12/7 Conceptualizations of Space (Frames of Spatial Reference)
In this lecture, Prof. Senft invites us to reflect on how language influences our knowledge of the world, namely the way in which we categorize and conceptualize space. Experiments with speakers of different languages (mostly non-Indo-European) show that there is a correlation between linguistically constructed spatial concepts and non-linguistic experience of space.
The starting point of this research is a threefold typology of ‘frames of spatial reference’: 1) relative systems: those in which space is conceptualized with reference to the speaker; 2) absolute systems, in which space concepts rely on stable reference points, such as ‘north’ or ‘south’, and 3) inherent systems, in which space is considered with reference to an external object. Although most languages contain these three frames of spatial reference, research shows that in certain contexts speakers of a certain language tend to prefer one frame to the others. This preference has also an impact on the way in which they represent space and resolve non-linguistic spatial problems.
From this perspective, experiments provide evidence for a ‘weak’ version of Sapir and Whorf’s linguistic relativism: while language does not simply determine thought, it plays however an important role in human cognition.