Field of Science

Perspective in language

Language often indicates perspective:
(1) Give me that.
(2) *Give me this.
The reason that (2) is weird -- by convention, an asterisk marks a bad sentence -- is that the word this suggests that whatever is being requested is close to the speaker. Consider also:
(3) Jane came home.
(4) Jane went home.
If we were currently at Jane's home, it would be more natural to say (3) than (4). Of course, we could say (4), but we would be shifting our perspective, treating wherever Jane was as the reference point, rather than where we are now (this is particularly common in story-telling).

A less prosaic example

That is all fairly familiar, so when I turned to section 6.1 of Chapter 1 of Leonard Talmy's Toward a Cognitive Semantics, titled "Perspectival Location", I wasn't expecting anything particularly new. Then I read these examples (p. 69):
(5) The lunchroom door slowly opened and two men walked in.
(6) Two men slowly opened the lunchroom door and walked in.
These sentences describe the same event, but place the reader in a very different position. As Talmy points out, when reading (5), one gets the sense that you are in the lunchroom, whereas in (6), you get the sense that you outside of the lunchroom ... either that, or the door to the lunchroom is transparent glass.

Implied movement

Talmy gives another great pair of examples on page 71:
(7) There are some houses in the valley.
(8) There is a house every now and then through the valley.
The first sentence implies a static point of view, far from the houses, allowing you to see all the houses at once (Talmy calls this "stationary distal perspective point with global scope of attention"), whereas (8) gives the sense of moving through the valley and among the houses, with only a few within view at any given time ("moving proximal perspective point with local scope of attention")


Talmy's purpose is to put together a taxonomy of linguistic devices, and most of this chapter is trying to lay out all the different factors along which language can vary (for instance, the different types of perspective one can take). And that is of course why I'm reading it.

But it's also interesting to think about as a writer. One flaw in bad writing is using sentences that adopt the wrong perspective (telling a story about Jennifer, who is in the lunchroom, and then using (6)). This example from Talmy shows just how complicated the issues are ... and the tools available to a good writer for subtly guiding the reader through the story.

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