Prepositions can be tricky, not least those relating to location. They don’t always align between languages, so they are a common source of language learning errors. But getting them right like a master is all down to how we think about space and place in the world.
One of the biggest differences between languages relates to being within an enclosed area or on a flat, open space. It might sound like a very specific category distinction for brains to carve out, especially as we give it no thought in our native languages. But brains do carve physical space up like this, and exactly what counts as each can differ from language to language.
Take the word station, for example. In English, it’s neither here nor there. You tend to be at the station, at being as fairly vague preposition attaching some entity generally to a location. Likewise, in French, you’re à la gare, and in German, you’ll be am Bahnhof, each language using its personal flavour of at. However, in Polish, you’ll literally be on (top of) the station – na dworcu. That’s because, for Polish speakers, the station is a large, flat, open space. Whatever historical and cultural reasons led to that distinction – different styles of station buildings or layout or whatever – might now be lost, but they’re felt still in those prepositions.
Sometimes, the deciding factor is which part of the location the speaker has in mind. In English, we similarly say at university, specifying very generally with at again. German and French follow once more with an der Uni(versität) and à l’unversité. But in Polish, you’re na uniwersytecie, literally on the university. In Polish, it’s the quad-like nature of the lawned university courtyard that is the defining concept; in English, French, and German, it’s perhaps more about the buildings, or even just that general dot on the city map.
So far, it seems like English, French and German form a bit of a group here, behaving in the same way. But it’s certainly not always like that. German and Polish pair up on the opposite side of English when it comes to parking your car. In English, you’re usually in or at the car park. I’d say in personally; it always seems like an enclosed, fenced or walled in area for me, whether it’s indoors or outdoors. French prefers at, giving us au parking. Not so in German, where you’re auf dem Parkplatz, and in Polish, which plumps for na parkingu – literally on (top of) the car park.
And it’s not always physical places that see this variation, either. Think of a party: in English, you’ll be at one, as in French, which places you à une fête. But in German, you’ll be auf einer Party, and in Polish, na imprezie, conceiving the party as a flat area of space. Where, presumably, there is just as much fun being had as in the English and French counterparts.
And for the Less Fussy…
There are, of course, languages which make the whole business of location much easier. Spanish, for example, allows the little word en (in) to do a lot of heavy lifting. En la estación, en la universidad, en la fiesta. How’s that for a helping hand? And Greek also tends to use σε (se, in) as a general catch-all for in, at, on, you name it. At the train station? Στο σταθμό (sto stathmó). At the university? Στο πανεπιστήμιο (sto panepistímio). At the party? Στο πάρτι (sto párti). Of course, you can finesse location with more detailed words like πάνω (pano – on top), κάτω (kato – below), μέσα (mesa – inside) and so on, but you won’t necessarily be breaking any rules if you don’t.
And given the trickery involved in learning prepositions in some other languages, that’s something I’m often very grateful for!