Spatial word roots are most prolific

Certainly my amateur work is very flawed, and my poor translation will obscure what I am trying to get across. But still I need to try it, because I am so much fascinated by my “data”.

top300If you stroll around the word roots on my map and explore their verbose definitions from my etymological dictionary, you may notice yourself that the category #3, “Space, Position, Form”, shows particularly many items and even large clusters of items, e.g. around “warped”, “to bend”, “to wind”, “to plait”. All the 300 shown word roots are very prolific ones, as you can see from their descendant tree. So what does it mean that spatial concepts are significantly overrepresented among those that have inspired many more new words?

I would speculate that the role of the broad picture, of looking about, watching, demonstrating and imitating, was very important for the emerging language. That is, even though language is regarded as a “left-brain” activity, it is deeply anchored in the visual modality, and the words were transferred to other modalities, and even to abstract notions, by means of synesthesia and metaphor.

Already many years ago, I was struck by how much “multimedial” meaning was included in the verbose definitions of the Indoeuropean roots, in particular, categories #7 and #8. In the meantime — most recently by looking at prepositions — I have realised how important these spatial relationships and are for thinking (at least for my thinking).

I also like to visualize similarity relationships by spatial proximity and connector lines, and I wonder if my map succeeds to visualize the connectivist idea that meaning resides in the connections between the entities: Look at the unlabelled dark grey nodes that are connected to multiple words shown by light grey nodes? These guessed and reconstructed meanings of the Indoeuropean words are, IMHO, a good example of such “residing in the connections”, namely in the connections of tha adjacent modern words.

Disclaimer details

  • My excerpts from my word origins dictionary Duden 7 may be faulty because I simply noted “word 1 > word 2” whenever the dictionary said that word 2 may stem from word 1 or that its origin were covered in the word 1 entry — so, for correct details, consult a full text such as Harper’s;
  • My dictionary contained beautiful verbose definitions (based on Pfeifer or Pokorny) that I did not find anywhere in English, so I frivolously translated some of them — but if you understand German, here is the original;
  • My selection of words includes thousands of German words but only a fixed basic vocabulary (based on my own discretion) of English and French ones;
  • My top 300 statistics (of the words with the most descendants) may be influenced by faulty speculative derivations, by near duplicates due to unmentioned kinship, and by the uneven language distribution;
  • My assignments to Dornseiff’s categories may be questionable;
  • I omitted all diacritics and the “*” denoting the reconstruction of the roots;
  • My reference was the 2nd edition of the Duden 7 which contained problems that are fixed only in the current 5th edition; if you want to trace my errors you may find the reasons in; my errors with English may be my misunderstandings of, and those in French are from the;
  • Finally, there may be numerous more flaws that I am not even aware of.


Incidentally today, I found a related resource: “Mapping Metaphor“, from Glasgow University.

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5 Responses to Spatial word roots are most prolific

  1. jennymackness says:

    Hi Matthias,

    Your tool is looking great and your video is really helpful and makes it look very easy to use – but I suspect that a lot of the difficulty will lie in the selection of text.

    I know you will have read all that McGilchrist has to say about the role of both the left and right hemispheres in language – that language is a function of both hemispheres, but that they deal with different aspects of language, and the section in his book about direction of writing and how it developed is also interesting.

    You have written

    >>>> I would speculate that the role of the broad picture, of looking about, watching, demonstrating and imitating, was very important for the emerging language. That is, even though language is regarded as a “left-brain” activity, it is deeply anchored in the visual modality, and the words were transferred to other modalities, and even to abstract notions, by means of synesthesia and metaphor.<<<<<

    My understanding of reading McGilchrist is that language is deeply anchored in music. Somewhere he points out that music precedes language and that we don't need language to be able to communicate. Birds do it by singing and other animals through their bodies. As he writes on p.119 – 'However much language may protest to the contrary, its origins lie in the body as a whole' – this suggests to me, not just the visual mode.

    I need to go back to McGilchrist but my understanding is that language as in 'words' is a left hemisphere activity. Language is linked to life by metaphor (p.115) and 'Only the right hemisphere has the capacity to understand metaphor'. The left hemisphere holds the paint box, the right hemisphere paints the picture (p.99).

    I can't find anything in McGilchrist's book about mapping, but McGilchrist tells us that the right hemisphere sees the whole and the left hemisphere see the parts. But he also writes (p.51)
    'In general abstract concepts and words, along with complex syntax, are left-hemisphere dependent. But, once again, the right hemisphere's language inferiority depends to a significant degree on positive inhibition by the left hemisphere. If the left hemisphere is sufficiently distracted, or incapacitated, the right hemisphere turns out to have a more extensive vocabulary, including lon, unusual and non-imageable words.'

    Thanks for you interesting post.

  2. x28 says:

    Jenny, thank you very much for these rich inspiring thoughts of objection.

    Your p.99 quotation about the “paint box” seems crucial to me. These pieces needed for the coding of language content are thoroughly examined in the various citations: The auditory and kinesthetic roots (music and body gestures), the direction of writing, and the vocabulary. While the former ones are all shown as “originating in the right hemisphere, but translating itself into the left”, the vocabulary sounds more abstract and left-brained. This is where my own speculation fits in: that the content of these abstract words has also originated in the right hemisphere, in concretely experienced real-world pictures such as space and form.

    The “origins in the body” can be nicely illustrated by the history of the words “Hamburg[er]”: Ham stems from the bend of the leg (body form), and Hamburg lies on a bend of the river Elbe (spatial concept).

    Thanks also for pointing me to p.119 where he says “language can help to blind us to the intrinsically synaesthetic nature of experience”. I look forward to your Leonardo article’s embargo expiring!

  3. jennymackness says:

    Matthias – ‘thoughts of objection’ were not intended 🙂 but you are right – I found that what you wrote didn’t quite align with my own thinking, and I was trying to explore why this might be the case. I would love to know what McGilchrist would say. Mapping is a very interesting concept to explore in relation to the roles of the left and right hemispheres, because obviously a map gives and overview (right hemisphere), but is put together like a jigsaw with so many details (left hemisphere?). So I’m not sure where that would leave a map made up of words.

    I’m also not sure whether I have understood this myself, but in your response above you seem to be clear about it in your own mind:-)

  4. johnmackness says:

    As a fan of thinking maps myself, I thought that this productivity tool could be very useful to organise and document the logic that connects a Literature Review with a Methodology, particularly in students’ dissertations, This is usually a major issue with MSc business students. If you connected together text about analytical tools and concepts (such as the use of World Class Manufacturing models to benchmark operational processes in different company settings – I’ve just been reading this dissertation!) and map connections as Matthias’ video shows you can easily do, then I can envisage a much stronger case being made for the adoption of one approach vis-a-vis another to carry out the investigation. I don’t know what it has to do with left and right brain thinking, but the tool is a great idea!

  5. x28 says:

    Hi John, it is a great and pleasant surprise to hear from you and to read your encouragement! If you encounter any difficulties with the tool, please feel free to tell me and I will see if I can fix something. Thank you very much!

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