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Grammaticalization of Body Part Nouns into Adpositions

Linguistic research shows that there is a clear pattern in which nouns for body parts in many unrelated human languages grammaticalize as adpositions.

Adpositions are one of the most important parts of speech altough many of us look over them. Needless to say, we would not be even able to speak to one another if we did not have those tiny words like “on”, “with” and “to”. They are literally indispensable and their origins have been shrouded in mystery until recent decades. A century ago or so some linguists believed that prepositions and other adpositions must have developed out of other existing adpositions while few thought there might have been some instance in the history of language where nouns or some other lexical parts of speech. In essence, it was thought that adpositions were a primordial part of the human language like some fundamental idea carved into human psyche. Then, linguists discovered the grammaticalization process.

Grammaticalization is a process whereby lexical words such as nouns, adjectives and verbs lose their lexical identity and become grammatical structures. Of course, this process takes time and I am talking about at least a century. In some cases, complete grammaticalization of a lexical item can take thousands of years until it totally loses in phonetical and semantic connecting with wheatever noun it was derived from. Grammaticalization also occurs from one grammatical structure to another such as separate morphemes turning into joint suffixes.

There are many pathways of grammaticalization but one of the best documented types of grammaticalization is nouns becoming adpositions. There is a decent body of research on this subject and we know that languages that have neither common origins nor geographical contact have adpositions that have been grammaticalized in very similar ways and from nouns with exactly same meanings. The most common group of nouns that go into the grammaticalization process in different languages is the body part nouns. Did you know that in more than a dozen completely unrelated languages, we come across adpositions that literally mean “in front of” with historical evidence that these adpositions originated out of nouns that mean “face”. There are many other examples of this. The body part nouns follow what is called the anthropomorphic model. That means the location of body part in relation to center of the human body determines the meaning of the adposition that is created as a result of the grammaticalization process.

The grammaticalization of adpositions does not happen in a day. Several generations must pass until the noun that acquires an adpositional function is phonetically eroded so that it takes a form that is different from its noun progenitor. ThenComputer Technology Articles, it becomes a true adposition because it can no longer be used as noun.

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You can read this paper for more examples and information on this subject.

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