Publishing Partner: Cambridge University Press CUP Extra Publisher Login

New from Cambridge University Press!


Revitalizing Endangered Languages

Edited by Justyna Olko & Julia Sallabank

Revitalizing Endangered Languages "This guidebook provides ideas and strategies, as well as some background, to help with the effective revitalization of endangered languages. It covers a broad scope of themes including effective planning, benefits, wellbeing, economic aspects, attitudes and ideologies."

New from Wiley!


E-mail this page

We Have a New Site!

With the help of your donations we have been making good progress on designing and launching our new website! Check it out at!
***We are still in our beta stages for the new site--if you have any feedback, be sure to let us know at***

Dissertation Information

Title: On In and On: An investigation into the linguistic encoding of spatial scenes Add Dissertation
Author: Michele Feist Update Dissertation
Email: click here to access email
Institution: Northwestern University, Department of Linguistics
Completed in: 2000
Linguistic Subfield(s): Semantics;
Subject Language(s): English
Director(s): Beth Levin
Dedre Gentner
Terry Regier
Judith Levi

Abstract: Previous attempts at characterizing the semantics of spatial terms are based on examinations of individual languages and place primary importance on either geometric or functional information. These attempts yield approaches to the meanings of spatial terms that cannot account for every use of a given term. Furthermore, these approaches are unable to provide an explanation for both the similarities and the variation evident in spatial terms across languages. In this dissertation, I describe a unified approach to the semantics of spatial terms motivated by an examination of their uses in multiple languages.

I first present an elicitation study in which speakers of sixteen languages from twelve language families described a set of scenes which would be described using the prepositions in, on, or over in English. This study revealed that there are significant similarities in how languages encode the concepts contact, relative vertical position, and inclusion. I then present a set of experiments that look at the ways in which a few particular attributes of a scene affect speakers uses of the English prepositions in and on. The experiments showed that geometry, function, and animacy of the Figure and the Ground all influence English speakers choice between in and on, both individually and in concert with one another. I conclude from the results of the experiments that a representation of the semantics of spatial terms must take into account a complex set of interacting factors.

Based on the cross-linguistic elicitation study and the set of experiments, I propose that the meanings of spatial terms are built from a universal set of weighted abstract attributes. The lexical entries of individual spatial terms are created by specifying the values for the attributes, as I illustrate with the English prepositions in and on. Because the meanings of all spatial terms are based upon the same set of abstract attributes, it is to be expected that similarities such as those identified in this dissertation will be found across diverse languages. Further, because each lexical entry individually specifies the values for the attributes, it is to be expected that these similarities will coexist with significant variation.