LINGUIST List 5.656

Wed 08 Jun 1994

Sum: Spatial Descriptions

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  1. Karen Emmorey, Summary of Spatial Descriptions

Message 1: Summary of Spatial Descriptions

Date: Mon, 6 Jun 1994 11:39:33 -Summary of Spatial Descriptions
From: Karen Emmorey <>
Subject: Summary of Spatial Descriptions

Several months ago, I asked whether there are languages other than American
Sign Language in which the Ground is described prior to the Figure in
"simple sentence level descriptions" (such as "the cup is on the table" in
English). I was curious whether ASL's Ground-Figure ordering might be due
to the visual modality of signed languages. This query generated quite a
bit of discussion on SL-LING (the sign language net) about spatial
descriptions in general, but here I will just summarize responses directly
related to Figure-Ground order of mention.

Tomomi Okazaki ( provided some examples from Chinese and
from Japanese in which Ground precedes the Figure:

J1. tsuke no ue ni hon ga arimasu.
 desk of top loc. a book nom. exists
 (the Ground-ni the Figure-ga verb)

N.B. Both 'ni' and 'ga' in the above sentence are postpositions: 'ni' is a
location marker and 'ga' is a subject marker.

C1. chouzi shang you (yi ben) shu.
 desk top exists (one volume) book
 (the Ground verb the Figure)

Okazaki also indicated that the Figure can be topicalized, creating a
Figure-Ground order in both Japanese and Chinese. Korean exhibits the same
pattern of ordering.

Dan Slobin ( provided some interesting examples
from Tzeltal, the Mayan language studied by Steve Levinson and Penelope
Brown, in which a "positional" predicate specifies the shape and
orientation properties of an object (which may serve as either Figure or
Ground), while a single, empty preposition indicates that there is a
relation between the Figure and Ground. In examples (1) and (2), the
Ground precedes the Figure, and the initial predicate classifies a
container-like object which can serve as either the Figure (1) or the
Ground (2):

pachal ta mexa boch
sits-bowlshape-container relation table gourd
`The gourd is on the table.'

pachal ta boch ixim
sits-bowlshape-container relation gourd corn
`The corn is in the gourd.'

Steve Levinson ( suggests that Figure-Ground ordering
may be a direct reflection of basic word order. In Tzeltal, the ordering
Predicate - Object - Prepositional Phrase - Subject
Sotaro Kita ( also suggests that the nature of
Figure-Ground orderings may lie in the "basic word order" of a language,
citing Kuno's (1973) hypothesis that at some level of derivation
existential sentences have the locative [the Ground] preceding the subject.
Liddell (1980) argues that the basic word order for ASL is SVO, but
locatives exhibit an OSV order.

Slobin warned that it may be a mistake to focus on "simple sentence-level
descriptions," excluding "discourse level phenomena." He and Nini Hoiting
argue that sign language narratives require advance stage-setting in order
to move protagonists from place to place in a semantically structured
signing space (in both ASL and Sign Language of the Netherlands). Similar
stage-setting orderings (i.e. Ground-Figure) exist at the discourse level
for spoken languages which are "verb-framed" according to Len Talmy's
typology (e.g. Spanish, Turkish, Hebrew).

With respect to the hypothesis that the Ground-Figure ordering in signed
languages may be due to a modality constraint, Slobin agrees and points out
that the same constraint occurs in drawing. For example, preschoolers will
first draw a bed and then a girl lying on the bed (data from Lauren Silver,
a graduate student at Berkeley). Finally, Steven Schaufele
( suggested an interesting parallel between ASL and the
jargon of Heraldry in Great Britain in which it is standard "to describe
the field first, than anything 'lying' on the field itself, followed by
anything lying on that, etc. Thus three green circles on a gold chevron in
a blue field would be described as 'azure on a chevron on three rondels
vert'." Schaufele suggests that this order of mention relates to "the
hypothesis that ASL describes backgrounds before foregrounds in part
because of the visual, as opposed to auditory, orientation of ASL.
Heraldic jargon is, of course, a visual 'language' too, and the historical
justification for describing 'fields' before 'charges' is that the former
are visible from a greater distance, i.e., if someone is approaching you
from a distance with the arms described above, you're going to register the
blue field probably before you notice anything else, and certainly the gold
chevron before the three little green circles. Hence in terms of
hierarchical organization it makes sense to describe the more general field
first, moving afterward to the smaller details in the 'foreground'."

Thanks again to all who participated in this discussion, and I hope some of
you find this summary useful.

Karen Emmorey


Kuno, S. (1973). The structure of the Japanese Language. MIT Press (see
Chapter 28).

Liddell, (1980). American Sign Language Syntax. Mouton Publishers: The Hague.

Slobin, D. & Hoiting, N. (1994). Reference to movement in spoken and
signed languages: Typological consderations. In Proceedings of the
Berkeley Linguistics Society.

For Tzeltal:
Working Papers of the Cognitive Anthropology Research Group,
Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics, PB 310, NL-6500
AH Nijmegen, Netherlands:

 1. Stephen C. Levinson: Relativity in spatial
conception and description
 6. Penelope Brown: Spatial conceptualization in
 12. Stephen C. Levinson: Vision,, shape and
linguistic description: Tzeltal body-part terminology and
object description.

Levinson, S. C. (in press). Vision, shape and linguistic
 description: Tzeltal body-part terminology and
 object-description. In J. Haviland & S. Levinson (Eds.),
 Space in Mayan Languages. Special issue of _Linguistics_.

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