December 16, 2007

Dimensions, metaphors, and prepositions

National Preposition Day continues with a guest post by John Lawler, who gives the following brief account of how the prepositions at, on, and in work in English:

The usage of in/on/at, like that of most prepositions, is metaphorically locative and, in the case of these three, dimensional.

The basic principles are simple:

in relates to a 3-dimensional container
on relates to a 2-dimensional surface
at relates to a 1-dimensional location

Naturally, usages can get very complex, especially the idiomatic varieties. However, the metaphor theme "time is space" extends these principles pretty straightforwardly.

The experiential key here is that a day (one's current waking period) is metaphorized as a surface on which one is walking (the slogan is "ontology recapitulates physiology"). That accounts for on Thursday, on the seventh, on his birthday.

The smaller time units are then locations on that surface, whence at noon, at the moment, at 8:15:44.23, 2/17/44, while the larger ones are containers for days, whence in March, in 2007, in the twentieth century.

Similar remarks apply to non-temporal uses (see Charles Fillmore's Deixis Lectures):

on the lawn ~ in the yard
in space ~ on (the) earth,
in the air ~ on the ground
on (the) sea ~ in (the) water ~ on (the) land
in some non-Abelian cohomology group

Interesting special cases come from vehicles:

in a car/plane/bus/canoe/boat/kayak
on a raft/bicycle
on public transportation
on a (scheduled) boat/train/plane/bus

I suspect that the schedule metaphorizes a (2-D) passenger list, though I'm not yet convinced that this is the right analysis.

Guest post by John Lawler

Posted by Geoffrey K. Pullum at December 16, 2007 06:21 PM