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Figure and Ground in spatial language: evidence from German and Korean

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  07 March 2019

University of Vienna and San Diego State University
University of Vienna
Konkuk University
University of Vienna
Jeju National University
E-mail for correspondence: Hongoak Yun at


We investigate how German and Korean speakers describe everyday spatial/motion events, such as putting a cup on the table. In these motion events, the moving object (e.g., cup) and the non-moving reference object (e.g., table) take on the roles of Figure and Ground, respectively. Figure(F) and Ground(G) thus have distinct perceptual properties and assume conceptually asymmetric roles (entity moving along a trajectory vs. stationary reference frame). We examine the degrees to which speakers distinguish between F and G semantically (spatial/Path terms, e.g., on, in) and syntactically (grammatical roles, e.g., subject, object). Participants described events involving two objects that switched their F-G roles (put cup(F) on board(G) and put board(F) under cup(G)). German speakers use distinct Path terms (e.g., auf, in) for differential F-G relations, thus encoding the F-G asymmetry. In contrast, Korean speakers use the same terms (e.g., kkita ‘fit.tightly’) and the same syntactic constructions regardless of switches in F-G roles. These cross-linguistic differences are evident for Non-typical events (Put board(F) under cup(G)), showing that the encoding of the asymmetry interacts with speakers’ everyday experiences of motion events. We argue that the differences reflect the interactions between the Path lexicon and spatial syntax, and language-specific viewpoints of the F-G relation.

Copyright © UK Cognitive Linguistics Association 2019 

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This research was supported by WWTF (Vienna Science and Technology Funds, CS15-001) to U. Ansorge and S. Choi, and also in part by the Program of National Research Foundation of Korea through the Ministry of Education to H. Yun. We thank Virginia Gathercole and her colleagues for providing some of the stimuli for this study. Our thanks also go to Alexandra Kroiss and student assistants (Kathrin Rosensprung, Elena Vaporova) at the University of Vienna, Austria, and to Sunghwa Choi at Konkuk University in Seoul, Korea, for invaluable help in data collection and processing. We are exceptionally grateful to Bodo Winter, who gave us extensive feedback and detailed suggestions for improvement in all aspects of the paper. Of course, responsibility for any errors in this paper remains our own.



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