Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Semantics of Containment

The semantics of containment can be well illustrated by the spatial preposition "in". This preposition has a number of similar but distinct meanings in languages. Examples from English can be given to illustrate.

In the following phrases the preposition "in" has a distinct meaning in each case:

a) the bird in the field
b) the bird in the tree
c) the toy in the box
d) the fruit in the bowl
e) the muscles in his foot
f) the desk in the corner
g) the water in the vase
h) the crack in the vase

In example (a) the bird may be standing or walking in the field but it may also be flying as many as several metres over the field. From the phrase it is not clear. In example (b) the bird may be inside a hole in the tree trunk but may also be sitting on a branch. In this case it is inside our projection of the shape of the tree.

In example (c) the toy is probably completely contained by the box. In example (d), however, the fruit may be entirely inside the bowl or may be on top of a pile of fruit in the fruit so that it protrudes from the top edge of the bowl.

Example (e) could just as easily be expressed with the phrase "the muscles of his foot". The muscles in his foot are where they are expected to be because they are an essential part of the foot. It is an example of inalienable possession.

In example (f) the desk is located in one part of the room. The phrase "in the corner" is more specific than "in the room".

The likely interpretation of phrase (g) is that most of the vase is filled with water but it may also mean that only a small fraction of the vase is filled with water. In phrase (h) it is clear that the crack refers to the surface of the vase. Phrases (g) and (h) refer to different types of containment.

The preposition "in" is commonly used to refer to types of containment. Though the meaning may initially seem very clear, a close anaylsis reveals that many types of containment can be expressed. These types of containment often have very distinct meanings across languages.

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