Re: Some clarity on DIA

From: Lindsay J. Whaley (
Date: Thu Mar 20 1997 - 10:53:36 EST

--- Jonathan Robie wrote:
But DIA got to me. You see, I've always found that prepositions are
difficult in any foreign language, and even though I lived in Germany for 7
1/2 years, I'm not always sure which preposition is correct. The
prepositions of one language generally don't correspond that well to the
prepositions of another language, so prepositions can be really tricky.
--- end of quoted material ---

Jonathan has made an excellent point. Prepositions (and case inflections for
that matter), which are used and understood so effortlessly by native speakers,
trouble non-native speakers and confound grammarians.
        There has been a great deal of work on the semantics of prepositions
(and postpositions, relational nouns, adverbial particles, and case
inflections) over the last decade or so which has provided some important
insights to how such things are used in language. I'm not sure this will prove
to be helpful or interesting, but I thought I would throw out some general (and
simplified) observations that people have made.

        1) the spatial (or local) sense of prepositions is "basic". Usually,
by basic people mean that it is historically the first sense (i.e. when the
preposition enters a language it does so with a spatial sense). The meaning is
also basic in that it forms the conceptual basis for later meanings of the

        2) the spatial sense of a preposition is best considered a web of
closely related meanings rather than a single meaning. Consider the case of
"through". In its spatial use, we all have the sense that it means something
like movement from one point to another transversing a particular
area/location. A representative use would be "I walked through the stream".
However, in "I walked through the countryside", the preposition has a more
distrubuted sense, there is no denotation that one ever completely transversed
the countryside. Instead, a likely interpretation is "I walked from place to
place within the countryside". One could come up with seveal other similar,
yet different senses, with other sentences.

3) The spatial sense of a preposition is mapped onto other domains like time,
mental activity, or agency. Thus, one can say "I sat through the church
service", "I worked my way through the problem", or "The disease comes through
improper hygene". This mapping is metaphoric, one can still often recognize
the connection to the spatial sense (the methaphor is transparent to a degree).
However, over time the use of the preposition can be extended in any one of the
conceptual domains it now operates in. When this happens the connection to the
original spatial sense becomes obscured, idiomatic uses arise, etc.

This is precisely the state that DIA is at in the Hellenistic period. Greek
grammarians and lexicographers have done an excellent job in identifying the
range of sense that DIA can have. I think it would be valuable for someone to
apply some of the insights of cognitive linguistics to Greek to identify how
these senses are related.

Lindsay Whaley
Program in Linguistics/Dept. of Classics
Dartmouth College

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