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6746 - Where the butter and the knife both walk together with each other: A Mesoamerican challenge for the figure-ground-asymmetry universal?

Ditte Boeg Thomsen (Copenhagen), Magnus Pharao Hansen (Brown) & Rory Turnbull (Ohio State) One of the tenets in spatial language theory is that location predications are asymmetrical - because human beings are interested in the location of figures and only use grounds as reference objects. Crosslinguistically, this biased interest is reflected in syntactic constructions where figure phrases are privileged with subject role while ground phrases are treated as less prominent, e.g. being marked with prepositions, as in English: the butter is on the knife . However, Acazulco Otomí, spoken in the mountains west of Mexico City, presents us with a radically different way of construing spatial scenes: as symmetrical gestalts. Investigating spatial expressions with the Topological Relations Picture Series (Bowerman & Pederson 1992), we found extensive use of a puzzling double-subject construction with the verb 'jo , "walk", inflected for dual subject and reciprocity as in "the butter the knife both walk together with each other" (lit.). The function of this construction seems to be to construe the spatial scene as a gestalt of two equal parts, a tendency also exhibited by a group of symmetrical containment predicates. Surprising as this pattern seems, it is not completely unheard of. Brown (1994) found a similar phenomenon in Tzeltal, but describes it as specifically Mayan. Finding it in an unrelated Mexican language far away from any Mayan community poses the question whether construal of spatial relations as symmetrical gestalts is a general Mesoamerican exception to the figure-ground-asymmetry universal that is worth looking for in other languages of the area as well. Bowerman, M. & E. Pederson. 1992. Topological relations picture series. In S.C. Levinson (ed.), Space stimuli kit 1.2: November 1992, 51. Nijmegen: MPI for Psycholinguistics. Brown, P. 1994. The INs and ONs of Tzeltal locative expressions: The semantics of static descriptions of location. Linguistics 32, no. 4/5: 743-790.

Keywords: Topological relations; Figure-ground asymmetry; Semantic typology; Otomanguean.

Author: Boeg Thomsen, Ditte (University of Copenhagen, Denmark / Dänemark)
Co-Author: Pharao Hansen, Magnus (Brown University, Providence, USA) Turnbull, Rory (Ohio State State University, USA)

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