Language, space, and motion: Russian, Georgian, Somali, ASL

How do we depict space and motion using language?

Ever since I started learning Russian, the specific ways that language creates space and moves within it fascinates me.  We had to learn 10 verbs that could be translated “go,” each with a different nuance in how the object moves through space.  Then I found that motion and space play an important part in every language.  This displays the utility of early language: to describe who and what went where.  Languages across the world show an amazing level of specificity when describing space and motion, and our primordial ancestors probably benefited from it.


As I began above, Russian manifests a complex way to express motion.  (Other Slavic languages express motion in a similar way.)  First, going verbs distinguish whether one is going by foot or by conveyance.  Second, they distinguish between motion with or without a particular end-point.  So we begin with four basic going verbs: idti (by foot, specific endpoint), xodit’ (by foot, no specific endpoint), exat’ (by conveyance, specific endpoint), ezdit’ (by conveyance, no specific endpoint).  I will also note that there are four verbs for carrying something with the same distinctions.

Then one can add a prefix to specify the path more specifically, namely, into (v-), out of (vy-), towards (po-), away from (u-), up to the edge of (pod-), away from the edge of (ot-), through (pro-), and around (ob-).  One can add any of these prefixes to any of the above verbs.  So I can walk up to something: poiti.  I can drive around with no endpoint: obezdit’.  I can walk away from something, with no endpoint in mind: uxodit’.  This ability to combine paths and endpoints results in very specific verbs.


Georgian (completely unrelated to Armenian, or any Slavic or Semitic languages) focuses more on the speaker’s position relative to motion.  Unlike Russian, it does not distinguish the means of motion (by foot vs. by conveyance) or a general endpoint.  Rather than look at the endpoint of the motion as a generic point, it focuses on whether the endpoint is the speaker or hearer.  If the endpoint is the speaker or hearer, you may add a prefix, mo-.  (If you don’t add this prefix, you don’t have to add anything.)

In addition to this endpoint, you can also specify the path by adding one of a multitude of prefixes (called “preverbs” in traditional Georgian linguistics) like you can in Russian: up (a-), out (ga-), in (sha-), down into (cha-), across/through (garda-), thither (mi-), away (c’a-), or down (da-).  This precedes the endpoint marker.  So “up towards me” would be amo-.  So, motion fills a space where the interlocutors occupy the central space, and the path of motion may or may not interact directly with them.  (Georgian information from B. G. Hewitt, Georgian: A learner’s grammar, 2005, p. 29.)


Somali looks at motion with similar relationships among the involved entities.  The speaker is one reference point, and the other entities are another reference point.  These relationships appear as mandatory adverbs (not connected to the verb per se).  Entities may move towards each other (wada), away from each other (kala), to the speaker (so), or away from the speaker (si).  So the verb “separate” is kala durka; “go in [away from the speaker]” is si gal, and “come in [toward the speaker]” is so gal.  Somali thus emphasizes the relationships of entities to one another as they cross each other’s paths, and details whether the speaker finds himself or herself on that path.  (Somali examples come from John William Carnegie Kirk, A grammar of the Somali language: With examples in prose and verse and an account of the Yibir and Midgan dialects, 1905, pp. 73-74.)

American Sign Language

American Sign Language (ASL) uses space and motion in a unique way.  A speaker can use space for pronouns.  For example, if you tell a story about a dog and a bone, you can sign “dog” and place it in space — say, to your left — then sign “bone” and place it to your right.  As you mention the dog in your discourse, you can point to the left space, and referring to the bone, point to the right space.  You can do this with multiple objects.

Then with motion you can move among entities.  So if you add a cat to your discourse, you can put it in the middle.  The dog can go to the cat, or the cat to the dog.  The verb will change shape as it varies from a center-to-left motion or a left-to-center motion.  The speaker, the hearer, and others in the physical vicinity can become discourse objects as well.  So the left-side thing (dog) can carry the right-side thing (bone) to you, and the verb will move from the bone to the hearer.  The speaker sets up the space however he or she wants, and then the motion follows the speaker’s structure.

Space, motion, and our ancestors

Based on this sample of completely unrelated languages, depicting space and motion to an amazing level of detail plays an important linguistic role universally.  Moreover, this intricate system functions almost entirely on a subconscious level.  Language depicts space and motion effortlessly — as if made to do so.

It probably was made to do so.  Our ancestors had to describe quickly and effortlessly where prey and predators were and where they were headed.  Those humans who used the tool of language survived and humanity evolved such that complex yet efficient depiction of space and motion existed universally in language.

How does you language depict space and motion?  Does your language do anything cool with space or motion? (Probably!)  Tweet this and continue the conversation!

Photo credit: Sprengben [why not get a friend] / / CC BY-NC-SA


2 thoughts on “Language, space, and motion: Russian, Georgian, Somali, ASL

  1. Oui! Votre blog est très intéressant! Une belle trouvaille! Toujours un réel plaisir de parler et d’échanger sur l’amour des langues… Viva la parole! Et vivent ceux qui savent écouter!


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s