Animacy and the meanings of ‘in front of’ and ‘behind’

The English prepositions ‘in front of’ and ‘behind’ behave differently in an interesting way depending on whether they have animate or inanimate objects.

To illustrate, suppose there are two people—let’s call them John and Mary—who are standing colinear with a ball. Three parts of the line can be distinguished: the segment between John’s and Mary’s positions (let’s call it the middle segment), the ray with John at its endpoint (let’s call it John’s ray), and the ray with Mary at its endpoint (let’s call it Mary’s ray). Note that John may be in front of or behind his ray, or at the side of it, depending on which way he faces; likewise with Mary, although, let’s assume that Mary is either in front of or behind her ray. What determines whether John describes the position of the ball, relative to Mary, as “in front of Mary” or “behind Mary”? First, note that it doesn’t matter which way John is facing. The relevant parameters are the way Mary is facing, and whether the ball is on the middle segment or Mary’s ray. So there are four different situations to consider:

  1. The ball is on the middle segment, and Mary is facing the middle segment. In this case, John can say, “Mary, the ball is in front of you.” But if he said, “Mary, the ball is behind you,” that statement would be false.
  2. The ball is on the middle segment, and Mary is facing her ray. In this case, John can say, “Mary, the ball is behind you.” But if he said, “Mary, the ball is in front of you,” that statement would be false.
  3. The ball is on Mary’s ray, and Mary is facing her ray. In this case, John can say, “Mary, the ball is in front of you.” But if he said, “Mary, the ball is behind you,” that statement would be false.
  4. The ball is on Mary’s ray, and Mary is facing the middle segment. In this case, John can say, “Mary, the ball is behind you.” But if he said, “Mary, the ball is in front of you,” that statement would be false.

So, the relevant variable is whether the ball’s position, and the position towards which Mary is facing, match up: if Mary faces the part of the line the ball is on, it’s in front of her, and if Mary faces away from the part of the line the ball is on, it’s behind her.

This all probably seems very obvious and trivial. But consider what happens if we replace Mary with a lamppost. A lamppost doesn’t have a face; it doesn’t even have clearly distinct front and back sides. So one of the parameters here—the way Mary is facing—has disappeared. But one has also been added—because now the way that John is facing is relevant. So there are still four situations:

  1. The ball is on the middle segment, and John is facing the middle segment. In this case, John can say, “The ball is in front of the lamppost.”
  2. The ball is on the middle segment, and John is facing his ray. In this case, I don’t think it really makes sense for John say either, “The ball is in front of the lamppost,” or, “The ball is behind the lamppost,” unless he is implicitly taking the perspective of some other person who is facing the middle segment. The most he can say is, “The ball is between me and the lamppost.”
  3. The ball is on Mary’s (or rather, the lamppost’s) ray, and John is facing the middle segment. In this case, John can say, “The ball is behind the lamppost.”
  4. The ball is on Mary’s (or rather, the lamppost’s) ray, and John is facing his ray. In this case, I don’t think it really makes sense for John say either, “The ball is in front of the lamppost,” or, “The ball is behind the lamppost,” unless he is implicitly taking the perspective of some other person who is facing the middle segment. The most he can say is, “The ball is behind me, and past the lamppost.”

A preliminary hypothesis: it seems that the prepositions ‘in front of’ and ‘behind’ can only be understood with reference to the perspective of a (preferably) animate being who has a face and a back, located on opposite sides of their body. If the object is animate, then this being is the object. The preposition ‘in front of’ means ‘on the ray extending from [the object]’s face’. The preposition ‘behind’ means ‘on the ray extending from [the object]’s back’. But if the object is inanimate, then … well, it seems to me that there are two analyses you could make:

  • The definitions just become completely different. The prepositions ‘in front of’ and ‘behind’ now presuppose that the object is on the ray extending from the speaker’s face. If the subject (the referent of the noun to which the prepositional phrase is attached, e.g. the ball above) is between the speaker and the object, it’s in front of the object. Otherwise (given the presupposition), it’s behind the object.
  • If the speaker is facing the object, the speaker imagines that the object has a face and a back and is looking back at the speaker. Then the regular definitions apply, so ‘in front of’ means ‘on the ray extending from [the object]’s face, i.e. on the ray extending from [the speaker]’s back or on the middle segment’, and ‘behind’ means ‘on the ray extending from [the object]’s back, i.e. on the ray extending from [the speaker]’s face but not on the middle segment’. On the other hand, if the speaker isn’t facing the object, then (for some reason) they fail to imagine the object as having a face and a back.

The first analysis feels more intuitively correct to me, when I think about what ‘in front of’ and ‘behind’ mean with inanimate objects. But the second analysis makes the same predictions, does not require the postulation of separate definitions in the animate-object and inanimate-object cases and goes some way towards explaining the presupposition that the object is on the ray extending from the speaker’s face (though it does not explain it completely, because it is still puzzling to me why the speaker imagines in particular that the object is facing the speaker, and why no such imagination takes place when the speaker does not face the object). Perhaps it should be preferred, then, although I definitely don’t intuitively feel like phrases like ‘in front of the lamppost’ are metaphors involving an imagination of the lamppost as having a face and a back.

Now, I’ve been talking above like all animate objects have a face and a back and all inanimate objects don’t, but this isn’t quite the case. Although the prototypical members of the categories certainly correlate in this respect, there are inanimate objects like cars, which can be imagined as having a face and a back, and certainly at least have distinct front and back sides. (It’s harder to think of examples of animates that don’t have a front and a back. Jellyfish, perhaps—but if a jellyfish is swimming towards you, you’d probably implicitly imagine its front as being the side closer to you. Given that animates are by definition capable of movement, perhaps animates necessarily have fronts and backs in this sense.)

With respect to these inanimate objects, I think they can be regarded both as animates/faced-and-backed beings or inanimates/unfaced-and-unbacked beings, with free variation as to whether they are so regarded. I can imagine John saying, “The ball is in front of the car,” if John is facing the boot of the car and the ball is in between him and the boot. But I can also imagine him saying, “The ball is behind the car.” He’d really have to say something more specific to make it clear where the ball is. This is much like how non-human animates are sometimes referred to as “he” or “she” and sometimes referred to as “it”.

The reason I started thinking about all this was that I read a passage in Claude Hagège’s 2010 book, Adpositions. Hagège gives the following three example sentences in Hausa:

(1) ƙwallo ya‐na gaba-n Audu
ball 3SG.PRS.S‐be in.front.of-3SG.O Audu
‘the ball is in front of Audu’

(2) ƙwallo ya‐na bayan‐n Audu
ball 3SG.PRS.S‐be behind-3SG.O Audu
‘the ball is behind Audu’

(3) ƙwallo ya‐na baya-n telefo
ball 3SG.PRS.S‐be behind-3SG.O telephone
‘the ball is in front of the telephone’ (lit. ‘the ball is behind the telephone’)

He then writes (I’ve adjusted the numbers of the examples; emphasis original):

If the ball is in front of someone whom ego is facing, as well as if the ball is behind someone and ego is also behind this person and the ball, Hausa and English both use an Adp [adposition] with the same meaning, respectively “in front of” in (1), and “behind” in (2). On the contrary, if the ball is in front of a telephone whose form is such that one can attribute this set a posterior face, which faces ego, and an anterior face, oriented in the opposite direction, the ball being between ego and the telephone, then English no longer uses the intrinsic axis from front to back, and ignores the fact that the telephone has an anterior and a posterior face: it treats it as a human individual, in front of which the ball is, whatever the face presented to the ball by the telephone, hence (3). As opposed to that, Hausa keeps to the intrinsic axis, in conformity to the more or less animist conception, found in many African cultures and mythologies, which views objects as spatial entities possessing their own structure. We thus have, here, a case of animism in grammar.

I don’t entirely agree with Hagège’s description here. I think a telephone is part of the ambiguous category of inanimate objects that have clearly distinct fronts and backs, and which can therefore be treated either way with respect to ‘in front of’ and ‘behind’. It might be true that Hausa speakers show a much greater (or a universal) inclination to treat inanimate objects like this in the manner of animates, but I’m not convinced from the wording here that Hagège has taken into account the fact that there might be variation on this point within both languages. And even if there is a difference, I would caution against assuming it has any correlation with religious differences (though it’s certainly a possibility which should be investigated!)

But it’s an interesting potential cross-linguistic difference in adpositional semantics. And regardless, I’m glad to have read the passage because it’s made me aware of this interesting complexity in the meanings of ‘in front of’ and ‘behind’, which I had never noticed before.

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