Update on “What” and “Where” in Spatial Language: A New Division of Labor for Spatial Terms

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14 Scopus citations


In this article, I revisit Landau and Jackendoff's () paper, “What and where in spatial language and spatial cognition,” proposing a friendly amendment and reformulation. The original paper emphasized the distinct geometries that are engaged when objects are represented as members of object kinds (named by count nouns), versus when they are represented as figure and ground in spatial expressions (i.e., play the role of arguments of spatial prepositions). We provided empirical and theoretical arguments for the link between these distinct representations in spatial language and their accompanying nonlinguistic neural representations, emphasizing the “what” and “where” systems of the visual system. In the present paper, I propose a second division of labor between two classes of spatial prepositions in English that appear to be quite distinct. One class includes prepositions such as in and on, whose core meanings engage force-dynamic, functional relationships between objects, with geometry only a marginal player. The second class includes prepositions such as above/below and right/left, whose core meanings engage geometry, with force-dynamic relationships a passing or irrelevant variable. The insight that objects’ force-dynamic relationships matter to spatial terms’ uses is not new; but thinking of these terms as a distinct set within spatial language has theoretical and empirical consequences that are new. I propose three such consequences, rooted in the fact that geometric knowledge is highly constrained and early-emerging in life, while force-dynamic knowledge of objects and their interactions is relatively unconstrained and needs to be learned piecemeal over a lengthy timeline. First, the two classes will engage different learning problems, with different developmental trajectories for both first and second language learners; second, the classes will naturally lead to different degrees of cross-linguistic variation; and third, they may be rooted in different neural representations.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)321-350
Number of pages30
JournalCognitive Science
StatePublished - Mar 1 2017


  • Cross-linguistic studies
  • Development
  • Force-dynamics
  • Geometry
  • Linguistics
  • Spatial cognition
  • Spatial language
  • Spatial prepositions

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Experimental and Cognitive Psychology
  • Cognitive Neuroscience
  • Artificial Intelligence


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