The Geography of Prepositions

A fortnight ago my Belarusian friend and I were talking about football as usual and he asked me if ‘playing at home’ was correct English. Although he was right, I proceeded to explain the use of propositions in English which is daunting for speakers of most other languages, including Russian.

This led me to think about how much languages, especially English, depend upon a common understanding of geographic space and context. Location, size and environment are all factors which English-speakers must subconsciously consider all of the time in everyday speech.

Russian use of prepositions, like many European languages, is actually quite similar to English except that theirs are always followed by one of six different grammatical cases. Yet in English there are over 150 prepositions compared with somewhere between 40 and 50 in Russian.

So firstly you can see why knowing what they all mean and when you can use them is hard to non-native speakers, but secondly it shows that English speakers must have a very good intrinsic, human understanding of geography and sense of geographical place and relationships if we all recognise what each other means when any one of these 150 or so prepositions is used.

I actually simplified the football conversation from earlier. We were actually discussing the over-pricing of English footballers and my friend said. ‘That is why they don’t play in Europe, only at home!’, and then he questioned his use of the preposition ‘at’. To which I replied that they play ‘at home’ or ‘in England’. He then asked if there were any exceptions. I couldn’t think of any but I did point out that English language and English* people have the flexibility to use one of several prepositions to mean the same thing, giving the following football example:

‘I will meet you at the Allianz Arena’
— meaning I would probably be waiting at the entrance
‘I will meet you in(side) the Allianz Arena’
— meaning I will probably be already at our seats
‘The game will be played in/at the Allianz Arena’
— both mean the same so either could be used! Because it is both a containing area (in) and a place (at)

Enough of the English grammar lesson, I just thought the link with geographic information was both fundamental to our lives and somewhat fascinating. Perhaps something I’ll revisit in more detail in a future post.
*English versus British and others is another topic we discussed that same week! Russian language does have words for all of our island and nation components, but Russian-speakers tend to refer to anything inside the United Kingdom and her territories as England and all the nationals within to be English.


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