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I am working on a conlang and have (for many months/years?) been perplexed by the prepositions. They standout because they are extremely hard to pinpoint what they actually mean, unlike a noun or verb, or even an adjective, and they are extremely hard to "visualize" to get a deeper sense of their meaning.

In the conlang, I had made the assumption early on that I am just going to treat every preposition like a "word modifier" (a "feature", really, in software/programming/modeling terms). That is, there are actions (verbs), objects (nouns), and features (properties), which are all standard / simple concepts to deal with in software / code. But prepositions are not easy to deal with, because they don't really have a clear meaning in my book. I mean, there are definitions of course, but they are often circular and/or imprecise, and rely on your intuition to fully understand.

For example, the word "from". Define "from".

indicating the point in space at which a journey, motion, or action starts.

Is that a noun then, a point in space? No, it's a preposition, it's like the relation between something and something else.

I walked from the rock to the tree.

So in my conlang, I initially followed my assumption and treated these prepositions as essentially "features" or "modifiers" of the corresponding objects or actions. So in this case, I would say "I walked (action, in past) [feature](position(start: rock, end: tree))". Or I don't know if that makes any sense, maybe "from (starts modification chain, with feature of distance being traversed, piping into the) the (sets focus on the upcoming object) rock ..." So really, "from" is a feature scope which is passed to the next feature which is "the", which is then passed to the noun "rock". That is, it is like an adjective, modifying the noun! So in my conlang, "from" is a feature which creates a new mental scope of what is to follow, signifying a movement in space. That is, "from" modifies the noun! It puts the noun (rock) into the animation of moving in space. It is a noun modifier.

Why doesn't that reasoning hold or work? What is wrong with the picture? Why can't I treat prepositions as adjectives (beyond just saying, "well this is how academia has said it should be")?

I feel like I can form perfectly good sentences by treating prepositions simply as noun/verb modifiers, but I'm not 100% sure yet. I won't go into any real detail in the conlang (will save that for the Conlang SE), but I will show a tiny piece to demonstrate the point. Haven't really gotten that far in advanced sentence construction. My sentences look a lot like English (placing the "feature" words like "fromo" (meaning "from + o" where "o" is a modifier suffix) into the same spot as they appear in an English sentence).

self-a walk-i past-o from-o the-o rock-a.

Where -a is a noun suffix, -i is a verb suffix, and -o is a feature suffix.

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  • There’s nothing inherently wrong with treating prepositions as noun-like modifiers. Many prepositions in many languages do originate as nouns in a specific case requiring a specialised meaning – a noun meaning ‘head’ or ‘top’ being repurposed to mean ‘on’, for example. Chinese can be argued not to have prepositions at all: what are usually called ‘prepositions’ are actually verbs being daisy-chained with preposition-like functionality, often used with special location nouns, e.g., 在桌子上 zài zhuōzi shang ‘on [the] table’ is literally something like ‘exist/be-located table top’. Dec 24, 2021 at 10:09
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    I do think you may get into trouble once you start getting into more complex prepositional structures, though, if you treat them exclusively as modifiers. What would you do about ‘continue on in from out here’? Dec 24, 2021 at 10:13
  • @JanusBahsJacquet "On" is not exactly a preposition here, it is part of the the verb "to continue", and could even be treated directly as an adverb (which adds little to the meaning). I don't understand your use of "in". "From" is an actual preposition. "Out" could be thought of an adjective modifying "here". The main uncertainty I have is regarding "here". Is it a pronoun? Dec 24, 2021 at 11:05
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    @QuintusCaesius-RM All of on, in, from and out are prepositions here if you go with Huddleston and Pullum’s classification, which is the most standard these days. On denotes continuing of the action (‘keep continuing’), in denotes direction (‘into the house’ or whatever), from denotes the point of origin, which is out here. Huddleston and Pullum would consider here a preposition too, I believe, though I don’t quite agree with them there; I’d classify it as an adverbial. Dec 24, 2021 at 11:35
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    I think H&P are right about the reclassification of some adverbs and conjunctions as prepositions. Take, for example, the item "before", which H&P claim is a prep in He left before the meeting / He left before we arrived / I hadn't seen her before. Their argument is that this is just a matter of varying complementation and that "before" is a prep in each case. For the record, Jespersen argued for treating "before" the same in all three constructions nearly a hundred years ago.
    – BillJ
    Dec 24, 2021 at 17:55

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Some languages do use noun cases for what would be prepositions in English, such as Finnish. If this is what you mean by "noun modifiers", yes, it's fairly common.

But from a syntactic point of view, you might want to look into the concept of a "head". The idea is that every phrase (unit of syntax) contains some word that determines how the whole thing acts. Cats acts pretty much the same as black cats acts pretty much the same as short-haired black cats acts pretty much the same as big short-haired black cats, so we say that the head of this phrase is cats. It's the word that determines how the whole thing behaves (i.e. what contexts you can use it in).

Now contrast this with prepositions in English. You can't use the tree and to the tree in the same contexts: *"to the tree is in the field", *"I picked apples from to the tree". It seems like the preposition fundamentally changes how the phrase acts in the syntax. So in head-based theories of syntax, the preposition is taken as the head of the phrase. A noun connected to a preposition fundamentally doesn't act like a noun any more and can't generally be used in all the contexts where nouns can.

(In Finnish, of course, something like "to the tree" wouldn't be expressed as a preposition; it would still be a noun, just with a different case. But it would still be used in different syntactic contexts. So some linguists have proposed that it's in a phrase headed by some invisible element that gives it that case.)

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  • The answer establishes well the importance of viewing the adposition as head over the noun. What's missing, in my view, is the notion of distribution. The adposition significantly impacts the distribution of the entire phrase, hence it must be the head. Subordinating the adposition to the noun is a mistake in this regard, since there is then no way to characterize the distribution of the entire phrase. Dec 25, 2021 at 3:51
  • @TimOsborne That's what I'm trying to get at with "context"; the term "distribution" is standard but I suspect less intuitive for someone who's never studied syntax. But I might change that for the sake of using proper terminology.
    – Draconis
    Dec 25, 2021 at 4:17

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