Expressing motion events: S-languages and V-languages

One of the more interesting differences between languages is the way they deal with expressions of movement, or ‘motion events’ as they are known in the trade. A sentence like the boy swam across the river describes a motion event. In linguistic terms, motion events can be broken down into the following components: the figure (who or what is moving), the manner (how the figure is moving), the path (the direction of motion) and the ground (the place relative to which the motion happens). So, in the example given above, the boy is the figure, swimming the manner, across the path and the river the ground. There is also a fifth component present, which is ‘motion’ itself; after all, it is clear that the boy is moving from one place to another in the course of the event described.

A motion event does not need to comprise all of these components. For example, the boy went across the river dispenses with manner, and in [finding himself on the bank of a river,] the boy decided to swim across, the field river is not explicitly stated again as it is clear from the context. Furthermore, the same word can convey more than one component: for example, in the boy crossed the river, the verb cross conveys both ‘motion’ and ‘path’. The must-have components for a motion event are three: figure, motion and path.

Most languages have generic motion verbs like come and go which express motion without specifying manner, although they do distinguish between motion towards the speaker (come) and motion away (go). In English, the path of a motion verb is usually indicated using an adverb of direction (when the field is not mentioned, e.g. go up) or a preposition of direction (when a field is mentioned e.g. go up the stairs). If we want to add a manner component, we do that by changing the verb. English has a huge range of verbs which express different ways of moving; just think of verbs like strut, plod, trundle, zoom, crawl, sneak, clamber, dash, cycle, skate, slide, to list only a very small sample of them. All you do is pick the one that best describes the movement you want to portray and add a path to it, using an adverb or preposition of direction.

In English, even verbs that would not be considered motion verbs in isolation can be made into motion verbs simply by adding a path. Take the verb to rumble. On its own, it means to make a loud noise as in thunder rumbling. But if you add a path to it, it then means to move making a loud noise, as in e.g. the tanks rumbled past. So we could say that, for cases like rumble, manner + path = motion. But, in fact, this equation is true for all verbs which express some kind of motion in English. If you take away the path, you’re left with a verb which describes an action with no motion. In other words, motion – path = manner. We can see how this works in English by comparing the following pair of sentences: I walked home and I walked for hours. In the first case, the sum of the action verb walk and the path home is the motion event of going home on foot. In the second case, the lack of a path tells us that we are only talking about the manner, i.e. the action of walking as opposed to some other activity. Another pair of examples would be My chain fell off while I was cycling and My chain fell off while I was cycling along. The first sentence means ‘… while I was out on a bike ride’, but the second means ‘… while I was going along on my bike’ (along is the path here). In other words, to cycle as an action/activity (manner only) versus to cycle along as a verb of motion (manner + path).

In linguistics, languages which express motion events in a similar way to English are termed ‘satellite-framed languages’, or S-languages for short, because the path is normally expressed in a ‘satellite’ (adverb or preposition) within the orbit of the verb. English shares this characteristic with the other Germanic languages (Dutch, German and the Scandinavian languages), as well as the Slavic languages (Russian, Polish etc.), although, in the latter, the path is expressed with a preposition or a verb prefix rather than a free-standing adverb (Dutch and German grammar also require motion adverbs to be prefixed to the verb in some circumstances).

However, there is another category of languages, known as verb-framed languages, or V-languages for short, where motion events are expressed in a different way. The Romance languages (French, Spanish, Italian, Portuguese etc.) are all V-languages. In V-languages, the path is conflated with motion in the verb while the manner component is hived off to an adverbial expression. So, in Portuguese, the boy swam across the river becomes o menino atravessou o rio a nado (= the boy crossed the river swimming), the thief crept in and stole the money becomes o ladrão entrou de mansinho e roubou o dinheiro (= entered stealthily) and she ran down the stairs becomes ela desceu a escada correndo (= went down the stairs running). In all these examples, the path (direction of movement) is expressed in the verb in Portuguese. As shown in the last example, the manner is often expressed with a second verb in the gerund form, but can also be expressed with an adverb or adverbial expression, as in the other examples. Not surprisingly, Portuguese has some ‘special’ adverbs to indicate types of movement which have no direct equivalent in English and can only be translated using a gerund, e.g. a nado ‘swimming’, a vela ‘sailing’, a remo ‘rowing’, a pé ‘walking, on foot’, às pressas ‘hurrying, in a hurry’ etc.

Having to fit an adverb or adverbial expression into the sentence can be cumbersome at times, so V-languages have a tendency to dispense with the manner component of motion events when it can be inferred from the context or is not central to the message. For instance, the English sentence my pencil rolled off the table would probably be expressed in Portuguese simply as meu lápis caiu da mesa (= my pencil fell off the table) because ‘rolling’ is inherent to pencils and the pith of the message is that the pencil fell off the table, not how or why it fell. In a sentence like the cat rolled off the table, on the other hand, the rolling part of the message is quite important as it explains how the cat came to fall, which is rather unusual. In this case in Portuguese, you would have to use two verbs as ‘rolling’ and ‘falling’ are two consecutive motion events rather than one single one: o gato rolou e caiu da mesa. This last example also suggests that the nature of the figure (who or what is moving) and what we might normally expect of it are also relevant to how the motion event might be expressed.

By the same token, S-languages always prefer to use manner verbs in motion events because they can do so ‘at no extra cost’, i.e. the sentence has to have a verb anyway so you may as well pick one that specifies the manner too. Thus, in English, we say things like I’m flying to New York tomorrow. In most contexts, the fact that you are going by plane is not particularly relevant to the message, which is just that you are going to New York. Consequently, this would translate into a V-language like Portuguese as simply vou para Nova York amanhã (= I’m going to NY tomorrow) because the flying part is self-evident. In Portuguese, you would only include the adverbial de avião (= by plane) to specify flying if that was relevant information (e.g. because you’re leaving from Boston so could possibly travel by train or road instead). Similarly, where we in English would say he got into his car and drove away, in Portuguese the second part would be just … e foi embora (= went away) because the driving is self-evident from the context. The propensity to use a manner verb is so strong in English that he got into his car and went away sounds odd, and if you asked 100 English native speakers who take their cars to work how they get there, probably the vast majority would answer I drive rather than I go by car.

As a consequence of this fundamental difference in the way motion events are framed, it can often seem to speakers of V-languages that S-language speakers are positively obsessive about detailing the manner of motion, whereas V-languages can seem frustratingly vague and imprecise on that point to S-language speakers.

As I mentioned above, S-languages like English have a huge array of verbs expressing different types of motion. As we might expect, V-languages like Portuguese have a much smaller number because they are not really needed. Furthermore, the ones that do exist, such as correr ‘to run’, nadar ‘to swim’, deslizar ‘to slide’, voar ‘to fly’ etc. cannot normally be combined with a path, i.e. they are action verbs, not motion verbs. If you want to include a path, you have to combine them as gerunds with one of the basic motion verbs ir ‘to go’ or vir ‘to come’. So I ran to the store becomes fui correndo ao mercado (= I went running) and not the ungrammatical *corri ao mercado. S-languages also need a stock of short, to-the-point direction adverbs (such as across, ahead, along, apart, around/round, aside, away, back, by, down, downstairs, downtown, forward(s), home, in, inside, off, on, out, outside, over, past, through, under, up, upstairs) and directional prepositions that imply motion. Many of the adverbs listed above can also be used as directional prepositions and, together with into, onto and out of, figure among the most frequent words in the language. V-languages either don’t have these types of adverbs and prepositions at all or if they do, it’s usually a far smaller number in much less frequent use.

It’s a chicken and egg question whether S-languages have large numbers of motion-manner verbs because they are S-languages, or whether they become S-languages because they have so many such verbs available to them. It seems more logical to assume the former: that the large number of motion-manner verbs were coined over time by virtue of the fact that the nature of the language encourages this, especially as we know that most regular verbs in Germanic languages were originally derived from nouns.

The considerations above clearly have important implications for S-language speakers learning V-languages and vice-versa. You have to learn to adopt the new language’s methodology on motion events rather than trying to translate word for word. Thus an English sentence like he staggered out of the bar, across the street, around the corner and into a cab, with one motion-manner verb and four different paths, would require four different motion-path verbs in Portuguese: ele saiu cambaleando do bar, atravessou a rua, dobrou a esquina e entrou num táxi.


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