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Review of  Functional Features in Language and Space

Reviewer: Thora Tenbrink
Book Title: Functional Features in Language and Space
Book Author: Laura Carlson Emile van der Zee
Publisher: Oxford University Press
Linguistic Field(s): Psycholinguistics
Cognitive Science
Issue Number: 16.2207

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Date: Mon, 18 Jul 2005 19:57:09 +0200
From: Thora Tenbrink
Subject: Functional Features in Language and Space

EDITORS: Carlson, Laura; van der Zee, Emile
TITLE: Functional Features in Language and Space
SERIES: Explorations in Language and Space
PUBLISHER: Oxford University Press
YEAR: 2004

Thora Tenbrink, University of Bremen, Germany


This book is a fairly large collection of edited high-quality papers
written by a broad range of researchers most of whom are internationally
established. It addresses the ways in which functions and features of
objects and (spatial) scenarios influence the conceptualisation and
verbalisation of the associated actions and relations. Based on a highly
productive workshop at the University of Notre Dame within the series of
Language and Space in 2001, the book has undergone a thorough review
process. The result is a valuable contribution to the currently blooming
research field of Spatial Cognition, which successfully integrates a broad
range of different disciplines. Although the focus of the current book is
clearly on language, the topic is approached from many different
viewpoints and research directions that enhance our understanding of human
cognition. The papers are kept concise and rather short (typically around
14 pages), which enhances readability, and they are ordered according to
their focus of interest (rather than subdiscipline). Each paper starts
with a brief description of their central notion of "functional" or a
related central notion of the contribution.

1. Functional Features in Language and Space (Carlson & van der Zee).
This introductory chapter motivates the topic and presents the four major
sections of the book. Each chapter is categorised in terms of I. Features,
II., Function, III. Features that are functional, or IV. Overview. While
at first this division may seem arbitrary since all contributions in some
way deal with "functional features in language and space" as the book
title suggests, it becomes clear that these terms are highly ambiguous and
are indeed treated in very different ways by the authors. Thus, the
partitioning serves to highlight different emphases of the authors'
approaches. Nevertheless, other ways of assembling the papers
systematically could have been more obvious. The introductory chapter
succeeds in working out the "big picture" by pointing to the variability
as well as shared issues throughout the book.

Part I. Features: Derived from Perception, Action, and Embodiment

2. Language is Grounded in Action (Arthur Glenberg and Michael Kaschak).
The features of objects influence the ways in which these can be used for
interaction. This notion is captured in terms of "affordances". While a
number of affordances are generally associated with certain objects (e.g.,
a chair is a thing to sit in), the present paper deals with novel ways of
interaction that may be created on the spot precisely because the objects
allow for flexible conceptualisations of affordances. For example, a map -
but not a rock - may be used to fan a fire. Thus, meaning is rooted in
(conceivable) action. This observation leads to the "Action-sentence
Compatibility Effect", which has consequences even with respect to actions
and sentences that are not directly related (e.g., comprehending "forward"
while moving backward).

3. The Bicycle Pedal is in Front of the Table. Why some Objects do not Fit
into some Spatial Relations (Manuel de Vega and María J. Rodrigo).
The authors describe two previously published studies that address
directional terms like "in front of", "above" and the like. The first
study, a comparison between pointing gestures and verbalisations of
spatial directions, leads to the idea that linguistic representations rely
on "second order embodiment" while pointing is associated with direct
or "first order embodiment". The second study is a corpus investigation of
the features of entities that are used for spatial descriptions, either as
Figure or as Ground. A number of systematic tendencies were detected for
speakers' spontaneous choices, showing differences between the horizontal
and the vertical dimensions. Most of these can be explained naturally by
conceptual aspects.

4. Dissociation between Verbal and Pointing Responding in Perspective
Change Problems (Ranxiao Frances Wang).
Wang reports about two experiments addressing mental rotation tasks. The
first experiment addresses the question whether pointing responses may be
improved if participants are allowed extra time for imagination of mental
rotation. This is not the case. The second experiment compares pointing
and verbal responses in a similar way as the first experiment in Chapter
3, also alloting rotation time. Verbal response times are similar under
rotation as without rotation. The author concludes that mental
representations are not accessible to different cognitive systems to the
same degree, so that "functional features defined with respect to one
cognitive system may not generalize to another cognitive system" (p.39).

5. An Ecological Approach to the Interface between Language and Vision
(Rajesh Kasturirangan).
The author argues against the "canonical model" according to which there
is a clear correspondence between spatial language and objective reality.
He offers a computational framework that incorporates the notion of
embodiment and highlights the claim that contextual influences and
schematization are consequences of common regular ecological constraints.
In this approach, three levels of representation - coordinate frames,
topological, and metric structures - are ordered hierarchically and
reflected to different degrees in language and perception.

6. Contextual, Functional, and Geometric Components in the Semantics of
Projective Terms (Carola Eschenbach).
This paper contains a thorough and systematic formal investigation of the
lexical semantics of German projective terms, which denote directions and
relations on the vertical and horizontal axes. Eschenbach starts from a
shared geometric lexical entry and enriches this basic formalisation by
further information on additional requirements and constraints for
specific terms. For example, terms denoting the vertical axis are
influenced by the functional element of gravity.

7. Verbs and Directions: The Interaction of Geometry and Function in
Determining Orientation (Christopher Habel).
By investigating linguistic expressions denoting rotation and re-
orientation, the conceptual factors, functional properties, and
fundamental issues associated with this type of spatial change become
apparent. The fine-grained and elaborate analysis, which is also
represented formally, convincingly demonstrates the underlying complexity
of rotation events. For example, the role of spatial reference systems
even in the absence of projective terms is highlighted.

8. Between Space and Function: How Spatial and Functional Features
Determine the Comprehension of between (Emile van der Zee and Matt Watson).
Again, a detailed analysis of a specific spatial term serves to highlight
underlying basic concepts. In this case, the focus is on the variety of
features that influence the application and interpretation of "between":
visual, linguistic, or general functional, and dynamic-kinematic features.
Some of these aspects can be interpreted as belonging to the lexical
semantics, while others are classified as contextual influences. The
meaning of "between" is characterised in terms of ordered space and

Part II. Function: Definitions and Influence

9. The HIPE Theory of Function (Lawrence Barsalou, Steven Sloman, and
Sergio Chaigneau).
This theory is an account of people's knowledge about function, analysed
as a complex relational structure. The four types of conceptual knowledge
that are involved are History, Intentional perspective, Physical
environment, and Event sequences (HIPE). The paper first discusses each of
these in turn, and then addresses causal chains that combine different
kinds of knowledge. A formal notation for representing the theory is
offered, and a number of application issues are discussed.

10. Towards a Classification of Extra-geometric Influences on the
Comprehension of Spatial Prepositions (Kenny Coventry and Simon Garrod).
A survey of previous empirical evidence with regard to a range of spatial
expressions such as "in", "on", "between", and projective prepositions,
leads to the proposal of a classification of extra-geometric constraints.
Most basic is the differentiation between knowledge of object functions,
and dynamic-kinematic aspects of scenes. Both parameters affect the
application and comprehension of spatial terms in different ways.

11. Is it "in" or is it "on"? The Influence of Geometry and Location
Control on Children's Descriptions of Containment and Support Events (Lynn
Richards and Kenny Coventry).
With respect to adult language it has been established that the
application of spatial terms is influenced by what objects are and how
they interact (see e.g., Chapter 10). The present article discusses
children's understanding of these influences. An empirical study
(published in detail elsewhere) addressed their productions with respect
to spatial scenes that involve containment and support, showing that
children from an early age produce spatial descriptions under
consideration of the functional features of the scene (here: location

12. Defining Functional Features for Spatial Language (Laura Carlson and
Edwin Covell).
Although previous research has investigated the influence of object
functions in a number of ways, up to now there is no systematic
classification of the kinds of aspects that are crucial for such an
influence. The present approach attacks the issue from two sides. On the
one hand, possible factors were identified, classified in terms of
surface, use, and functional features, and their effects isolated. For
example, breakability and size of offset have a significant influence. On
the other hand, the data were used to generate components that formed
clusters of objects, independent of theoretical assumptions. Here, the
ability to dispense, containment, precision of use, supporting, inserting,
and specificity of use turned out to be crucial. Thus, the two approaches
yield different levels of functional features; how these go together is
largely left to future research.

13. Attention in Spatial Language: Bridging Geometry and Function (Terry
Regier, Laura Carlson, and Bryce Corrigan).
Geometric and functional aspects influencing spatial language both share
the element of attention. This idea is captured by the "Attentional Vector
Sum" (computational) model, which is capable of accounting for and
predicting empirical results in spatial scenes involving both geometric
and functional influences. Thus, the authors show that "attention serves
as a crucial mediating force in spatial language" (p. 192) because both
geometry and function may affect the allocation of attention, albeit for
different reasons.

14. Being Near the Ceramic, but not Near the Mug: On the Role of Construal
in Spatial Language (Sandeep Prasada).
We construe objects in terms of their structure and function, and we can
conceptualise entities in terms of stuff. Functional properties can be
derived from our understanding of the object being the kind of thing it
is. According to the author's reasoning, based on empirical results,
construing the entity as object or as stuff interacts with the entity's
structure, not its function. This has an influence on the usage of spatial
prepositions such as "near". The aspects can be differentiated because an
object's function is not in all cases directly correlated with its

15. Force and Function in the Acquisition of the Preposition "in" (Claude
This chapter examines the topological concept of inclusion as well as the
functional relationship of containment, both of which are involved in the
usage of "in". The notion of force is clarified, which is independent of
motion - contrary to the usual opposition of static vs. dynamic, which
seems to imply a correlation of force and motion. The author furthermore
proposes a number of different aspects that together constitute the
concept of containment. These are reflected in different ways in different
languages. Furthermore, a range of previous findings on the acquisition of
the concept are reviewed in order to highlight the relative importance of
geometric and dynamic factors.

Part III. Features that are Functional: Categorization, Learning, and

16. Shape: A Developmental Product (Linda B. Smith).
Conceptualisations of shape are influenced by the actions that are
performed upon objects. This idea, which touches upon the areas of
category learning and object recognition, is addressed empirically by
confronting children with novel objects and presenting actions along with
them. It is shown that the perception of shape may be distorted by action.
The function of objects seems to be crucial with respect to those features
of shape that are attended to: essential shape features are increasingly
recognised in an abstract way.

17. Adaptation of Perceptual and Semantic Features (Brian Rogosky and
Robert Goldstone).
The flexible ways in which categories are learned cannot be accounted for
by fixed feature based theories. Instead, features are learned dynamically
and adaptively according to context and task constraints. This holds both
for semantic and for perceptual features. The authors start by discussing
this idea thoroughly based on previous literature and then move on to
presenting their own empirical results.

18. Infants' Attention to and Use of Functional Properties in
Categorization (Kelly Madole and Lisa Oakes).
The authors review research on the role of functional aspects in
children's category acquisition, briefly presenting their own earlier
empirical findings. Their focus is on actions upon objects and the
expected (typical) reactions from the object. Apparently children start
from perceptual features and increasingly take functional properties into
account; later on, the relationship between the two is mediated by their
background knowledge. Further research is needed to investigate other
kinds of functional properties.

19. Developmental Constraints on the Representation of Spatial Relation
Information: Evidence from Preverbal Infants (Paul C. Quinn).
The author reviews a number of earlier empirical findings of his
laboratory that, taken together, indicate that infants younger than one
year categorise the spatial relations "above", "below", and "between",
with the latter emerging slightly later than the first two. For very young
infants, object categorisation interferes with abstract spatial
categories, which is discussed in terms of "what" versus "where"
processing systems.

20. Path Expressions in Finnish and Swedish: The Role of Constructions
(Urpo Nikanne).
Finnish and Swedish differ in the way they linguistically represent the
conceptual issue of path. For example, a similar linguistic structure -
coordinating conjunctions - is interpreted in fundamentally different ways
in the two languages; in Swedish it expresses a path sequence, while in
Finnish it conveys increasing detail of the spatial representation. The
conceptual structure and linguistic constraints of the path-related
constructions of each language are examined in detail and illustrated

Part IV. The Pervasiveness of Functional Features in Language and Space

21. Form and Function (Barbara Tversky).
With the insight that is typical for her, Tversky offers a wide
perspective on findings, ideas, and empirical results that concern the
relationship between form and function. Often, for instance, a typical
form of an object (or, regularly, a specific part of an object) is
associated with a certain function. Further, a causal relationship is
associated. The author argues against a simple account of language and
concepts by highlighting a broad range of issues that exemplify the
complexity of relationships and issues involved. This broad, integrative
view supports an understanding of how the colourful variety of issues that
have been addressed throughout the book belong together, jointly
contributing to our understanding of the processes at hand.


The book is well edited and contains only a small number of typos or
mistakes, the most curious of which is probably the appearance
of "international" in Table 9.1 (page 133) instead of "intentional". The
quality of all papers is consistently high, and the papers are definitely
relevant to the topic and concern of the book (although in a few cases the
relation to the notion of function seems to be less obvious than in
others, e.g., Chapter 4 essentially deals with mental rotation, and
Chapter 19 with object and spatial categorisation). Relevant previous
research is generally well accounted for, so that the book provides a good
insight into the present state of the art in the field. The purpose of the
book - to enhance understanding of the role of functional features for the
link between language and spatial representation - is successfully met by
accumulating a broad number of findings from a great variety of
perspectives. While some of the articles centrally deal with space, for
example, by examining the use and comprehension of spatial prepositions,
others are more concerned with general aspects of function and language.

Although the coherence of the book as a whole is convincing, it comes at
the cost of the convenience of each single article. For example, all
references are collected at the end of the book rather than along with the
chapters. In addition, the purpose of the definition of central terms (at
the beginning of each chapter) only reveals itself in relation to the book
as a whole. It is, however, advantageous that footnotes are employed at
the bottom of the pages rather than endnotes. Some of the papers could
have benefited from more thorough cross-referencing given that many issues
are shared and addressed from different viewpoints within the book. Other
contributions, in contrast, intensively account for these cross-relations.

The book contains a high number of papers that contribute original
research findings, for example, by presenting new empirical findings, by
presenting formal representations and models, or by drawing together a
range of earlier results to discuss a specific idea. In Chapter 17, even a
new methodology for investigating conceptual features is introduced;
however, one wonders why so much space is taken up by theoretical
considerations and so little is devoted to the introduction of the method
itself and its appropriateness for the issue at hand (which itself is well
motivated). In other cases, previous (own) research is summarised or
presented from a new perspective. These contributions enhance the
completeness of the book in terms of coverage and range of perspectives on
the topic at hand.

There are only a very few potentially problematic issues that might be
pointed out, although these in no way diminish the overall value of the
book. Chapter 3 reviews the findings of two earlier studies which are not
interrelated in any obvious way. To my mind, the studies are fundamentally
different because the first study deals with an essentially non-relational
task (pointing is not relational; the verbal direction relates the Figure
to the speaker as Ground, prescribed by the task) while the second study
addresses the question how speakers spontaneously select Figures and
Grounds when establishing spatial relations. A different case which I find
slightly problematic is Chapter 5, albeit for a different reason: this
contribution is too sketchy in several respects; it is often unclear how
the author motivates the global and far-reaching conclusions which are
modelled in a computational framework. It would have been better if the
author had motivated his approach not in terms of contrast with previous
literature but rather in terms of previously established findings, which
are also mentioned but not sufficiently accounted for in the paper.
Finally, in Chapter 15 the oppositions of dynamic, static, and kinetic are
presented confusingly; the abstract suggests that these are three
different concepts, while Fig. 15.1 conveys that dynamic is superordinate
to the other two.

Generally, the book will certainly serve as a valuable source for insights
with respect to issues around structure and function, language, and space,
for all researchers working in the field of spatial cognition and beyond.
In fact, this is already true; already the book (or single contributions
of it) is cited and referred to frequently in related work.


Thora Tenbrink is a research assistant in the DFG Collaborative Research
Center SFB/TR8 "Spatial Cognition: Reasoning, Action, Interaction" (Bremen
& Freiburg, Germany). Her recently completed dissertation deals with the
question as to 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,
presuppositions, and non-temporal implications of temporal connectives,
and with the systematic analysis of the application of spatial projective
terms. Her current and future focus is on empirical research on the
employment of spatial reference systems in dialogue, specifically in human-
robot interaction.

Format: Hardback
ISBN: 0199264325
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Pages: 320
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Pages: 320
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