Dr. Miki Hanazaki
Faculty of Arts
Shinshu University, Japan.

Prof. Kazuo Hanazaki
Faculty of Arts
Shinshu University, Japan.

Words that Seem to Denote “Places” in English and Japanese: English Prepositions and Japanese Postpositions


The usual dichotomy of “content” words and “function” words imply that prepositions and postpositions have only functions. This presentation would argue that such “function” words nonetheless have semantic meanings and English prepositions and Japanese postpositions differ in some respects, which is homologous to what Ikegami (1997) calls “do-language” and “become-language” respectively.

Words that Seem to Denote “Places” in English and Japanese English Prepositions and japanese Postpositions
Miki HANAZAKI and kazuo HANAZAKI, Faculty of Arts, and School of General Education, Shinshu University

1.This is a revised version of Hanazaki and Hanazaki (2009).


This paper deals with the English and Japanese words / morphologies that seem to denote static spatial positions. After analyzing what the central meanings for each linguistic item are, we will see that English prepositions and Japanese postpositions correspond “homologously” to what Ikegami (1981) argues as “do-language” and “become-language” respectively


preposition, postposition, homology, polysemy

0. Introduction

“Homology” is a word coined around 16th century in biology, meaning that there is a similarity in structure. (cf. Ikegami (1999-2011), Hanazaki (2008)) Applying this notion to linguistics, recently, many studies on “homology” within languages or what Hawkins argues as “Cross-category harmony” (Hawkins 1982) have been conducted, Ikegami (1981) being one of the representatives. Ikegami (1981) explores many linguistic phenomena including motion verbs, causative, passive, X-is-Y construction (John is a student), and argues that although those linguistic phenomena are in different categories of language, i.e., vocabulary, syntax, semantics, pragmatics, etc., they are “motivated” (a la Langacker 1991) by a single motivation. With such observation, Ikegami (1981) classifies English as a “do-language”, i.e., a language which puts focus on the action part, and Japanese as a “become-language”, i.e., a language which puts focus on the result part.

The usual dichotomy of “content” words and “function” words imply that English prepositions (eg. Meg is “at” the park) and Japanese postpositions (eg. Megu-wa koen-“ni” iru , literal translation “Meg is at the park”) have only functions. This paper focuses on the English prepositions and Japanese postpositions that seem to denote a static position, i.e., English at, on, in, and Japanese ni, wo, de, and argues that such “function” words nonetheless have semantic meanings and that English prepositions and Japanese postpositions correspond homologously to “do-language” and “become-language” respectively as Ikegami(1981) argues.

This paper proceeds as follows; section one limits the scope of our study to three prepositions and three postpositions and shows the peculiarities of those words / morphologies; section 2 analyzes the English prepositions in question, i.e., in, at, and on; section 3 analyzes their Japanese counterparts, i.e., ni, wo, and de; and section 4 summarizes our arguments and further argues for the “homology” within the languages. Figure 1 depicts the flow of the arguments of this paper

1. The Scope of This Paper and the Peculiarities of the Words in Question

1.1. The Scope of This Paper

This paper deals with prepositions and postpositions that seem to denote static place in space. The following prepositions and the corresponding Japanese postpositions are considered to be the words / morphologies that seem to denote such spatial positions;

This paper deals with in, on, at and de, wo, ni. 2 all of which seem to depict the spatial

2 There is a possible argument that we should include by in the present study, for it seems to depict a static position in space. But Hanazaki and Kato (2003, 2004) have argued that the central meaning of by is as can be reassured by the fact that about 75% of all the usages of by in the present English according to COCA (Corpus of Contemporary American English) is usages of as in a book by John, which usage does not depict any static position. Hence, we will not deal with by in this study

1.2. Peculiarities of the Words / Morphologies in Question

When we look at the data of the words / morphologies in question, we can find two peculiar traits in Japanese; (A) Wo, which seems to denote spatial position, can also be used to show the accusative; (B) De, which seems to denote spatial position, can also be used to show the instrument / material.

Let us start by looking at (A). As we can see in (5) and (6), wo can be used to show the spatial position as well as the accusative. On the other hand, in in English can never be used as an accusative marker, hence we can see that wo has some peculiarities lacking in the preposition in.

AS for (B), de, a morphology which seems to denote spatial position, also shows a peculiar behavior: De can denote a spatial position as well as instrument or material as can be seen in (7)-(9);

Some may argue that in, on are also used to show instruments as can be seen in on radio, in English, but as we have argued in Hanazaki (2006), this usage of showing instruments by in and on is restricted to narrow kinds of nouns. For example, in can only be used to denote

3 As we will come back in 3.3., ki-de tsukuru can also be translated as made “with” wood , an INSTRUMENT interpretation, according to the context the sentence is used in.

instruments when the LM is a language, ink or pencil and some others, hence we should consider the usage as idiomatic, not a usual usage. On the other hand, we can say that the high productivity of de as instruments is a very peculiar trait. From the following section, we will analyze the words / morphemes in question and try to answer why those two peculiarities in Japanese postpositions occur.

2. Analysis on the English Prepositions in Question

This section will analyze the three English prepositions in question and argue that all of them depict a spatial position of two things, i.e., TR and LM4 , which can easily be depicted with a figure. We will only briefly go over each preposition because the space is limited and detailed arguments of each preposition require a paper each. Section 2.1. explains the central meaning of in, section 2.2. takes up on, section 2.3. deals with at, and 2.4. summarizes the arguments on the three prepositions

2.1. The Semantics of In

Cobuild gives the following as the samples of in;

(10)In According to Cobuild

a. <‘In a container’> He was in his car.

b. <‘happens in a place’> spending a few days in a hotel

c. <‘present in a place’> My flatmate was in at the time.

d. <‘come in, enter a place’> She looked up anxiously as he came in.

e. <‘has arrived at a place’> Look. The train is in.

f. <‘moves towards’> If the tide was in they went swimming.

g. <‘just behind the window’> There was a camera for sale in the window.

h. <‘wear something’> three women in black

i. <‘the thing is over or round the surface’> His legs were covered in mud.

j. <‘crack or hole is on its surface’> There was a deep crack in the ceiling.

There should be little controversy in saying that the core meaning of in can be depicted as in Figure 2.

4.TR=Trajector=profiled entity, LM=Landmark=reference point for the TR (cf. Talmy 1978, Langacker 1987)

The possible controversial usage in (10) may be (10j); some might argue that TR is not IN the LM but ON the LM, but we can argue that the ceiling is a two dimensional space and that the crack is within that space. (Cf. Hanazaki and Kato 2009)

2.2. The Semantics of On

We have elsewhere (Hanazaki and Hanazaki 2008) handled the semantics of on, so for detailed arguments on on, please refer to Hanazaki and Hanazaki (2008). (11) is the list that Cobuild gives as the examples of on;

(11) On According to Cobuild (The list being long, we will only list the first 20


a. <‘on the surface’> He is sitting beside her on the sofa.

b. <‘attached to the surface’> There was a smear of gravy on his chin.

c. <‘supported by the surface’> He got his jacket and dropped it on the sofa.

d. <‘supporting your weight’> He continued to lie on his back.

e. <‘touches a part of’> He leaned down and kissed her lightly on the mouth.

f. <‘face has a certain expression’> a nervous smile on her face

g. <‘wear something’> I had a hat on.

h. <‘carrying it in your pocket or bag’> I didn’t have any money on me.

i. <‘stare at something’> Everyone’s eyes are fixed on him.

j. <‘hit a part of one’s body and causes damage’> Mr. Pendle hit his head on a wall.

k. <‘someone is there’> You lived on a farm.

l. <‘be a part of, by the side of’> The hotel is on the coast.

m. <‘travel in it’> I never go on the bus into the town.

n. <‘something is written or printed’> The numbers she put on the chart was 98.

o. <‘included in a list’> I’ve seen your name on the list of deportees.

p. <‘concerned with a subject’> He declined to give any information on the Presidential election.

q. <‘introducing a method’> a television that we bought on credit

r. <‘done using the instrument’> I could do all my work on the computer.

s. <‘the way it is stored’> Right, we’ve got that on tape.

Looking at the above examples, we can confidently argue that on depicts the spatial relationship between TR and LM and that the TR is on the surface of LM and the LM supports the TR as can be depicted as Figure 3;

5.Cobuild lists 42 meanings. For those meanings that we do not cite here, please refer to Cobuild

2.3. The Semantics of At

Cobuild gives the followings as the samples of at;

(12) At According to Cobuild

a. <‘the place something happens’> We had a dinner at a restaurant.

b. <‘someone goes to school to study’> I majored in psychology at Hunter College.

c. <‘next to something/one’> An assistant sat at a table beside him.

d. <‘at a certain distance’> The two journalists followed at a discreet distance.

e. <‘particular time when something happens’> at 3:00

f. <‘particular age’> Blake emigrated to Australia with his family at 13.

g. <‘rate, level, price’> custom-designed rugs at $16 to $100 a sq. ft.

h. <‘indicate a measurement’> weighing in at eighty tons

i. <‘look towards’> He looked at Michael and laughed.

j. <‘smile or wave at someone’> We waved at the staff to try to get the bill.

k. <‘move one’s arm /head to be noticed’> He gestured at the shelves.

l. <‘deal with, try to achieve’> She has worked hard at her marriage.

m. <‘do as a result’> She left the light on at his request.

n. <‘someone/thing is in a particular state’> I am afraid we are not at liberty to disclose that information.

o. <‘someone/thing has more of a particular quality’> He was at his happiest whilst playing cricket.

p. <‘how something is being done’>Three people were killed by shots at random from a minibus.

q. <‘done repeatedly’> Miss Melville took a cookie and nibbled at it.

r. <‘indicate an activity or task’> I’m good at work.

s. <‘something that someone is reacting to’> Six months ago she would have laughed at the idea

If we are to decide the central meaning from the above examples, we can say that at indicates that TR and LM coincide in space, which can be depicted as Figure 3;

Let us see how we explain the seemingly most “troublesome” usage, i.e., (12g), if we suppose that the central meaning of at is as in Figure 4. We can say that the TR (price) coincides with LM, i.e., a point in the scale of price ($16). Hence the TR and the LM overlap with each other.

2.4. The Semantics of the English Prepositions in Question

Section 2 has analyzed the usages of in, on, and at by citing Cobuild and has argued that all of the three denote a spatial relationship between two entities of TR and LM within a boundary, or in a supporting relationship, or in a spatial relationship that overlaps each other. In other words, we can say that all of them depict a relationship of two entities which have boundaries.

3. The Analysis on the Japanese Postpositions in Question

This section will analyze the three Japanese postpositions in question and argue that although, on the surface, they and their English counterparts seem to denote the similar meaning, i.e., static position, they differ completely from the English counterparts in that they do not denote a spatial relationship of two entities that have spatial boundaries. Section 3.1. takes up ni, section 3.2. investigates wo, we analyze de in section 3.3., and lastly, 3.4. summarizes our arguments on the three postpositions.

3.1. The Semantics of Ni

The following (13) is the list of the usages of ni by Sugai (2007).

We can find a pretty large amount of literature on the semantics or the usages of ni. The attested central meaning or the central usage of ni differs from study to study; to cite some few, according to Horikawa (1988) it is <‘goal’>, Kunihiro (1986) argues that to be <‘contact’>, and Asari (2001), Oka (2005), and Nakau and Nishimura (1998) say that it is <‘position in space’>. However, arguing that the central meaning is <‘goal’> will not be able to explain why ni can denote <‘goal’> as well as <‘starting point’> as (14) and (15) show; and also arguing that ni denotes a point in space does not give answers to what the difference between ni and wo or de is, all of which seem to denote a spatial position as we have seen in (1)-(4).

Ikegami (1999) is suggestive on this phenomenon. He argues that the central meaning of ni is <‘goal of motion’>. This might be considered as an oxymoron in that motion, by definition, does not have a starting point or a goal unlike action. (i.e. Swim or climb are motion verbs which show how the move is made, while action verbs such as kick and hit can denote an action which has a starting point and an end point.) Through analyzing the ni which is used with motion verbs such as (13b), i.e., ni is used with noboru “climb”, which is a motion verb,
he argues that ni denotes <‘goal of motion’>. In other words, his argument says that ni defines a
goal of an event which does not normally have an end.

Following Ikegami (1999), we argue that ni has the meaning of <‘goal of motion’>. We argue that supposing ni indicates <‘goal of motion’> can give an explanation to (14) and (15). Sure enough that the book in question moves from you to me in (14) and (15). However, the usage of <‘starting point’> occurs only with certain verbs, such as kariru (borrow), nagurareru (be hit) and hantaisareru (meet with the oppositions of), all of which have corresponding verbs of kasu (lend), naguru (hit) and hantaisuru (say oppositions to). When using the first pairs of verbs, ni allows only the <‘starting point’> meaning, while in the corresponding verbs, we would never be able to have a starting point usage; the ni’s in –ni kariru (borrow), -ni nagurareru (be hit), and –ni hantaisareru (meet with the oppositions of) denote only a <‘starting point’>, while their counterparts, i.e., -ni kasu (lend), -ni naguru (hit), -ni hantaisuru (oppose to) only shows the <‘end point’>. So, we can say it is the verbs that decides whether ni denotes the <‘end point’> or the <‘starting point’>. In other words, ni, itself, does not have two meanings. If so, what does ni mean? To this, we would argue that it is the <‘goal of motion’> meaning, not the <‘starting point’> that ni means. If we look from the speaker’s standpoint in the usage of <‘starting point’>, there is a certain peculiar situation at hand, where through a “mental scanning” (Langacker 1990), the speaker searches for the goal of the mental scanning, i.e., the lender, hitter, and opposer. In other words, if we see it from a certain perspective, the TR of the <‘starting point’> usage can be considered as “goal” of mental scanning.

With the above observation, we can argue for the validity of claiming that the central meaning of ni is <‘goal of motion’>.

3.2. The Semantics of Wo

Wo is very unique as we have seen in 1.2., that it seems to denote the accusative as well as a point in space. This fact has led many previous studies to argue that wo has two meanings; Yamada (1908, 1936), Kato (2006), and Hashimoto (1969), for example, have argued that wo has two meanings of accusative and place.

We believe that regarding the central meaning of wo as <‘path of motion’> is viable and this way of thinking can explain all the usages of wo listed in (16). (16) is the list of usages of wo by Kato (2006);

Looking closely at (16d) will give us a good insight on the central meaning of wo. Although Kato (2006) labels the usage of (16d) as <‘leave from’>, he is aware that we cannot use kara, the most prototypical postposition to indicate the starting point, in (16d). (cf. kare-“kara” hon-wo kariru, borrow a book “from” him) This fact can be easily explained by arguing that wo indicates the <‘path of motion’>, not the starting point. In fact, the sentence Tokyo-eki-“kara” hassha-shita (The train let “from” Tokyo-station) is completely acceptable because Tokyo Station is the first station. On the other hand, Oomiya-eki is the second station, and we cannot use the word in the same sentence as (16d) shows. In other words, wo indicates the <‘path’>.

The validity of this argument can be doubly checked by the fact that the Rainbow Bridge is considered a point within the path in (16f) and the sky in (16g) is the domain that the flying object traverses.

As for <‘complement accusative’>, (16c), although this is named in such a way, the noun that serves as the object of the verb is completely different from the English counterpart. In English, accusative means the object towards which the action is directed; in John hit Mary, Mary is considered as the goal of the action of hitting. However, in (16c), the box is not the goal that the action of taking out is directed to, rather, box is something that the agent is carrying out the action WITH, and the agent will put the box in the intended goal. This line of argument is strengthened if we translate (16c) into English; if we use “box” as the direct object of the verb as in I took the box, it would mean something completely different. We need “out” if we are to translate (16c) into English. Hence we can say that the object of the verb indicated by wo is not the goal that the action is directed towards, as is the case with the accusative noun in English sentences, but rather something with which the action is taking place towards the goal, hence in a sense related to <‘path of motion’>.

The above argument leads us to conclude that wo indicates the path of motion.

3.3. The Semantics of De

De is highly polysemous as (17) shows;

The fact that de is highly polysemous has led many previous studies to conclude that the central meaning of de is <‘place’> (eg. Mabuchi (2000), Moriyama (2004)), or even as meaningless (Kato (2007)). As Ikegami (1999) says, the etymology of de is nite, a morphology most typically used to denote place (koen-“nite” asobu, play “at” the park), there is a reason to argue that the central meaning of de is place. However, defining de as place does not differentiate it from other morphologies such as nite. Rather, we argue that the central meaning of de is <‘picking one from the context’>.

(17a, b, c, d, f, g, h, l, m, n, o, p, q, r, s) can all be thought of as <‘picking one from the context’>; there are many possibilities for venue, but USA was chosen as the venue in (17a) <‘place’>, there can be many other reasons to go to Osaka, but this time on business in (17p) <‘reason’>, and you can listen to the music at any loudness, but a small sound was chosen in (17r) <‘condition’>. The usage of <‘material’> in (17k) is related to <‘reason’>, for the TR’s in both cases are the result that accrued from LM, hence we can say that <‘material’> ≒ <‘reason’>. And the interpretation of whether the LM is the <‘material’> or <‘instrument’> depends on the context; when the LM is manufactured into something, it will be thought of as <‘material’>. If the LM is not transferred into something, on the other hand, it will be understood as <‘instrument’>; Bo-de tsukuru (make with/from stick) can be interpreted either as an instrument or material depending on the context. From these observations, we can argue for the following relationship of <‘place’>≒ <‘reason’>, <‘reason’> ≒ <‘material’>, <‘material’> ≒ <‘instrument’> and all the seemingly unrelated usages can be all summarized as <‘picking one from the context’>

3.4. The Semantics of the Japanese Postpositions in Question

Section 3 has analyzed the usages of ni, wo, de and has argued that each denote, <‘goal of motion’>, <‘path of motion’>, and <‘picking one from the context’>. All of the three denotes a point in an unbounded entity. In other words, we can say that all of them depict a relationship of two entities which do not have boundaries. And unlike the three English prepositions that we could easily depict in figures, it is impossible to depict the unboundedness in a figure. If we summarize the arguments in section 3, it will be as Figure 6.

4. “Homology” within Languages

Hawkins (1980, 1982) argues that there is a “cross-category harmony” in language: one single cause may explain many different linguistic phenomena. This idea is close to what Panofsky (1957) and Guiraud (1971) argue as “homology”, or what Sapir (1921) argues as “basic plan” or “genius” within languages. (cf. Hanazaki (2008))

Passives have attracted much attention in the literature and the two interesting phenomena involving passives are (i) a passive and its “corresponding” active do not always mean the same thing; and (ii) there are passives that do not have “corresponding” active sentences, and vice versa. Ikegami (1981) argues that passives and actives are not “corresponding” sentences, but that passives, which are often used in Japanese, are those that refer to the result state of an action, while the active voice sentences, which English uses more often than Japanese, are those that refer to the action of an event.

Based on the “ba”-theory, Ikegami (1981) argues that there are two kinds of languages; do-languages and become-languages, each of which put focuses on the action part and the result part respectively. Looking closely at active and passive voices, he argues that English, in which active voice is used more than passive voice, is a do-language, while Japanese, which uses passive more and hence focuses more on the results, is a become-language.

This paper has analyzed the words / morphologies that seem to denote the static position in space in English and in Japanese, namely, at, in, on in English and ni, wo, de in Japanese, and has seen that the English words denote the spatial relationship of two distinct entities that have boundaries on their own, while Japanese ones denote a relationship of entities that do not have any boundaries. And, as we have seen in 3.1., action is related to boundaries, while state is related to unboundedness. (cf. action is an event that has the beginning point and the end point, which differs from motion in which there is no boundaries or starting / end point)

We have analyzed prepositions / postpositions, and we briefly looked at passive and active voice. A mere observation on these two phenomena lends support to the argument that different linguistic phenomena are explainable by one “basic plan” of the language. More specifically, we can see that both in passives / actives and words that seem to denote static spatial position, English focuses more on things that have boundaries in themselves, while Japanese focuses more on the unbounded entities, i.e., the result “state” or the motion and context. There are more phenomena other than those handled in this paper which are motivated by this “basic plan”, but we cannot take them up because of space constraint. We conclude this paper, following Ikegami (1981), by arguing that English is a do-language, while Japanese is a become-language in many linguistic categories, i.e., “cross-category harmony”.


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Data Source

COCA- Corpus of Contemporary American English