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Review of  Representing Direction in Language and Space

Reviewer: Thora Tenbrink
Book Title: Representing Direction in Language and Space
Book Author: Emile van der Zee Jon Slack
Publisher: Oxford University Press
Linguistic Field(s): Cognitive Science
Issue Number: 15.1321

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Date: Mon, 26 Apr 2004 19:47:14 +0200
From: Thora Tenbrink
Subject: Representing Direction in Language and Space

EDITOR: van der Zee, Emile; Slack, Jon
TITLE: Representing Direction in Language and Space
PUBLISHER: Oxford University Press
YEAR: 2003

Thora Tenbrink, University of Bremen, Germany

This book contains a collection of thirteen carefully revised and
extended papers originating at a workshop on Language and Space at the
University of Lincoln in July 2000.

To begin with, the editors present a comprehensive overview and summary
of the issues and contents of the book under the heading of "The
Representation of Direction in Language and Space". They start by
motivating the research issue as such, placing it in the wider research
area on representations of space and time. Direction, in this book,
comprises orientation (of an entity, i.e., object or person), location
in a specific area with regard to another entity, and direction of
movement. The introductory chapter sums up various insights gained from
the different contributions, such as the range of variety in linguistic
directional encoding, spatial distinctions underlying linguistic
directional representations (vectors, half-axes, half-lines, or
topological distinctions) and the ensuing different models that are
presented by the authors throughout the book. Among the broad variety
of insightful generalisations proposed in this introductory chapter is
a comprehensive account of the notion of reference frame, reconciling a
number of (seemingly) contradictory approaches in order to provide a
clear basis for the analyses undertaken in the book.

In Chapter 2, Barbara Landau deals with "Axes and Direction in Spatial
Language and Spatial Cognition". Building on empirical evidence from
previous work, she considers how axes are used in language and
cognition (e.g., memory) independent of, but often together with,
direction information. Locations of objects are represented by imposing
an axial structure on a reference object. Depending on the experimental
task, in some cases axial information is sufficient, while in others,
direction plays an additional role. In language, direction information
is always present when using projective terms (left/right etc.). But
directions can be confused while preserving the basic axial structure.
In language, distance seems less important than in cognition.

Chapter 3, "Vectors across Spatial Domains: From Place to Size,
Orientation, Shape, and Parts" by Joost Zwarts, builds upon earlier
work by the author (and others) representing the semantics of place
terms (used for locating one object's position relative to another) by
means of vectors. Zwarts claims that axes play a role not only in the
application of place terms but also of terms of size, orientation,
shape, and parts. Thus, the earlier work is extended from the domain of
place to other domains. Zwarts shows that vectors can be used in a
consistent (or unified) way to represent different kinds of spatial
relations. He suggests that this representation in fact mirrors
concepts of spatial relations underlying spatial language, but provides
no empirical evidence (other than illustrative linguistic examples) for
this claim.

John O'Keefe deals with "Vector Grammar, Places, and the Functional
Role of the Spatial Prepositions in English" (Chapter 4). He compares
spatial prepositions with the firing fields of the spatially coded
place cells in the rat hippocampus, updating earlier work with Lynn
Nadel (1978) in which the involvement of the hippocampus in the
construction of a "Cognitive Map" is proposed. O'Keefe presents a
computational model employing direction vectors which is based on his
research group's empirical work with rats, and relates it to intuitions
on English prepositions which are partly supported by other empirical

In chapter 5, "The Unique Vector Constraint: The Impact of Direction
Changes on the Linguistic Segmentation of Motion Events", J├╝rgen
Bohnemeyer also employs vectors as primitives for spatial
representation. He proposes the interesting idea that languages may be
universally constrained in that all direction specifications in a
single simple clause must denote the same direction vector. Thus,
"Sally walked north away from her house" implies that "north" is the
same direction as "away from her house", while "Sally walked away from
her house and the north" indicates two distinct directions. This
hypothesized language universal concerns neither language nor cognition
per se, but rather, the coding possibilities at the syntax-semantics

Laura Carlson, Terry Regier, and Eric Covey (Chapter 6), in "Defining
Spatial Relations: Reconciling Axis and Vector Representations",
address reference frames and spatial templates as underlying
representations for mapping spatial terms onto spatial regions. They
show that the Attentional Vector Sum model (Regier and Carlson, 2001)
is suitable for accounting for various factors influencing spatial
mappings (orientation, location with respect to the shape of the
reference object, distance). The authors propose that axial structures
underlying reference frames can be coordinated with vector
representations in a spatial template. This approach captures both the
directions indicated by projective terms (spatial relations) in terms
of axes in a reference system, and the influence of various geometric
and functional factors on the alignment of reference systems and the
applicability of the relations.

In Chapter 7, "Places: Points, Planes, Paths, and Portions", Barbara
Tversky sums up research dealing with information conveyance in
directional descriptions. She provides evidence that, while people
often refer to landmarks, explicit specifications of direction and
distance are dispreferred and usually remain approximate, both in
production and comprehension. Landmarks provide an easy and
straightforward way of communicating beginning and end points of a path
based on the interactants' shared knowledge about the spatial

Chapter 8 by Pierre Gambarotto and Philippe Muller, "Ontological
Problems for the Semantics of Spatial Expressions in Natural Language",
again presents a model for the representation of direction, this time
however not based on vectors but on regions of space as ontological
primitives. The motivation for this approach is the insight that, from
a cognitive point of view, topology is the most basic aspect of spatial
knowledge. In their model, problems associated with using points, lines
or intervals as primitives are avoided. Mereotopological relations can
be represented in a straightforward way. The authors also show how the
representation of orientation, distance, and motion works in their
approach, and how functional information associated with the semantics
of prepositions is integrated.

Hedda Schmidtke, Ladina Tschander, Carola Eschenbach, and Christopher
Habel (Chapter 9) deal with "Change of Orientation". Their axiomatic
approach uses half-lines in a geometric model of direction that is
neutral with respect to distance. Using this approach, they propose an
analysis for the semantics of verbs of change of orientation such as
"abbiegen" (turn off), comparing them to related verbs of motion and
verbs of orientation and determining patterns of geometric constraints
on the applicability of the terms.

In Chapter 10, Urpo Nikanne describes "How Finnish Postpositions See
the Axis System". Finnish makes more distinctions in the application of
spatial terms than English does: thus, static and dynamic situations
are differentiated grammatically. Furthermore, Nikanne finds that, in
Finnish, vertical terms (above/below) can indeed only be used for
vertical relationships, while expressions like in front of / behind
(which basically express horizontal relationships) can also be required
in certain vertical (or other) situations, namely, when motion into a
vertical (or other) direction is involved. Motion induces its own
reference frame (or rather, a front/back orientation) that is
independent of horizontal or vertical positions (relative to the
earth); the spatial terms that are used in such a situation are those
that also express relative position on a horizontal plane. From this
fact, Nikanne deduces a feature hierarchy for reference frames.

Emile van der Zee and Rik Eshuis (Ch. 11) address "Directions from
Shape: How Spatial Features Determine Reference Axis Categorization".
Based on three experiments on Dutch directional nouns employed in
intrinsic reference systems, they present the "Spatial Feature
Categorization model" which accounts for spatial features in the
application of reference axes with different kinds of objects. The
objects in the experiments are varied with respect to relative axis
length, relative curvature of the main plane of symmetry, and contour
expansion along a reference object's main axis.

In Chapter 12, "Memory for Locations Relative to Objects: Axes and the
Categorization of Regions", Rik Eshuis presents empirical evidence
suggesting that axes are used to carve up space into regions that are
not - as previously suggested - quadrants, but rather, half-planes.
Thus, an object that is located to the left, but not exactly on the
left half-axis of a reference object, is also located on either the
front or the back half-plane with regard to that reference object. In
other words, space is not divided into four mutually exclusive regions,
but into overlapping half-planes, resulting in the fact that different
spatial relations (e.g., linguistic expressions) may be suitable for
representation (though not equally likely). This interesting and
intuitively appealing idea is developed in relation to previous
findings on spatial templates and prototype effects of spatial
expressions. Eshuis' account is based on his own non-linguistic
experiments and is entirely compatible with previous evidence from
linguistic tasks.

Finally, Kenny Coventry (Ch.13) addresses "Spatial prepositions,
Spatial Templates, and 'Semantic' vs. 'Pragmatic' Visual
Representations". He discusses previous work showing that the
employment of spatial prepositions depends - apart from geometric
factors - on a variety of associated factors that differ across terms,
such as 'control' or 'support'. These two kinds of constraints are
related to findings from visual imagery, where 'semantic'
representations account for general visual information while
'pragmatic' representations concern the objects' affordances.

The book is carefully edited; readability is enhanced by the clear and
concise layout as well as the availability of abstracts for each
chapter. However, the usage of one comprehensive list of literature
references at the end of the book rather than separate lists at the end
of each chapter is a disadvantage for readers of single chapters who
may not have access to the book as a whole.

Altogether, the book offers a wide range of useful and interesting
insights into the research area of spatial language and spatial
cognition. In spite of the fact that the title seems to suggest a focus
on only a specific sub-part of spatial representation, many articles in
the book offer a fairly broad view on related research issues. Several
formal models for spatial representation (with a focus on direction)
are presented that differ in scope and focus but are not incompatible.
Furthermore, the book comprises several review articles on empirical
work that together provide valuable insights into the field.

The title of the book contains an expression that has a potential for
polysemic interpretation that could have been more directly addressed
and explored. As indicated above, "direction" can be understood to
denote (at least) orientation, relative location, and movement, opening
up a wide range of different interpretations that surely carry various
important distinct implications with regard to the spatial
relationships involved. However, in the book the different senses are
not always clearly differentiated (or else it is not clear how they are
viewed to be related); therefore, the scope of the claims and insights
is not in all cases clear, and important aspects might have been lost.
For example, static and dynamic scenarios may well differ in the
application of spatial relations. Distances are implicitly present in
all static situations involving relative location, since objects in the
real world are located at a specific distance from each other even
though this may not always be specified in a representation. In
contrast, movement in a certain direction may theoretically take place
indefinitely, even though in practice usually a specific (though often
unspecified) distance is covered. Thus, distance could play a different
role in the representation of spatial relations in static versus
dynamic situations.

The articles comprise a variety of different languages. As is often the
case in this research field, English is predominantly used as the
starting point for analysis, especially in approaches dealing with the
interplay of language and cognition or with formalizations (Landau,
Zwarts, O'Keefe, Carlson et al., Tversky, Coventry). However, several
articles deal with the semantics of spatial expressions in other
languages (Gambarotto & Muller: French; Schmidtke et al.: German;
Nikanne: Finnish; van der Zee & Eshuis: Dutch; Eshuis: German,
Bohnemeyer: various languages). Since the relationship between language
and spatial cognition is often addressed, it is astonishing that the
cross-linguistic achievements of the Space group of the MPIP in
Nijmegen do not receive much attention throughout the book (excepting
Bohnemeyer who is himself part of a neighboring group of the MPIP,
namely, Event Representation). There, linguistic and non-linguistic
tasks are systematically compared and the underlying relationships
highlighted. A good overview can be found in Levinson (2003).

In spite of the fair number of psychological/psycholinguistic
contributions in the book, only few articles (e.g., Eshuis, who
presents impressively detailed analyses) describe original empirical
work. Several others review earlier findings, in some cases reproducing
depictions but (naturally) not providing detailed information regarding
experiments described elsewhere (e.g., Landau, O'Keefe, Carlson et al.,
Tversky, Coventry). Articles of this kind risk that some conclusions
cannot easily be comprehended without access to the earlier
publications they draw upon, and it is not in all cases clear what
exactly is new about the present contribution, as compared to the
previous ones that serve as sources. However, they provide good
overviews especially for newcomers to the field.With the more formal
approaches, a different (and equally widespread) problem is that they
sometimes do, and sometimes do not draw on empirical research to
motivate the intuitions on spatial language that are formalized. For
instance, whether or not a spatial term is considered as applicable in
a specific spatial situation very much depends on contextual factors,
not all of which can be captured by linguistic intuitions on the part
of the authors.

Altogether, the book provides rich and varied insights into the field
of spatial language and cognition and is highly recommended to all
researchers in the field, including those that aim at integrating
findings from psychology and linguistics into interdisciplinary work or
other fields in Cognitive Science, and also including interested
readers who are yet unfamiliar with current issues in Spatial

Levinson, Stephen C. 2003. Space in Language and Cognition. Cambridge
University Press.

O'Keefe, J. and Nadel, L. 1978. The hippocampus as a cognitive map.
Oxford: Clarendon Press.

Regier, T. and Carlson, L. 2001. Grounding spatial language in
perception: An empirical and computational investigation. Journal of
Experimental Psychology: General, 130(2), 273-98.
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.