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Back to the tough stuff: prepositions

Posted: Mon Oct 30, 2017 12:02 am
by Phil White
After an enforced absence of several weeks, I am slowly picking up the threads of normalcy again, and I return here brimming with outrageous ideas about language, structure and grammar.

I have for many years been thinking that our traditional analysis of parts of speech, or word classes, is not merely unhelpful, but that it is in fact nonsense. There are far simpler ways to look at the structure of language that make far more sense.

I can get down to two major word classes that very loosely correspond to nouns and verbs, a further class that encompasses adjectives and adverbs and a couple of other structural classes that join elements of meaning to each other, but prepositions have always been difficult.

In their simplest form, prepositions put two nouns into some kind of relationship with each other: "The house on the hill".

But what do they actually do? How do we understand them?

In traditional analysis, the "on" is the head of a prepositional phrase and is "attached to" the phrase "the hill". In case-driven languages such as Latin or Hungarian, it is the word "hill" that changes as the result of the attachment of the preposition.

But this bugs me a little. How do we actually conceptualize "on-ness"? Is "on" an attribute of the hill or of the house? Is it not more intuitive to see "on" as being a feature of the house rather than the hill?

Or does "on" form the bond between house and hill and apply to them equally (in our minds).

It seems to me that the same question arises with any preposition used between two nouns or noun phrases:
The girl with the broken arm
The letter from the tax man
The government in 1984
I'm not thinking of grammar here so much as how we actually conceive of such relationships. Where does the prepositional meaning sit in our minds? Does it "belong to" the first noun, the second noun or both equally?

I would appreciate any thoughts from anyone whose brain does not already hurt from thinking of such things!

Re: Back to the tough stuff: prepositions

Posted: Mon Oct 30, 2017 4:36 pm
by Bobinwales
Welcome back.

Re: Back to the tough stuff: prepositions

Posted: Mon Oct 30, 2017 5:16 pm
by Erik_Kowal
Perhaps there are some pointers or insights to be gleaned from comparing the variations in prepositional expressions across dialects or regions (e.g. "at the weekend" and "on the weekend") and/or between languages (e.g. "in the same way" and "du même façon").