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The Spatial Prepositions in English and Portuguese
Adriana Riess Karnal

This paper studies the language according to a cognitive perspective. It is believed that the form of the language, its grammar, is to a certain extant innate. It is also recognizable that it is not possible to put it into practice without experience to empower the process of linguistic formation.

The spatial prepositions in Portuguese and English are analyzed based on the semantic theory by the linguist Ray Jackendoff (1983,1992).He postulates the existence of a Conceptual Structure organized mentally. The contents of the Conceptual Structure consist of innate elements that are Situation, Event, State, Object, Place and Possession.

The conceptual constituent Place is explored in this paper because it accounts for the spatial prepositions. They are the key elements to the understanding of spatial relations in the language. It is discussed what the concepts encoded in these grammatical expressions are.

The elements of spatial relations

There are three elements involved in the spatial relation, that are: figure- the object to be located, the reference object- the ground and region-where the object is located. Jackendoff and Landau (1993:224) exemplify the elements as follows:

The book (figure) is lying on the table (reference object)
The train (figure) reached the station (reference object)
The star (figure) is inside the circle (reference object)
The circle (figure) lies around (surrounds) the star( reference object)

In 1), the figure book is located in the region expressed by the prepositional phrase on the table. The region is described by the reference object the table and the spatial relation by the preposition on. This preposition means in contact to the surface of the reference object.

The prepositions in 2),3) and 4) also relate spatially the figure to the reference object expressed by the prepositions in, inside, and around.

The spatial relation is encoded in a preposition along with the reference object, that defines the region. The region is whatsoever the location of the reference object. It answers Where the object is located or its route in case it is moving.

The functions of the prepositions

The spatial prepositions can play two functions that are places or routes.

The place is the location where the object is and the route its path in case it is moving.

The concept of place consists of an intransitive preposition such as forward, that way and upstairs or a transitive preposition like on the table, under the chair or in the can.

Moreover, the place can mention two reference objects such as between the square and the circle and across the road from the hotel.

The place these prepositions refer to is different from the reference object to the extent that they suggest a variety of locations.It is possible to keep the same reference object and have different spatial situations just by altering the preposition. The situations below can exemplify that:
Under the table, on the table, at the table.

The other function spatial prepositions can play is the route. It specifies movement or orientation. There is no influence on the geometry of the objects just the axial structure that is the object`s upper and lower sides. Some examples of routes can be the prepositional phrases toward the mountain, around the tree and to the floor. These prepositions specify the route followed by the object. The argument of a route can also be a reference place such as from under the table whereas from expresses the path and under the place.

Classifying the preposition to as a route can make it easier for Brazilian students of English so as to clarify the semantic difference between to and for. Both prepositions stand for the prepostion para in Portuguese. The difference lies on the function para plays, either as a route, which is a spatial preposition, or as a purpose, which has a non spatial meaning.

Comparing the spatial prepositions in Portuguese and English

Taking into account Brazilian learners of EFL there appears to be that the prepositions in, on and at are misapplied in a sentence because of L1 interference. The concepts encoded by the prepositions in, on and at are expressed by the solely preposition em. It is suggested that the preposition em is highly polissemic.

However, it is important to consider the difficulties native speakers of English have with prepositions as well. For example, North Americans tend to say in the bus whilst British say on the bus.

The answer to this puzzle lies on the format of the spatial cognition. The spatial prepositions interface the language faculty and the 3D central module. This module has three dimensions and is responsible for our understanding of geometry. So, using the correct preposition requires a mental calculus. In addition to that, it is required to know the relevance of the geometric features of a reference object in a certain culture. It means that the use of in a bus in US English considers the geometric property of the bus as a container more relevant than the geometric property of the internal surface of the bus encoded by on the bus in UK English.


As a result, it is suggested that English is richer than Portuguese when lexicalizing spatial concepts. This fact entails that the subtlety of the preposition is missed out when it is translated. It was verified by the prepositions in, on and at, whereas in is a third dimension preposition, on is a bidimensional one and at just requires coarse geometric properties of an object. All in all, they are translated as em in Portuguese so much as the learner is unable of encoding subtle geometric properties.


Jackendoff, R.(1983).Semantics and Cognition. Cambridge, Massachusetts: MIT Press.
___________.(1992).Languages of the mind.
Jackendoff,R. Landau,B. (1993).What and Where in Spatial Language and Spatial Cognition. Cambridge, Massachusetts: MIT Press.

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