Spatial language and cognition in Mesoamerica

(NSF Award No. BCS-0723694; 11/01/2007 - 04/30/2013; $259,756.00) Description: Description: NSF

Principal Investigator:

Jürgen Bohnemeyer (University at Buffalo


Project Members






How much spatial information is represented in language? To what extent do languages differ in the expression of geometrical and functional object structure? Is there variation in the role the human and animal body plays as a conceptual model of the structure of objects across languages? Do speakers of all languages employ the same conceptual processes in mapping the structure of the body into that of objects? Does the way the geometrical and functional structure of objects is conceptualized in different languages influence the way spatial relations are identified in these languages? And does the way speakers of different languages talk about spatial relations influence the way they memorize them? This project attempts to find answers to these and similar questions, based on an investigation of the representation of space in 15 indigenous languages of Guatemala, Nicaragua and Mexico.

A first in kind, this set of studies seeks to apply methods of semantic typology to elucidate the correlations between two typologically unusual traits of spatial language in Mesoamerica and their possible diffusion through language contact. These are the highly productive use of meronymic (part-whole) terminologies for object parts and spatial regions based primarily on object geometry, and the striking preference for allocentric (non-observer-based, i.e. intrinsic or absolute) over egocentric (observer-based) frames of reference. The recent demonstration of a close alignment in frame-of-reference selection for linguistic encoding, recall memory, and spatial reasoning has triggered a debate over the relative importance of linguistic and cultural factors in frame-of-reference choice. This study aims to advance this debate, capitalizing on the ecological diversity of the Mesoamerican area, cultural factors including modes of production, bilingualism, and education, and the possibility of a linguistic predictor: highly productive meronym systems.

The research of the MesoSpace Project continues in MesoSpace1b, expanding to languages beyond Mesoamerica.

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Designed by Rodrigo Romero. Updated by Randi Tucker.

© 2012 Spatial language and cognition in Mesoamerica project.