space and language

There’s something I’ve wondered about over the last three years. If others have written about the same thing more competently, please let me know, and I will immediately delete this post.

I am curious about one particular parallel between ways of thinking about language and space, and what its implications might be. I’m trying to work out how it might be useful in thinking about transformations in urban space.

I’m not thinking exactly about the debates over the relationship between natural language and spatial cognition (although I might be); nor about the way people talk of things like the ‘language of architecture’ (although there’s no reason I might not be). Descriptions of space sometimes do borrow linguistic terms: we talk of ‘urban morphology’; there’s an urban design company called ‘Space Syntax’; and so on. My starting point is somewhere else….

Let’s simplify the field of linguistics into three areas of enquiry: semantics, syntax, and – to lump a few fields together – language as actually spoken or written. This third category I will refer to as ‘performance’. What has caught my attention in the past is the structural similarity between this and tripartite models of spatial analysis. These spatial models label their three dimensions differently, but, for the purposes of my loose thinking here, I will crudely simplify them to: meaning, form, and performance.1 Putting the two frameworks side by side gives us the following:

linguistic and spatial analysis

By the ‘form’ of space, I mean its formal characteristics – its raw shape and materiality – that which exists prior to, or beyond, our perception of it. I’m happy enough to accept both that reality will always exceed what we can know about it, and that things have a ‘thingness in themselves’. If, though, you tend towards thinking that there is no reality outside our perceptions, or that external reality is just a shapeless soup, or simply that speculating about this sort of thing is futile, then you might still accept that the ‘form’ of space describes its abstract qualities: its geometrical aspect.

The ‘performance’ of space, meanwhile, describes what we perceive: its sensory appearance, and what seems to happen ‘in’ it. This includes the goings-on of organic life; humans are also part of the perceived material world – objects as well as subjects, if you want to talk in those terms. The performance of space cannot be directly read off its formal qualities, though is constrained by these – just as actual performed language is enabled and constrained by syntax. Performed language, just like performed space, may be playful or transgressive, and not entirely predictable. At this point I’m obliged to make reference to de Certeau’s (1984) famous metaphorical use of walking through a city to evoke the idea of (potentially transgressive) agency within structural constraints. The connection with language is made clear by de Certeau: he talks of the ‘poetry’ of urban walking (to suggest its creative, improvisational, and rule-bending character); and explicitly refers at one point to Chomsky’s (1965) distinction between, on the one hand, the ‘performance’ of language – that is, utterances or texts as actually produced – and, on the other, idealised ‘competence’ in a language. Yes, I know I’m dipping in and out of different contestable ideas here – and, as will become clear, I specifically don’t want to think in terms of hierarchical causal structures – but I’m just seeing where it might take me.

The ‘meaning’ of space, meanwhile, describes our interpretation of what we perceive. This is the realm of affect, theory, emotions, and so on. Since the meaning of space will always be endlessly multiple, this is where contestations and politics spring from. Space may of course have ‘dominant meanings’ to which we may be blind, but they may be challenged by various alternatives. This aspect of space, therefore, is the site of ideological struggle. The meanings of space, in turn, affect the way that the formal qualities of the space are shaped in future, and constrain their performative qualities. This does not leave space in a state of shapeless flux. The different meanings that emerge from our entanglement with materiality (ie performed space) may coalesce into discourses, neither evanescent nor permanent, given voice through possibly self-conscious ‘publics’ of different types. Similarly, the performative qualities of a given space may be at least broadly predictable in the short-term, and the form of the built environment in particular has a lot of ‘friction’ built into it; it contains relatively permanent structures, each of which represents the outcome of a particular struggle of meanings at a particular time, but none of which are eternal.

There is no causal linearity here, then. Everything affects everything else, rather unpredictably. What we seem to have is an iterative triangularity:

spatial analysis

Thinking now about my three linguistic dimensions, let’s start with meaning. I’m comfortable with the idea that we can only see meaning as located within, or as a part of, language. This is the case whether we tend towards a post-structuralist view of meaning as only ever relational, or if we imagine, alternatively, that ‘pure’ thoughts (ideas, comparisons, decisions, responses, insights…) bubble up electronically from somewhere in the pre-consciousness, and are then translated, via semantics and syntax, into actual words. In the latter linear scenario, it is tautologically the case that meaning is created only at the point where our cognitive linguistic software kicks in.  Whatever ‘pre-meaning’ is beyond that is, self-evidently, unknowable in terms of meaning. Simultaneously, though, we might conversely see meaning as shaped by the formal constraints of language (syntax – and even metaphor – though I’m interested to think about what the spatial equivalent of a metaphor would be). We can accept that meaning is to some extent shaped by form without adopting a wholesale belief in the older ‘Sapir-Whorf’ hypothesis that our cognitive processes are delimited by the particular ways that phenomena are categorised in our own language.  Even more importantly, we develop deeper interpretations of the perceptual world precisely through the performance of language (clarifying and exploring meaning by, for example, writing and discussing things with others); in this way, meaning emerges from performance. Meaning in language (as in space) seems to be both emergent and generative.

Syntax, similarly, seems to be both structured and structuring. I see it as having an ontological ambivalence. On the one hand, syntax might be said to exist, in that it affects the world.  On the other, where actually is it?  Is it something that can only be inferred from our performed speech? Like the formal qualities of space, it might be understood in itself as, variously, an abstract model, an illusion, or as something which is ‘there’ but unknowable on its own terms. We also need to account for how syntax changes over time – even if this process (as is the case for the built environment) is slow and uneven; syntax is affected by the ongoing co-evolution of performed language and its meanings. There is a further problem if we think of syntax as an inferred abstraction (which also applies to a conceptualisation of formal space in abstract terms): abstractions are representations – and representations perform ideological work.

Again, then, no definitive causal linear model of language seems possible. Again, we end up with an iterative triangularity:

linguistic analysis

It’s difficult to think in terms of open-ended looping systems where cause and effect are endlessly diffused. We lose our sense of self as humans.  It’s tempting at least to try to retrieve the idea of agency by locating it within performance. Surely, at least here we are free to make choices about what happens in our material surroundings, and how we use our language. Can we look to de Certeau’s urban walk metaphor for salvation? Unfortunately, I’m not sure we can. As Thrift (2008) observes, de Certeau’s perspective is itself a humanistic one. What if instead we can only identify shifting assemblages of things and people in space; and what if our conscious actions and words are at the mercy of our preconsciousness? As Thrift reminds us, quoting Lakoff & Johnson (1998:13): “Conscious thought is the tip of an enormous iceberg. It is the rule of thumb among cognitive scientists that unconscious thought is 95 per cent of all thought…the 95 per cent below the surface of conscious awareness shapes and structures all conscious thought”.

Perhaps I’m trying to force a case here that doesn’t need to be made, using selective arguments superficially to solve a curious puzzle that only exists in my imagination. Certainly, the parallels between my two triangles are incomplete and rather shabby in places. They also keep leading me into philosophical jungles for which I have no map.  Time therefore to head back to the main road and drive home to safety. My original (and ongoing) aim was to think about how all this might help me think about urban spatial transformation. So, then, are any useful conclusions possible?

First, it’s important to remember that the spatial triangle is not my own; what I’ve done here is simply to transpose it onto language. My triangular thinking does not allow us to escape from the traditional ‘prisonhouse of language’ – in fact, if my parallels are of any value, they point to an analogous ‘prisonhouse of space’. Equally, though, I have no desire simply to portray our sense of ourselves as autonomous individuals as a delusion, by asserting that instead we are blindly entrapped within the ‘prison’.  Rather, that it makes no sense to think about our own individual agency as such precisely because ‘we’ and the prison are co-constitutive. If linguistics at least alerts us to the nature of the walls of the prisonhouse of language, might it have some lessons for us about the nature of the walls of the prisonhouse of space?

I can’t see how this might teach us about how urban environments might be better governed ‘from above’; the notions of ‘above’ and ‘below’ stop making sense. But even if the search for agency is pointless, we are still left with power, relative and shifting; its distribution never inevitable. And even if our individuality is an illusion, illusions are powerful forces in the world. As illusory individuals, might we learn better decode to the space around us? Might linguistics somehow help us with this? That might at least give us a practical sense of purpose, allowing us to think more confidently about how space might be reconstructed (or re-co-constructed) from within, rather than leaving us resigned to claustrophobic impotence. Which is another way of saying that we shouldn’t try to choose between being either ‘planners’ or ‘planned’; the first move is to accept not only that we are within the plan, but that the plan is also within us.

5 February 2014, London


I make no claims to have more than a vague awareness of the historical debates in and around metaphysics. I am also aware that the blogosphere provides a haven for armchair-based pseudo-philosophers to peddle half-digested ideas, much to the disgust of professional philosophers. In the explicit spirit of dreaming vaguely about the nature of reality and objects, though, and without wanting to align myself pompously and uniformedly with the idea of ‘speculative realism’ (particularly since it seems fashionable to do this in the blogosphere), I do like Graham Harman’s provocative observation that “there is already a long list of anti-object-oriented standpoints from which one can choose, which suggests that objects have a certain potency as philosophical personae that provokes reactive operations” (Bryant et al., 2011:22). He then usefully sketches out the different ways in which objects in themselves have been dismissed by philosophers through the ages, beginning with Anaxagoras. Interestingly, he points out that even in Latour’s ‘flat ontologies’, the object is significant only in terms of “what it modifies, transforms, perturbs, or creates… [It] is not an autonomous substance” (23).

2 There’s an established tradition of writers who have developed or drawn on this three-way analysis of space, for different practical, critical, or philosophical purposes, including: Cassirer (1944); Lefebvre (1991) [1974]; Canter (1977); Harvey (eg 1990; 2006); Punter (1991); Soja (1996); Montgomery (1998); and Franck and Stevens (2006).


Bryant, L., Srnicek, N. & Harman, G. (2011). The Speculative Turn: Continental Materialism and Realism. Melbourne:

Canter, D. (1977). The Psychology of Place. London: Architectural Press.

Cassirer, E. (1944). An Essay on Man. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

Chomsky, N. (1965). Aspects of the Theory of Syntax. Cambridge, Massachusetts: MIT Press.

de Certeau, M. (1984). The Practice of Everyday Life. London: University of California Press.

Franck, K.A. & Stevens, Q. (2006). Loose Space: Possibility and Diversity in Urban Life.

Harvey, D. (1990). The Condition of Postmodernity: An Enquiry into the Origins of Cultural Change. Oxford: Blackwell.

Harvey, D. (2006). Spaces of Global Capitalism: Towards a Theory of Uneven Geographical Development. London: Verso.

Lakoff, G. & Johnson, M. (1998). Philosophy in the Flesh: The Embodied Mind and its Challenge to Western Thought. New York: Basic Books.

Lefebvre, H. (1991) [1974]. The Production of Space. Oxford: Blackwell.

Montgomery, J. (1998). Making a city: Urbanity, vitality and urban design. Journal of Urban Design, 3(1):93–116.

Punter, J. (1991). Participation in the design of urban space. Landscape Design, (200).

Soja, E.W. (1996). Thirdspace: Journeys to Los Angeles and Other Real-and-imagined Places. Oxford: Blackwell.

Thrift, N. (2008). Non-Representational Theory: space │politics│affect. Abingdon: Routledge.