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I am working on a conlang and wondering if there is any different way to deal with these "locative" words than either prepositions or prefixes/suffixes. That is, words like "in", "on", "at", and "by", or even (I'm not sure if these count), "from", "far from", "into", "within", etc. On one level, they seem like a "closed class" of words, in that they don't seem to be adding any more words like these, but on the other hand, as a concept it seems like those words don't capture all the possibilities of what you might want to say about location. For example, you might want to say (which you can in English with many words):

He was just about on the top of the table.
He was way down below on the bottom side of the bridge.

That is, "just about on" is saying "on" with a bunch of modification of the scope of its meaning. So that makes me wonder, why is "on" such a specially treated word, given that you have to have the freedom to greatly modify it with extra words.

I am thinking about it almost like a SQL query:

"they had" location = table
  where position = just about on

I don't know, I still used the word on, because it is so ingrained in my head, but it is not a noun. Are there any languages where these sorts of locative words are nouns or verbs, or even adjectives? I don't know. But I am looking for more inspiration on these sorts of locative words (that wiki page is a good start I guess).

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You used nouns with locative meaning in your own examples: “top” and “side”. In English, nouns like these are used along with prepositions (“on (the) top of”, “on the side of”) but there are languages where relational nouns can be used without prepositions to describe the position of another noun. Often relational nouns are related to the name of a body part, as in English “side”, “back”, “foot”.

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  • Or in Mayan languages, where the prepositions are derived from nouns, like the word for "stomach" meaning "in".
    – jlawler
    Dec 16, 2021 at 20:37
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Sure, in the Bantu languages these relationships are generally expressed through nouns rather than prepositions. (Though they're not called relational nouns like the ones brass tacks mentions, for reasons I don't entirely understand.)

For example, to say something is inside something else in Swahili, you generally use the word ndani "interior": paka iko ndani ya sanduku "the cat is located in the interior of the box". Likewise for other relationships: iko juu ya sanduku "on the box" (literally "located in the top of"), iko nje ya sanduku "outside the box" (literally "located in the outside of"), etc.

For a few specific relationships (inside, at, near) you can also use special verbs or noun classes/genders, but these "relationship" nouns are generally the most common and the most versatile, covering most English spatial prepositions (under, between, next to, etc).

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