Prepositions and the Funnel

Keith Hamon has another two great pieces about prepositions.

In September, when he first got me interested in prepositions [our Google+ comments reconstructed here 2019-12-22], I was surprised how many of our most important prepositions have their origins in spatial notions: ab (from); aus, von (of); bis, zu, an (to); vor (before), nach (after), hinter (behind), um (around), bei (near), neben (next to), zwischen (between), in (in, into), auf (on), über (over), unter (under), durch (through), gegen (against). Counterexamples seem to be only: wegen (because), für (for), mit (with), ohne (without), seit (since), but “wegen” comes from way, and “für” comes from the very prolific PIE root “*per-” (get through, traverse).

(One could almost think that the name “preposition” expressed their talking about positions in the real world rather than merely having a certain positions in a sentence, and Keith’s picture of prepositions as actors positioned on a stage, would nicely illustrate this understanding.)

Having just read about synesthesia, I was amazed about how much our ancestors applied their visual and kinesthetic experience of space to all sorts of other things, while they created a wealth of new meanings of these little prepositions.

Most prominently, many spatial words were equally applied to temporal relationships, then to movement (space + time), then to intention, but this is just the start. For example, according to the Duden dictionary of meanings, “über” has 22 meanings as diverse as 1a location, 1b target of movement, 1c covering, 1d to cover , 1e cross, 1f strickle over, 1g vis-à-vis, 1h extended, 1i beyond, 2a during, 2b in a process, 3a ranking, 3b threshold, 3c highest rank, 4 accumulation, 5 consequence, 6 excess, 7 topic, 8 par value, 9 promoter, 10 relationship, 11 more than.

And the prolific process of adding ever more synesthetic and figurative senses, is not finished yet. Keith’s example addresses “logging into a Google account”. The idea here is not only making a connection (as we would now assume, a connection between a client and a server computer). When we used the first time sharing computers, we perceived the login indeed as entering the system, and our screen was merely a window into this system. (This sort of window is still available as console, whose name has yet another exciting history and trajectory: from the consolation-promising stoup in church, to a keyboard protruding from the mainframe, to the virtual console on the screen. But I am being carried away…)

Keith argues that

“The preposition does not signify something other than its coupling,”

This makes a lot of sense to me. The preposition does not fulfill the expectations that we have of a word: That it targets a fixed object of intention, referral, “tracing” (as Deleuze and Guattari would put it), that a word, if aptly used, aims at its target like the sighting telescope of a marksman, zooming and focussing by narrowing the scope of view like a funnel. The preposition does not seem to confirm the idea that language is a left-brained activity, which happens in a brain region that is directly next to the regions controlling the right hand, for grasping, in both the physical and figurative sense.

funnelPrepositions are disappointing in this respect. They are too general, they are not directly assigned to a single real meaning. But their weakness is also their power, as Keith advises us. They are not “general” in the sense of “abstract” = meaning nothing real, but “general” in the synesthetic sense of “metaphor” = meaning several real things.

It is exciting that Keith discovered their very special role among the wide spectrum of words: When we look at one end of this spectrum, there are very specific technical terms for a unique kind of object. Often, they can be better signified by their position in the hierarchical tree of Wikipedia items such as a horse at Mammalia > Equidae > … > Equus ferus caballus rather than by some artificially abstract definition that Keith quotes “a large, four-legged, domesticated animal used for draft and transportation.“. Then gradually, the words on the spectrum become more multipurposed, for example those in the Dornseiff categories 09 (Wanting and Acting), 05 (Essence, Relationship, Occurrence), and especially 03 (Space, Position, Form — the spatial ones). And now I learned that prepositions are at the very opposite end of the spectrum.

They are not the narrow end of the funnel of language. They are doing their work more towards the broad end of the funnel. And yes, we can associate this broad end with the synesthetic, multisense, multipoint mode of McGilchrist’s “Master” whom he also calls “right hemisphere”, and the narrow end with the “Emissary” whom he calls “left hemisphere”. So, prepositions are, in a way, connecting not only words, but even the two modes of brain operation. What a powerful job of the little words!

Appendix (skip if in a hurry). Keith asks

“What if the purpose of language is not to signify, but to connect? What if connection came first, as with music, and signifying came later?”

The question is a great synthesis of Downes (primacy of connection), McGilchrist (see his thoughts on “musilanguage” on pp 103-105), and Deleuze & Guattari (mapping vs. tracing).

And when Keith discusses the “trajectory” of a word in a context of flow (rhesis) vs. stability,

“Words do have a certain kind of homeorhesis, a tendency of complex systems to return to a trajectory, that makes them just stable enough, long enough, to be useful in a given conversation,”

I am once more reminded of McGilchrist

“If all things flow, and one can never step into the same river twice — Heraclitus’s phrase is, I believe, a brilliant evocation of the core reality of the right hemisphere’s world ” (p. 30)

where he introduces the fixing characteristics of the brain’s “Emissary” mode.

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4 Responses to Prepositions and the Funnel

  1. keith.hamon says:

    Ahh, Matthias, what a wonderful post. I’m having such fun with prepositions, and I’m delighted that you are able to connect to them.

    I like first your strong connection of prepositions to the physical world of space and time. It reminds me of Deleuze and Guattari’s comment that mapping works in constant contact with the real. But I like most the connection to McGilchrist’s right-hemisphere Master. You make that clear for me: that prepositions enable the in-flowing of actors and actions, props and settings that open up and inform an open, right-hemisphere space. The other, more narrowly focused words may have more immediate utility than the wide-open prepositions, but the prepositions inform those words with context and meaning. I will think much more about that and eagerly await your own thoughts about this role.

    I also like the connection to Downes’ connectivism, which I’ve been reading for several years now. I think there is more here than I’ve thought about, and I’ll have to look again at Downes. Again, I hope you will addd more as I think this is a rich line of thought.

    I’m presenting a paper about the desires of prepositions in a few weeks, and I will certainly quote you. Thanks for the rich material and sharp insights.

  2. x28 says:

    Keith, I am so glad that you liked it !

  3. Barry Dyck says:

    I’m also getting “into” Keith’s work on prepositions though it is taking time to fully connect with what he is discovering.

    I’m also fond of the double-role German prepositions here: an, auf, hinter, in, neben, uber, unter, zwischen, vor. With articles (the coupling) they tell us about the action or lack of action (potentially signifying?). Actually all German prepositions love coupling with articles. Hell of a challenge to learn.

  4. x28 says:

    Barry, thank you very much for your interest and for your interesting comment. Your observation that Keith’s idea of coupling seems to be an even stronger concept in German, sounds very plausible to me.

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