HALS Workshop 2. The domain of 'space' in linguistic description

11–12 October 2013, Lecture Hall 8, University of Helsinki Main Building (Fabianinkatu 33)

The second HALS workshop brought together linguists who discussed in great detail how they deal with the challenges that space – a domain that is central to cognition and grammar – poses in linguistic description.
The workshop

The second HALS workshop brought together linguists who discussed in great detail how they deal with the challenges that space – a domain that is central to cognition and grammar – poses in linguistic description.

Beginning with a contribution by Heini Arjava & Erika Sandman who presented very “fresh” field data right from the first HALS excursion (Erzya, Mordovia) we followed a very hands-on approach, looking into actual research practices. What was very motivating and will hopefully set the stage for future field excursions and other HALS-related work was the fact that by conduction field research in teams, the “efficiency” of field time is maximised. Experimental work on spatial relations and their linguistic expression relies on elicitation techniques that start from non-linguistic cues which turned out to be a very fruitful way to delve into a new linguistic context, even without much prior knowledge of the particularities in the case under study.

The linguistic construal of spatial meaning was also at the core of the contributions by Mauro Tosco on Gawwada, a Cushitic language from Ethiopia that relies on absolute frames of reference, based on landscape features, in combination with a very pervasive feature of many African languages: a grammatical means that addresses the domain of directionality or orientation, distinguishing between centripetality and centrifugality (= itive/ventive marking). This served as a good illustration of a constant challenge in linguistic fieldwork: letting general typology inform one’s analysis (after all, one would not want to reinvent the wheel), while at the same time remaining sensitive to language-specific aspects that can be rather sophisticated and appear rather difficult to generalize. One such area that serves well to illustrate this challenge is the study of deixis. In her presentation of Nivkh demonstratives, and the ensuing session on the typology of demonstratives, Ekaterina Gruzdeva explored various approaches to the study of demonstratives, starting from a general typological view, but then moving into detailed linguistic anthropological work, requiring careful observation and interpretation also of non-linguistic cues. This was very similar in gist to the work on Finnish presented by Ritva Laury, who is interested in how spatial meaning is construed in real-life communicative events. With the support of video material, since many of the significant ingredients are non-verbal, she illustrated for a short sequence of just a few minutes how spatial relations are made meaningful between two speakers sitting at a kitchen over a cup of coffee.

A specific outcome of this workshop is the agreement that we shall try to pursue certain specific areas of study with their respective methodologies across all field excursions. Our experience could then possibly at some point provide interesting insight not just into the question of how general typology and case-specific adaptation can be harmonised, but also what specific differences of comparable approaches in different field situations can tell us (beyond the ”narrow testing of hypotheses”) about the language-specific ways of construing space, orientation in space, directionality and deixis. Over the coming months, we will try to develop these thoughts in order to build specific research strategies addressing comparable topics in the up-coming field trips.

Background and objectives

The spatial domain has an interesting, ambivalent property. On the one hand, it is “cognitively basic” in that it is a very central domain of human cognition and experience with many universal aspects (e.g. gravity, bodily features underlying spatial concepts of front-back, up-down orientation). On the other hand, space is a domain that is prone to be modelled in culture-specific ways that find their expression in language.

The description of spatial notions in a given language is therefore of crucial importance, but far from being trivial task. Maybe that is why spatial notions, despite their great significance in human cognition and language, are typically not dealt within a dedicated chapter in reference grammars. In our workshop, we intend to tackle a number of different approaches and techniques that are used in the linguistic analysis of the spatial domain. Among the topics that we wish to address in more detail are the following:

  • Space as a cognitive domain is not really “pre-structured” by any external referents. By contrast, natural species invite a straightforward mapping of lexical concept onto external referent. For space, this does not work. But how is spatial meaning construed then? How do people understand each other when they distinguish between here, there and yonder – seemingly simple notions, but actually quite tricky for construing meaning in real-time communication?
  • Much spatial meaning is deictic, depending on knowledge adduced from outside the linguistic utterance in order to be meaningful. At the same time, though, certain domains of grammar represent highly systematized ways of structuring spatial notions. Demonstrative pronouns, for instance, are one such area which is difficult to analyse because of the ambivalent character – between its highly systematized/grammaticalized character and the fluidity in the conception of deictic spatial notions.
  • Over the past ten years or so, linguistic relativity effects have been shown to affect spatial understandings (Levinson and co-workers and the MPI for Psycholinguistics, Nijmegen). If language communities can differ on such pervasive ideas like spatial frames of reference (absolute, intrinsic or relative), how does this play out in the grammar of space in the respective languages?


One important objective of the workshop is to familiarize ourselves with some of the wide array of possible techniques and methods that can help us understand the grammar of space and the construal of spatial meaning when embarking on language description, in different kinds of field situations.

A related issue concerns the preparation for such fieldwork. A second objective of the workshop should be that the participants are better able to read relevant information and glean pointers from existing reference material, before preparing for their own fieldwork.

Possible methods

There is a rather broad array of possible methods and techniques which can be applied, depending on the exact research questions and interest of interest. By way of example, we will be dealing with some of the following in the workshop:

  • Recording and processing of free conversations, dialogue situations, including non-verbal information with regard to space
  • Enhanced elicitation techniques that try to avoid the pitfalls of “script-like” data collection. Such elicitation techniques, despite the risk that they may sometimes fail to recognize relevant properties (one only gets the contrasts based on the properties that one asks for…), are still necessary in order to grasp the functioning of more systematic linguistic components (e.g. demonstrative pronouns, itive-ventive markers).
  • Experimental settings or slightly more constrained elicitation strategies (e.g. route descriptions).

Range of languages

From close to home (Finnish) to far abroad: One language that will receive special attention is Nivkh (a language used mainly on the island of Sakhalin in the Russian Far East). For those who intend to participate in the field excursion in 2014, this workshop is therefore an ideal preparation! Beyond that, we have evidence form NE Africa (Gawwada, East Cushitic) that will be presented and worked with. Finally, those who have participated in this year’s field excursion to Mordovia and focused on the grammar of space in Erzya will also contribute to what we hope will be a very dynamic and interactive workshop.


Friday 11 October – Lecture Hall 8, Main Building (Fabianinkatu 33)

9:00 – 10:00

  • Linguists playing with toys. Using movable objects as stimuli in examining spatial relations in Erzyan.

    Heini Arjava & Erika Sandman (University of Helsinki)

Coffee / tea

10:30 – 11:30

  • Twists and turns in the Gawwada grammar of space

    Mauro Tosco (University of Turin)

11:30 – 13:00

  • Practical session


14:30 – 15:30

  • Nivkh demonstratives in a typological perspective

    Ekaterina Gruzdeva (University of Helsinki)

Coffee / tea

16:00 – 17:30

  • Practical session

Saturday 12 October – Lecture Hall 8, Main Building (Fabianinkatu 33)

9:30 – 10:30

  • Structuring space with the Finnish demonstratives

    Ritva Laury (University of Helsinki)

10:30 – 12:00

  • Practical session


13:30 – 15:30

  • General discussion

Linguists playing with toys. Using movable objects as stimuli in examining spatial relations in Erzyan.

Heini Arjava & Erika Sandman (University of Helsinki)

Our presentation is based on the observations made during the HALS student field trip to Republic of Mordovia, Russia in August 2013. With the help of photos, audio and video material gathered during the field trip, we will illustrate our first experiments of creating dynamic, three-dimensional research settings in the study of spatial relations. This three-dimensional approach was achieved by using movable lego toys and creating situations where the speakers could freely describe the spatial setting they saw.

The language under scrutiny is the Finno-Ugric language Erzyan; however, our main aim is to present the newly-tested methodology and discuss the numerous benefits that a three-dimensional approach can bring, the least of these not being the chance to constantly modify the test pattern and avoid translating directly from language to language, which can easily lead to interference from dominant metalanguages; we will also analyze various problems-to-be-avoided that we encountered during this first experimental study.


Twists and turns in the Gawwada grammar of space
Mauro Tosco (University of Turin)

Gawwada (ISO 639: gwd) is an East Cushitic language spoken in Southwest Ethiopia. G operates on an absolute frame of reference based upon the landscape (an absolute landmark system in Levinson’s 2003 terms). The G frame of reference is based upon a threefold opposition: ‘uphill,’ ‘downhill,’ and the imaginary line orthogonal to them (‘level’). ‘Uphill’ corresponds to the general direction of the Northeast. This is also the general direction of the major mountains in the area when seen from the Gawwada-speaking area and, more generally, of the Ethiopian highlands. Apart from a triplet of verbs expressing movement along the axis of these three directions, the spatial elements are nouns.

A major feature of the G system is the presence of two triplets of spatial elements:

the Cardinals: Feminine nouns, expressing a point in space and a trajectory in movement;

the Locatives: Masculine nouns, expressing the area centered around the corresponding direction expressed by the Cardinal.

Another noteworthy characteristic of the system is given by the fact that each member of the two triplets can be expanded through the use of the Centrifugal marker –a (gloss: OUT) or the Centripetal marker –u (IN). The Cardinals may also be further extended through the reduplication of the last stem consonant (~C#) in order to express an intensive or exaggerated value either in proximity or distance.

After a general overview of the morphology of G, the presentation will explore the semantics and use of the spatial elements of G through the use of both spontaneous and elicited data.


Nivkh demonstratives in a typological perspective
Ekaterina Gruzdeva (University of Helsinki)

In my presentation, I am going to discuss morphosyntactic and semantic features of Nivkh (Paleosiberian) demonstratives that represent a typologically remarkable example of an extremely elaborated speaker-anchored deictic system. Nivkh has more than seventy demonstratives belonging to six morphosyntactic classes. Depending on the class, the deictic properties of a particular demonstrative can be described either within a binary system with the opposition between ‘proximal’ and ‘non-proximal’ areas around the deictic centre, or within a multiple system that is organised hierarchically and may be divided into primary and secondary systems, comprising five or fifteen spatial zones around the deictic centre respectively. Beyond spatial proximity, Nivkh demonstratives may also encode such properties of a referent, as a quality, dimension, quantity, preciseness of location, visibility, and size (of quantity).  It will be shown that the demonstrative system functions as a complex mechanism in which deictic and characterizing features are well-balanced with each other.

During a practical session, we will approach demonstratives from typological and descriptive perspectives. The twofold goal of the session is, first, to reveal various parameters determining the use of demonstratives cross-linguistically and, second, to discuss how the corresponding data can be elicited from the native speakers.


Structuring space with the Finnish demonstratives
Ritva Laury (University of Helsinki)

In this presentation, I will discuss the ways in which the Finnish demonstratives have been described by scholars coming from different theoretical traditions, and in particular, how their use in ordinary everyday conversations has been accounted for (e.g. Larjavaara 1990, Laury 1997, Seppänen 1998, Etelämäki 2001).  I aim to elucidate the ways in which the data and methodology used may lead scholars to radically different conceptions of a linguistic phenomenon.

My presentation will be followed by a practical illustration based on a videotaped excerpt from a conversation in Finnish.  Participants will be given an opportunity to approach the study of demonstratives from the starting point of the methodology of interactional linguistics (Selting & Couper-Kuhlen 2001).


Etelämäki, Marja. 2006. Toiminta ja tarkoite. Helsinki: Suomalaisen Kirjallisuuden Seura.

Larjavaara, M. 1990. Suomen deiksis. Helsinki: Suomalaisen Kirjallisuuden Seura.

Laury, R. 1997. Demonstratives in Interaction. Amsterdam: John Benjamins.

Seppänen, Eeva-Leena. 1998. Läsnäolon pronominit. Helsinki: Suomalaisen Kirjallisuuden Seura.