Mark Liberman at the Log has a very interesting post about the common origin of prepositions (and postpositions), verbal prefixes, and adverbs in the Indo-European languages, quoting Virginia Anne Goetz’s 2006 dissertation, “The development of Proto-Indo-European local adverbs into Germanic prepositions and verbal elements” (O = object; see Mark’s post for other explanations):

In the initial stage of its development, PIE x was a free constituent in a functional language. Its role was to add a place adverb (xv) modality to a sentence. Often it related a case-bearing object to a verb. In the sequence OxV, for example, O ( – village) might be in the locative case and x would provide additional place adverb information to relate O to V (= go):

the village – toward, within, into, through, around, etc. – go.

From this earliest stage, there were innovations which related x to the object or to the verb. Sanskrit and Hittite are considered to be the most conservative in terms of these developments. There are in these languages some recurring expressions in which x appears to have an attachment to a case-bearing object as an O-x, so that Sanskrit and Hittite may be seen to be on the cusp of developing x as a case assigner. […] In these languages, x was mostly xv (a free adverb of place) or part of an OxV. In the latter, the role of x is ambiguous in terms of [verb proclivity] versus [object proclivity].

The most innovative in terms of x development are Latin and Greek. While there is still some relic structure, especially in older Greek, the “classical” stages of these languages have b.xv (bound verbal prefix), x-O (“preposition”) and xv (“adverb”).

The early Germanic languages, and hence reconstructed Proto-Germanic, fall between the extremes of the conservative (Hittite, Sanskrit) and the innovative (Latin, Greek). While Germanic has a group of b.xv’s and sets of x-O, it still retains x’s that are ambiguous.

There’s plenty of other meaty historical stuff there; Mark’s conclusion:

From PIE to the present day, the consistent driver of change in this arena has been re-analysis — typically, syntactic re-interpretation of a functional relationship. Sometimes this is simply re-parsing of an ambiguous sequence, as when O x V was interpreted as O x-V. And sometimes it’s a simplification of a more complex structure, as when by cause that S becomes simply because S.

I don’t have strong opinions about whether the different functional and structural relations involved should be terminologically split or lumped or both — but I think that Geoff [Pullum] makes a good case for seeing the complex usage patterns of words like in, from, and because as variations on a single grammatical theme.

Makes sense to me.


  1. Stu Clayton says

    Liberman’s post was quite interesting to this-here non-linguist. Just a small point about the German examples of “preposition, postposition, and unbound or bound verbal particle” functions of über in the abstract of Goetz’s dissertation:

    New High German über, for example, displays the following uses: … Unbound verbal particle: Er setzt das Buch auf den Tisch über

    This is not a standard German sentence, for interrelated syntactical and lexical reasons. It may pass in some dialect, but whoever said it around here (Cologne) probably has too many beers intus.

    There are transitive verbs ÜBERsetzen (stress on über), and an intransitive one, much like the English “cross” and “take across”. The intransitive one always and only means “cross [a body of water in a vessel]”. The subject of a sentence with this verb is always a ship/boat/vessel, or someone/people on one. Duden example: die Truppen setzten zum anderen Ufer, ans/aufs Festland über. Of course in a fantasy story you might ÜBERsetzen über ein Tal in einem Luftschiff, but there’s still the image of crossing a gulf consisting of air, water or a void.

    In an indicative sentence with the transitive verb meaning “transport across a body of water”, we (German speakers) would, I feel, in everyday speech try to avoid separating “preposition” and “stem”, because otherwise it sounds somewhat ugly. With “avoid separating” I mean only this particular word, not composite verbs in general. The Duden example for this verb exhibits the compound past being used instead of the simple past (or whatever these verb forms are called): der Fährmann hat uns ans andere Ufer, auf die Insel übergesetzt. Er setzte uns ans andere Ufer über is not wrong, just in everyday speech a bit I’ll-show-you-my-superior-register-even-if-you-don’t-show-me-yours.

    There is another transitive ÜBERsetzen with the meaning “cross over”, in two special contexts: crossing a foot over when dancing, or finger crossing when playing the piano. Duden examples: bei diesem Tanz muss der Fuß übergesetzt werden; das Übersetzen üben (Musik; beim Klavierspielen mit einem Finger über den Daumen greifen).. Note again how the the use of the passive (muß übergesetzt werden) avoids splitting the verb up.

    The imperative forms allow separation, indeed there’s no way around it. A piano teacher might well say to a student: an dieser Stelle setz den Finger über ! So what’s weird, as I claim, about Er setzt das Buch auf den Tisch über ? For one thing, you don’t setzen a book on the table, you legen it. You setzen something that stands-by-its-nature: Setz/stell die Lampe auf den Tisch !. Er setzt das Buch auf den Tisch über sounds like the English sentence would sound: “He ferries the book onto the table”.

  2. Something just occurred to me that may vitiate my claim about “avoiding separation” of the transitive übersetzen. I am a landlubber living in a landlocked location, so I don’t often hear uses of übersetzen at all. Up on the north coast things might well be different.

    My claim that the example sentence sounds weird still stands.

  3. GT thinks that Er setzt das Buch auf den Tisch über means “He put the book down on the table”, for what that’ s worth. It seems to me that it might also mean “He passed the book across the table”, as in what you do if you are sitting across from someone and the someone says “Let me see that book”, this being the sense of crossing a gulf that you mention.

    On the other hand, GT renders Er hat übersetzt das Buch auf den Tisch as “He has translated the book on the table”, where I suppose auf den Tisch simply serves to identify the book in question and is not relevant to its being translated.

  4. It’s a bit confusing in English, “translate” having two senses: “conveyed in a different language” and as in “translated far beyond the daughters of men”.

    Er setzt das Buch auf den Tisch über no way means “He put the book down on the table”. That would be er legt (or, in a pinch, stellt) das Buch auf den Tisch” – no über in sight or mind. “He passed the book across the table” would be er reichte das Buch über den Tisch.

    Er hat übersetzt das Buch auf den Tisch sounds Yiddishy. überSETZT here is a different word = “translated”, the pp of ÜBERsetzt is is ÜBERgesetzt Apart from that it may even be faulty Yiddish, because of den instead of dem – assuming the book is lying on the table.

    The standard form would be Er hat das Buch auf demTisch übersetzt = “he translated the book [lying] on the table”. Er hat das Buch auf denTisch übersetzt cannot mean “He has translated the book [lying] on the table”, but only something like “He has conveyed-in-a-different-language the book onto the table”.

  5. Typo correction: the pp of ÜBERsetzen is ÜBERgesetzt.

  6. You can use English “on the table” in two ways: “the book is lying on the table” and “he put the book on the table”. In German these sentences require different cases after auf: das Buch liegt auf dem Tisch versus er legte das Buch auf den Tisch. So to speak, you have a choice in English between “on” and “onto” in the second sentence, but in the corredponding German you have no choice but to say auf den Tisch.

  7. I have a suspicion that many people with only some German are not effectively aware that there distinctions in German between visually identical words that mean different things, but are pronounced and conjugated differently: ÜBERsetzen = “[be] convey[ed] across” and überSETZen = “convey in a different language”.

  8. I just thought of a sentence that may have been provided to Goetz (who probably doesn’t speak German fluently, given that weird sentence she provides) and that she merely misconveyed : Er setzte die Lampe rüber auf den Tisch. This is not identical ÜBERsetzen, but just setzen with a free-floating particle. All of these things I’ve written about are good examples of the shifting-sandy “Germanic prepositions and verbal elements” that Goetz discusses.

  9. Goddammit, I meant to write Er stellte die Lampe rüber auf den Tisch</iY.

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