Spatial language and cognition beyond Mesoamerica


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Huehuelta Tepehua

Ayutla Mixe

Pajapan Nawat


P'orhepecha (Tarasco)


San Lucas Quiaviní Zapotec


Tecpatán Zoque


Yucatec Maya



*Control languages not considered part of the Mesoamerican Sprachbund.

Beyond Mesoamerica


Jahai is a Mon-Khmer language spoken by about 1,000 hunter-gatherers on the Malay Peninsula. Parts of material objects are systematically labeled by body part metaphors in Jahai, primarily on the basis of the geometry of the object rather than the functions of the parts, much like in Ayoquesco Zapotec according to MacLaury 1989. A case study of the global analogical mapping involved in these assignments, focusing on the Jahai terminology for parts of rivers, is presented in Burenhult’s 2008 article ‘Language and landscape: Geographical ontology in cross-linguistic perspective’.

Mainland Japanese



Mungbam, called Abar in the Ethnologue (ISO:mij), is a language spoken in Cameroon (Northwest Province, Menchum Division, Zhoa Sub-Division). It is spoken in the villages of Munken, Ngun, Biya, Abar, and Missong by about 2000 people. It is spoken at the northern edge of the Cameroon Grassfields linguistic area, and its low-level genetic affiliation has yet to be determined convincingly. There are considerable differences between the five dialects and the speakers do not recognize themselves to be speaking the same language. It is for this reason that the name of the language is designated as an acronym representing the five villages where varieties of it are spoken. Grammatically, the language is isolating, with a highly complex system of tone used for designating lexical and grammatical categories.

Ryukyuan languages

Ryukyuan languages are those varieties spoken in the Ryukyu Islands off the southwest coast of Japan. Less than 150,000 speakers remain for these languages and that total is spread out over about ten major varieties each with a number of dialects. Ryukyuan languages are somewhat cognate with Japanese, but mutual intelligibility is impossible. Japanese is the prevailing language in most areas where Ryukyuan varieties are spoken. The older generations speak Japanese as a second language and there are many bilinguals especially one generation removed from those in their 70s, 80s and 90s. The younger generations speak mainly Japanese with some ability in comprehending the local Ryukyuan variety.




Wan is a Southeastern Mande language spoken in central Côte d’Ivoire. (The number of speakers is unknown; the 1993 estimate of 22,000 seems inadequate.) It is an isolating language, with three tones, SOVX word order (subject and object precede the verb, all other arguments and adjuncts follow). Spatial relations are encoded by locative nouns and postpositions. Locative nouns fall into two classes, body part terms (e.g., kúlà ‘back’) and terms for spatial regions (e.g., ‘outer surface’, tā top, gó inside). Locative postpositions are (historically) related to locative nouns in one of two ways. Some postpositions are identical in form to a locative noun; in particular, all terms for spatial regions, and some of the body part terms, have a corresponding postposition.


Yurakaré is an unclassified language spoken by an estimated 2,500 speakers in central Bolivia. Attemps to classify the language within a larger group have so far not been successful. Yurakaré has a lexicalized (in the sense that speakers agree on the choice of lexical choice) way of specifying subparts of objects, based on the human body, as can be seen in the following examples:


(1)a.    tomete a-shansha

            arrow 3sg.p-tooth

            ‘point/tip of the arrow (lit.the arrow’s tooth)’

(1)b.    bótiya             a-dyukku

            bottle 3sg.p-buttocks

            ‘The bottom (lit. buttocks) of the bottle.’


These relator nouns based on the human body can combine with locative case markers to specify the ground with respect to which a figure is located. However, in these locative constructions, other relator nouns seem to be more common than the ones based on the human body.

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