Enacting Prepositions: Internalising Spatial Relations


  • Daniela Diesner University of Vienna


Meaning is considered to be grounded in ongoing interaction with the environment, i.e. lived experience in three dimensional space and real time (enactive cognition) [1]. This is reflected in language use, e.g., in terms of spatial relations that are regarded as basic for acquiring the semantics of locative and directional prepositions (image schema theory) [2]. From a neuroscientific perspective of brain function, the body is considered to execute brain-initiated action based on previous experience. This comprises of actively sampling the world while concurrently reporting the consequences of these actions. This information is then integrated to serve as basis for future use (inside-out framework) [3]. Theoretical research and empirical evidence appear to not always be congruent, however. The level of efficacy of current therapy approaches for Broca’s aphasia, e.g., do not always yield the expected results. This may be based on a misconception in terms of the nature of the deficit that underlies the loss of prepositional use in aphasia.


This theoretical account aims at fleshing out how disciplines, theories and empirical evidence may complement one another to shed new light on the interrelationship of spatial cognition and prepositions. This will involve identifying level congruent correlations factoring in concerns regarding a potential granularity problem. Thus, it likewise seeks to contribute to bridging the gap between philosophy, linguistics and neuroscience on a person level, i.e. the whole body (including the brain). An empirical pilot case study on English spatial prepositions previously conducted will be argued to exemplify how theories may be combined and applied in a clinical context (chronic Broca’s aphasia). The observed effects, including sustained effects, indicate an efficacious approach. Relevant observations made will be integrated and (cor)related to brain function.


The findings may, e.g., encourage testing the enactive approach suggested on a wider scale of individuals with Broca’s aphasia. This may have an impact on how impairment-based therapy is administered in terms of spatial prepositions. Potential future projects such as ‘aphasia meets preschool/kindergarten’ (where participants may be on the same level preposition-wise) may decrease afflicted individuals’ awareness of deficits and enable social interaction between the two groups that may both benefit from the experience. Finally, this perspective may also influence approaches in foreign language teaching concerning spatial prepositions.


[1] F. J. Varela, E. Thompson, and E. Rosch, The Embodied Mind: Cognitive Science and Human Experience. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1991.

[2] M. Johnson, The body in the mind: The bodily basis of meaning, Imagination, and reason. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1987.

[3] G. Buzsáki, The brain from inside out. New York: Oxford University Press, 2019.