The preposition at from a spatial language, cognition, and information systems perspective

Maria Vasardani, Lesley Fiona Stirling, Stephan Winter


While both linguistic semantics and geographic information science have struggled to accurately and usefully define the meanings of natural language prepositions, there has been less dialogue between these disciplines than one might expect. In this paper we set out to describe the meaning of the English preposition at using well-established formal models of qualitative spatial relations within geographic information science (GIScience), ultimately proposing an account for its meaning which is novel for both discipline areas, and we relate this description to previous definitions of at from within linguistic semantics. The investigation in this paper illustrates that at cannot be handled using the mathematical formalizations of crisp spatial relations in GIScience. However, the model proposed in this paper based on contrast sets, Voronoi Diagrams and Galton & Hood’s (2005) Anchoring theory, contributes to a better understanding of the meaning of at. The model also enables improved automatic interpretations of the preposition by partitioning space into contrast sets and representing at as indicating that a spatial entity is more closely related to a reference object than to any other in the set. We show how the model can be framed within a formal semantics account and how it can in principle be extended to account for spatial uses of other prepositions as well. The paper demonstrates potential areas of fruitful cross-fertilisation between GIScience and linguistic semantics.



spatial prepositions; spatial cognition; qualitative spatial relations; geographic information science

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ISSN: 1937-8912

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