Mapping Space: A Comparative Study

AbstractThe semantics of spatial terms has attracted substantial attention in the cognitive sciences, revealing both compelling similarities and striking differences across languages. However, much of the evidence regarding cross-linguistic variation pertains to fine-grained comparisons between individual lexical items, while cross-linguistic similarities are found in more coarse-grained studies of the conceptual space underlying semantic systems. We seek to bridge this gap, moving beyond the semantics of individual terms to ask what the comparison of spatial semantic systems may reveal about the conceptualization of locations in English and Mandarin Chinese and about the nature of potential universals in this domain. We subjected descriptions of 116 spatial scenes to multidimensional scaling analyses in order to reveal the structures of the underlying conceptual spaces in each language. In addition to revealing overlaps and divergences in the conceptualization of space in English and Mandarin, our results suggest a difference in complexity, whereby Mandarin terms are accommodated by a lower-dimensional similarity space than are English terms.

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