It has seemed to me (though I might be wrong) that languages usually take either prepositions (English, German, Spanish) or postpositions (Japanese, Hungarian, Turkish). (Yes I know sometimes a different term is used as for Chinese but those come before the noun like in English).

But I've noticed as I learn more about some languages that they have exceptions. For instance, English ago acts much more like a postposition than a preposition (though dictionaries traditionally call it an adverb). Georgian, which I'm currently learning, has most postpositions. But it also has გარეშე (gareshe), which can be used as both postposition and preposition. I've also read that it has some prepositions borrowed from Russian but I haven't learned any of those yet.

So is this a case where "there's an exception to every rule" and most languages turn out to have a few instance of the opposite adposition to how they are usually classified, or have I chanced to bump into some of the rare exceptions?

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    +1 for the example of ago. One piece of evidence in favor of it being a postposition is that it pied-pipes, and never strands. – Mark Beadles Apr 6 '12 at 15:34
  • @MarkBeadles: I'd love to know what these verbs "pied pipe" and "strand" mean in relation to adpositions if you can give me a reference or two. – hippietrail Apr 6 '12 at 16:28
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    @hippietrail pied-piping and stranding are behaviors of adpositions during wh-movement. Pied-piping example: "With whom are you going?" Stranding example: "Who are you going with?" As you see, English uses both, which is characteristically unhelpful :) – Mark Beadles Apr 6 '12 at 17:06
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    @RonMaimon This would require some discussion and would make a good question. – Mark Beadles Apr 7 '12 at 19:57

Latin has many examples of postpositions but was characteristically a prepositional language:

cum (and rarely some other prepositions) can come either before or after its object:

mēcum   / cum  mē   quocum     / cum  quo     quoad    / ad quo  
me with / with me   which with / with which   which to / to which  
"with me"           "with which"              "to which"

causā and grātiā come after their object (though these are in origin ablative nouns):

exemplī grātiā           urbis causā
example sake-abl.        town  reason-abl. 
"for example"            "for the sake of the city"

and adjectives modifying prepositional objects can often precede the preposition, making a sort of bracketed construction:

magnā cum  laude     magno cum  periculo   tristi cum  corde
great with praise    great with danger     sad    with heart
"with great praise"  "at great risk"       "with a sad heart"

This situation obtained in Latin due to a transition in word order from earlier left-branching (head-final) to later right-branching (head-initial). The related Italic languages Oscan and especially Umbrian had many more postpositions than Latin, for example. This supports jogloran's point in his answer that the head parameter of a language dictates whether it has post- or pre-positions; only during transitions will you find both. Of course, languages are always in transition :)

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    I love your last line! It's so true that it makes me want to question the whole notion of parameters, for surely every parameter must have a fuzzy "value" since it belongs to a language undergoing a typological transition (-: – hippietrail Apr 6 '12 at 21:21
  • Thanks. I always wondered about what brought about those constructions in Latin. – jogloran Apr 6 '12 at 23:32

You mentioned Chinese: I assume you're referring to the traditional category of coverbs, which indeed are basically prepositions which happen to descend diachronically from verbs.

However, I think Mandarin does also exhibit the behaviour you're interested in. The Mandarin equivalent of a PP like English "inside the car" is:

在    车子     里面
zài   chēzi   lǐmiàn
at    car     inside

The word limian is a localiser, which in Chinese syntax follows the NP it modifies, making it similar to a postposition. However, for the phrase to behave as a VP modifier, it must be preceded by the preposition zai.

English prepositions specify a spatial/temporal relationship relative to the NP it modifies. Chinese syntax uses the dummy preposition zai and leaves it to the localiser to specify a spatial/temporal relationship.

EDIT: A note on whether it's common or not for languages to have both pre- and post-positions: according to generative linguistics, the head parameter should determine whether adpositions in a language follow or precede their noun phrase, and the head parameter cannot take on two values at once. That theory would predict that it would not be common for languages to have both.

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    If you use the latest Quadcore Quantum™ Head Parameters, you can have them take on up to four values at once in the appropriate context (below 4° K). – jlawler Apr 6 '12 at 17:43
  • 在 is not a dummy preposition. 车子里面 is a NP, not an adverbial phrase. 在 is like "at". 在车子里面 is like "at the inside of the car". – Zifre Jun 5 '12 at 21:40
  • @Zifre: Localiser phrases pattern with NPs in many cases but not all. For example, 那扇大门后头 is grammatical, but *那扇大门把手 isn't. This suggests that 大门后头 is something different to an NP. There is a good discussion of what exactly localisers are in Huang et al. (2010), "The Syntax of Chinese". – jogloran Jun 6 '12 at 2:34

Some Iranian languages have both prepositions and postpositions. Stilo (1987) suggests that this is so because these languages lie in a "buffer zone," or they are at the boundary between two linguistic areas, one where prepositions are common, and one where postpositions are common. There are also Uralic languages which have both prepositions and postpositions (see Comrie 1981: 121 for an example from Estonian), and there is good reason to believe that this is also a "buffer zone" effect (see the map on p. 7 of the 2011 handout by Matthew Dryer).

I think Stilo's proposal for accounting for "mixed type" languages is quite plausible intuitively, and I have no problems believing that mixed adposition profiles are common in language contact situations, but it would be nice to see more comprehensive studies.

German has some postpositions, although they're far less common than the prepositions:

http://class.georgiasouthern.edu/german/grammar/gr-post.htm

Another English example I can think of is "the whole night through", and I can think of some in some other Germanic languages too.

I know I'm not really answering your "how usual" question, and I don't even know why they (to some extent) co-exist in Germanic. The latter might make an interesting new question.

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