The language of space

Space is quite clearly a central concept in G-Space.  This is because it is also central concept in Language.

When my daughter Maia was seven, one summer afternoon I found myself trying to explain to her about subject, verb, object, indirect object, agent.  We went out into the garden and I got her to place a stone in the center: that was meant to represent the verb.  We then acted out simple sentences, like “Maia kicks the ball”.  As she sounded the word “Maia”, I told her to stand to the left of the stone, and then jump over to it and say: “kicks”; finally, move to the right and utter: “the ball”.

Getting Maia to move into space felt like the easiest way to represent the logical flow of the sentence.  Within a few minutes we came up with an abbreviated version: i) lift your left arm for “Maia” (subject); ii) draw your hands to your chest for “kicks” (verb); iii) lift your right arm for “the ball” (object).

I then remembered we live in England and that summer would be over in the next couple of minutes to give way to random rain… and that’s when I sought to represent all of this on a piece of paper.


And this is how the journey from crux logica to tower of bubble started.


That day, of course, I stumbled into something that has been pretty obvious to linguists for some time.  If you dig this stuff, Guy Deutscher’s “The Unfolding of Language” is a must.

Although we will never be able to know for sure how exactly language as we know it came into being, it is clear that its foundations lie on the description of basic survival actions and concrete objects within a familiar spatial environment: “fetch me that spear”, “let’s kill the mammoth”, “where’s my dinner?”.

At the core of it all is perhaps the brain’s most powerful creation, the metaphor.  We think of the first words as metaphors for the objects they described: a phrase uttered inside the cave could describe a dangerous animal outside the cave without any need for going out and pointing it out.

And why stop at space? In the world we experience, there are also more abstract dimensions, like time and mood (or feeling).  It is no coincidence, however, that the grammar used to describe different states and transitions in physical space (from Athens to Rome) finds perfect equivalents in the description of time (from last year to next year) and mood (from angry to happy).


Metaphors enable grammatical polymorphism across the dimensions of space, time and mood.


It is when I write phrases like the one above that I am reminded of the need to bring down-to-earth that beautiful pyramid of metaphors that is the foundation of language.  There’s nothing wrong with trying to describe the concepts, axioms and rules of grammatical structure… it’s just that you can easily spin yourself into an whirlpool of abstraction and that’s when you find that the reader or the listener has made a runner or dropped dead.

I remember reading that Richard Feynman’s most dramatic contribution to quantum physics was that he came up with diagrams to describe the almost unintelligible mechanics of this new branch of research.  And everybody knows that “a picture is worth 1,000 words”.  It is in this spirit (si parva licet componere magnis) that I set out to reduce grammar to the humble drawings of  the tower of bubble, using bi-dimensional space (a piece of paper) to represent something that has its roots in the description of space.


I promise that the next post will be more concrete.


PS – …and yes, I know about Sentence Diagrams: my American friend Carmine pointed them out to me when I told him all about my exciting G-Space endeavours. Let’s just say that it’s similar but different.


Want to try Tower of Bubble? Download the Template | Cheat Sheet (Key Symbols)

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