Conceptual Building Blocks: Spatial Primitives

Updated: Nov 17, 2020

SURFACE, PATH, LINK, CONTAINER: These four representational images are some of the most basic image schemas in the human mind, present throughout all countries and cultures. They have recently been identified as a special category of image schemas, called "Spatial Primitives" by Mandler and Cánovas (2014) because they form at or near birth. These are the first "conceptual building blocks" that infants use to make sense of the world around them prior to language. Here's a basic list of Spatial Primitives that have been researched in infants:

As children grow older, they begin to combine primitives to form image schemas. Then they begin to integrate abstractions - feelings, perceptions - into those basic schemas. So - time can be conceived of as a path. Our body is a container for our emotions. Houses, cities, groups are containers. Connection and interaction is a link. Anything flat can be called a surface, and emotions can go up and down. Voila Metaphor. Here's a more scientific summary of what I just mentioned, from the same paper by Mandler and Cánovas .


All this to say that spatial primitives are SUPER useful in understanding polysemy, or the way that phrasal verbs can have multiple meanings. Take the preposition ON, the root meaning of which is "Contact with a Surface" and the verb "GO," which combine to make the phrasal verb "GO ON."

What if the surface is a path? And path represents time?

GO ON + PATH (time) = Continue

  • Go on, you can do it!

  • Go on to the movie without me.

What if the flat surface represents a flat screen, and it is linked with your mind?

GO ON + LINK (to surface/computer) = Connect with

  • She went on the computer type her thesis

What if the surface is the very beginning of a path?

GO ON + SOURCE of PATH = Start

  • The general went on a rampage

  • She went on a rant about fad diets.

What if there are two distinct surfaces? Or more?

GO ON + SURFACE (new) = Change

  • My daughter is 10, going on 16

  • She goes on from one job to the next

  • Sarah went on to become a concert pianist

Seem complicated? Good news: Visuals make this oh so much easier. And because they are abstract, you can draw visuals however it makes sense to you. What symbol looks like a surface? A line might do. How about a path....a long line? A line with a start and stop? A container...hmmm...a square? Or circle? Or cube? The trajector can be a black ball or a rectangle or a triangle - whatever it takes to put meaning literally into perspective.

Attached, you can download some images that I made to help me conceptualize the various concrete and abstract meanings of phrasal verbs with the particle "ON." I've laminated these sheets so that I can write what each type of surface might represent - whether time, life, clothes, age, work, or a simple wall - whatever makes sense for the phrase that I might be trying to teach. I'll upload a video soon showing how you might use these - or maybe create your own!

Also, look for a post showing how you can engage your students in making a fuzzball character to act as "trajector" while their body and a simple plastic cup can act as "landmarks."

image-schemas for ON
Download PDF • 533KB

I added this picture later to represent words like "to touch on" and "to call on"


Mandler, J. M., & Cánovas, C. P. (2014). On defining image schemas. Language and cognition, 6(4), 510-532.

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