Spatial language and cognition

beyond Mesoamerica

(NSF Award No. BCS-1053123; 06/01/2011 - 12/31/2014; $255,901.00) 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 25 languages spoken on five continents.


The overarching question is that of linguistic vs. nonlinguistic determinants of reference frame use in language and internal cognition. Previous research has confirmed the co-occurrence of a bias against relative (observer-projected) frames and the highly productive use of "meronymic" terminologies that are based primarily on object geometry across the languages of the Mesoamerican area. To test the hypothesis that shape-based meronymy, used as a resource in spatial descriptions, is in fact a causal influence in frame use, four non-Mesoamerican languages of South America, Africa, and Asia will be examined. Preliminary reports suggest the presence of Mesoamerican-style geometric meronymy in these languages. The alternative hypothesis, according to which frame selection is not directly driven by language, but exclusively by non-linguistic factors, will be tested in eight Asian populations. Among Mesoamerican languages, the team will further investigate an unexpected apparent side effect of the predominance of object-centered geometry: the "principle of canonical orientation", which prevents English speakers from saying "The ball is under the chair" when it is placed on top of an inverted chair, may be language-specific.

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Designed by Rodrigo Romero. Edited by Randi Tucker.

© 2012 Spatial language and cognition in Mesoamerica project.