role today in everyday practices and modern technological developments such as the GPS and GIS technologies. For example, GIS tools allow us to locate all sorts of things and experiences independently of the spatial location or perspective of the human user, thus relying on the absolute view of space, while GPS systems in cars are adapted to the relative view of space by providing step-by-step “pragmatically contextualized route directions that guide the car driver from one location to the next until the target has been reached” (p. 3).

As for linguistics, the absolute view of space underlies the field of geolinguistics, that is the study of areal distribution of linguistic forms. Areal linguistics maps language forms onto geographical areas which exist independently of them and “contain” the given language forms “within them”. Historically, the use of geography to locate linguistic forms in space goes back to nineteenth-century dialectology and “its origins coincide with the heydays of spatial thinking as a constitutive feature of nation building, i.e. the political idea that nations have their own language spaces which they occupy exclusively” (p. 4). After a period of non-spatial sociolinguistic theorizing about language variation, linguistic cartography has seen a revival in recent years. In addition to examining the distribution of dialectal forms in national and transnational spaces, it has developed a new focus on the study of the distribution of linguistic forms in the languages of the world, exemplified by the WALS (World Atlas of Linguistic Structures Online).

The relative view of space, in contrast, underlies the study of spatial cognition and language. The editors of the present volume claim that “the existence of linguistic signs that deal with space in a relative, perspectival way” is “one universal design feature of human languages” (p. 3). Such linguistic elements used to locate entities or describe movements in space include deictic elements, spatial adpositions, certain types of case markers, verbs of motion, and other types of lexical elements that denote spatial relations. Such expressions typically locate objects in space relative to a point of reference, such as the speaker or a salient landmark. However, recent studies of Aboriginal Australian and Native American languages, such as Li and Gleitman (2002), challenge the universality of the relative, object-centric cognitive conceptualization of space. According to Li and Gleitman, languages such as Tzeltal (a Mayan language spoken in Chiapas, Mexico) have only geocentric (absolute) spatial expressions. As a result, the authors claim, Tzeltal speakers typically remember spatial relations between objects in absolute rather than relative terms, in marked contrast to speakers of English.

How does one bring together these two very different understandings of “language and space”? One obvious way bridging absolute and relative views of space in language is by studying the distribution of spatial expressions in languages and dialects, for instance documenting the rich systems of case markers to encode spatial relations in Finno-Ugric languages and even more impressive such systems in languages of Dagestan, or contrasting the different ways that spatial relations are encoded by motion verbs in Germanic and Romance languages (Germanic languages express the path of movement through prepositions, while Romance languages incorporate path into the verb; cf. Talmy 1985, 2000, Cifuentes-Férez and Gentner 2006). The present volume takes a different approach by attempting to bring together the conceptualizations of “language and space” by treating them as “two instances of linguistic indexicality that are both rooted in interaction” (p. 2).

The volume is organized into six sections. The first two sections deal with the geolinguistic aspects of “language and space”, focusing on variation across languages and within languages, respectively. Sections three and four deal with analyses of interactional spaces, both in stationary and mobile settings. Section five discusses mediated spaces, including digital landscapes and computer-based channels of communication. The last section includes contributions on typology of spatial expressions and spatial reasoning. Each section contains 2-5 articles and is concluded by a commentary that highlights common threads or extends the discussion beyond the specific case studies.

The first section contains three articles on geographical variation across languages and a commentary by Ekkehard König. Michael Cysouw’s article “Disentangling geography from genealogy” uses data from WALS to develop a solution to the problem of separating the effects of genealogical relatedness from those of geographical proximity. Johanna Nichols’ “The vertical archipelago: Adding the third dimension to linguistic geography” focuses on mountainous areas with a central crest, particularly the Caucasus, and examines the effects of altitude, a variable which often ignored in the two-dimensional view of space. Walter Bisang’s contribution, “Language contact between geographic and mental space”, contests the often-made assumption that significant language contact can occur only (or predominantly) in geographically contiguous areas.

The second section focuses on geographical variation within languages and contains five article and a commentary by Benedikt Szmercsanyi. Barbara Johnstone, in “Ideology and discourse in the enregisterment of regional variation”, argues that the concept of place is an ideological construct created in human interaction. Paul Kershwill’s contribution “Identity, ethnicity and place: The construction of youth language in London” investigates a complex interplay of factors such as ethnicity, social class, gender, age, and place involved in the social construction of inner- and outer-city speech varieties in London. Bernd Kortmann questions the power of geography as an explanatory factor in morphosyntactic variation. He examines a large set of morphosyntactic features across English varieties around the world and concludes that geography is an important factor at the micro-level, such as the level of traditional British dialects, but not on the global level where the kind of variety (i.e. whether it is a traditional dialect, a learner variety, or a creole) trumps geography as a predictor of morphosyntactic structure. Elvira Glaser’s article “Area formation in morphosyntax” is a case study of morphosyntactic variation in Swiss German. John Nerbonne’s contribution “How much does geography influence language variation?” (which, like Glaser’s article, focuses on German) echoes Nichols’ article: he argues that reducing geography to the mere distance between two points, as studies of linguistic typology do, is unsuitable. Instead, he develops an alternative operationalization of geography that includes the notion of area.

Section three examines interactional spaces; it contains four articles and a commentary by Anja Stukenbrock. Lorenza Mondada (“Interactional space and the study of embodied talk-in-interaction”) defines the notion of interactional space as the situation, mutually adjusted changing arrangements of the participants’ bodies within space, which depends on the activity the participants are engaged in, their mutual focus of attention, and the objects that are involved in this activity. She illustrates these concepts with examples of conversational openings and acts of giving directions. Heiko Hausendorf (“On the interactive achievement of space—and its possible meanings”) also takes a relative view of space in linguistic interaction and explains that it is not an invariant medium that pre-exists the speakers, but is rather interactively achieved in the speech situation. Jürgen Streeck’s contribution “Plaza: space or place?” investigates the concepts of “space” and “place” in a study of social interaction on a South American plaza in the city of Cartagena de Indias in Colombia. John Haviland’s “Xi to vi: “Over that way, look!” (Meta)spatial representation in an emerging (Mayan?) sign language” is a case study of spatial expressions in a nascent sign-language that was created by Zanacantec Indians from the Mexican Chiapas Highlands, in comparison to the spatial expressions in the surrounding spoken language, Tsotsil.

The fourth section is concerned with mobile spaces. Pentti Haddington’s article “Action and space: Navigation as a social and spatial task” describes a study of video-recorded interactions in cars and examines how speakers handle the navigation of a car as a “collaborative social and spatial task”. Elwys De Stefani’s contribution “Rearranging (in) space: On mobility and its relevance for the study of face-to-face interaction” is a case study of such activities as giving directions or pointing out topographic features. A commentary by Lorenza Mondada concludes this section.

Section five, consisting of four articles and a commentary by Monica Heller, is concerned with mediated spaces. Marco Jacquemet’s contribution “Language, media, and digital landscapes” describes how contemporary electronic media create a communicative space that is characterized by language mixing, hybridization, and syncretic communicative practices. Michael Beisswenger (“Space in computer-mediated communication: Corpus-based investigations on the use of local deictics in chats”) investigates the use of spatial deictics in computer-mediated written communication, particularly in online chats. Christian Mair and Stefan Pfänder’s “Vernacular and multilingual writing in mediated spaces: Web-forums for post-colonial communities of practice” examines how various social groups use their linguistic resources in order to create their online identities. Susanne Uhmann’s “Pointing in the abdomen” develops an analysis of the use of spatial deictics, such as “here” and “there” by surgeons who perform laparoscopic surgery. She identifies three important characteristics of the use of deictic elements in such situations: the limitation of pointing by surgeons to the use of their laparoscopic instruments, not their hands; the extreme restrictions on the maneuverability of these instruments, and the fact that all team members observe the instruments and their actions on a monitor.

The final section of the book is focused on typology and spatial reasoning. It consists of three articles and a commentary by Holger Diessel. Gisela Fehrmann (“Exploiting space in German Sign Language: Linguistic and topographic reference in signed discourse”) examines the use of space in German Sign Language in comparison to American Sign Language (ASL) and constructs a typology of space usage in sign languages. Jürgen Bohnemeyer and Randi Tucker’s “Space in semantic typology: Object-centered geometries” is a case study of Yucatec Maya, where human body parts (foot, head, arm, etc.) are often used to express spatial relations between non-human objects. The authors show that speakers of this language show a preference for intrinsic frames of reference over relative ones. Alan Cienki’s contribution “Gesture, space, grammar, and cognition” reviews research on gesture taking into account the spatial dimensions of gestures, their possible connections to grammar, and the consequent cognitive implications.


This book is a fascinating one, covering a wide range of topics and showcasing the thematic and methodological breadth of research on language and space. Individual articles—and to a degree commentaries to each section—provide a wealth of insight into this complex and multifaceted theme that bridges geography, linguistics, cognitive science, and social anthropology. Given its interdisciplinary nature, this book will be of interest for scholars and students in a wide range of disciplines and can be used as a supplementary reading (rather than a primary textbook) in a number of different courses, from cognitive linguistics to geolinguistics and beyond.

However, like any interdisciplinary project, this volume runs into the danger of breadth at the expense of depth and interconnections between various strands of research. Although the editors of this volume and the authors of commentaries concluding each section go to great lengths to tie together the diverse contributions by individual authors, the volume still reads as two or even three separate books. Given the format of proceedings of a conference series, it might have been better if the editors opted for a multivolume collection rather than a single 697-page tome, with individual volumes to be sold either separately or as a box-set.

Due to space limitations it is not possible to give adequate evaluation to the 27 articles and commentaries contained in the volume. I will therefore focus on one article only, simply because it is most relevant to my own research interests, that by Johanna Nichols. As mentioned above, Nichols introduces the variable of altitude into the discussion of geography and language. Altitude has been argued to be correlated to language structure before: for example, in a recent paper published in PLOS ONE, “Evidence for Direct Geographic Influences on Linguistic Sounds: The Case of Ejectives” anthropologist Caleb Everett argued that altitude of the location where a given language is spoken predicts the use of ejective sounds. However, close scrutiny of Everett’s work (see Lewis and Pereltsvaig 2013) reveals numerous problems with the analysis. Nichols’ takes a much more nuanced approach to the impact of altitude on language. She examines how altitude predicts aspects of sociolinguistics, grammatical complexity, and areality for any given language, and for sets of languages, how it predicts structural diversity and family tree structures. Unlike Everett, Nichols does not take altitude to be the direct and proximate cause of the various factors it correlates with. Thus, for her, to the extent that the use of ejectives correlates with the altitude, the physical harshness of mountainous locations does not deterministically cause the use of “harsh” sounds, such as ejectives (which to Everett are an adaptation to the high-altitude, low-pressure environments). Instead, the mitigating factors are isolation and complexity: mountainous landscapes increase isolation of linguistic groups, and isolation increases structural complexities (this particular point is also explored in McWhorter 2011), one of which may be the use of “exotic” sounds such as ejectives. Also, unlike many previous studies of geography of languages, Nichols’s work makes very careful distinctions of not merely altitude but also the shape of the mountainous area: mountains having a central crest like the Caucasus, the Alps, and the Andes are distinguished from areas of enclosed high plateaus such and the Andean altiplano, Tibet, and the New Guinea central highlands. All in all, this is a thoughtful and insightful study that sheds new light on our understanding of our distinctly three-dimensional world.


Cifuentes-Férez, P. and D. Gentner (2006) Naming motion events in Spanish and English. Cognitive Linguistics 17(4): 443-462.

Everett, Caleb (2013) Evidence for Direct Geographic Influences on Linguistic Sounds: The Case of Ejectives. PLoS ONE 8(6): e65275. Available at:

Lewis, Martin W. and Asya Pereltsvaig (2013) Ejectives, High Altitudes, and Grandiose Linguistic Hypotheses. Available at:

Li, Peggy and Lila Gleitman (2002) Turning the tables: language and spatial reasoning. Cognition 83: 265–294.

McWhorter, John (2011) What Language Is (And What It Isn't and What It Could Be). Gotham.

Talmy, Leonard (1985) Lexicalization patterns: Semantic structure in lexical forms. In Timothy Shopen (ed.) Language Typology and Syntactic Description. Vol. 3: Grammatical Categories and the Lexicon. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. Pp. 57-149.

Talmy, Leonard (2000) Toward a Cognitive Semantics. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.


Asya Pereltsvaig is a lecturer in linguistics at Stanford University. She has a Ph.D. in Linguistics and her research interests include morphosyntax of noun phrases, cross-linguistic typology, and geolinguistics. She is also a leading author at, a geolinguistics website and blog.

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