Where's what and what's where: The language of objects in space

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19 Scopus citations


Many traditional views of language learning emphasize the importance of non-linguistic knowledge in constraining children's interpretations of the utterances they hear as they learn form-meaning correspondences. In the present paper, I propose that the structure of the human spatial-cognitive system may impose massive limitations on how the language of objects and places can be represented during first language learning. Specifically, the separation and respective structures of the 'what' and 'where' systems (as documented by neuropsychologists) show striking correlation with the properties of geometric representations underlying object names and place expressions (as proposed by Landau and Jackendoff 1993). Spatial representations underlying object names seem to be linked to detailed object shape (along with possible relevant shape transformations), while the representations underlying place-functions (spatial prepositions in English) seem to be linked to object descriptions preserving principal axes, but no detailed shape. Evidence is reviewed that these distinct representations are reflected in children's early comprehension, production, and learning of names for objects and places. Additional evidence from cross-linguistic studies of spatial terms appears to be consistent with the account given, although challenges remain. As a whole, the linguistic and psychological evidence support the notion that non-linguistic representational systems may play a part in shaping some of the character of languages.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)259-296
Number of pages38
Issue numberC
StatePublished - Apr 1994
Externally publishedYes

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Language and Linguistics
  • Linguistics and Language


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