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In Italian if I were to say, "sopra l'albero" (albero = tree) you might rightly ask: "Yes but where, exactly?"

But "sopra" is a great word to learn in Italian, not only is it a very flexible preposition of place, you can create a new word by simply tagging a noun, which explains perfectly its meaning. No guess work necessary.

For example:

  • Soprabito means something you put over your clothes. A coat.

  • Sopracciglio means something above your eyelashes. Eyebrows.

  • Soprammobile something which you put on top of a piece of furniture. An ornament.

However, an English person might justify the use of so many different prepositions with similar meanings and top1 by saying they indicate precisely where an object is positioned. In the case of "sopra l'albero" the argument is defeated as soon as anyone mentions what and what it is doing in connection to the tree. (I hope I have explained myself clearly.) A bird is "sopra l'albero"? Then it must be on a tree. A bird is flying "sopra l'albero"? Then it must be over the tree. A bird is perched "sopra l'albero"? Then it has to be at the top, etc.

My questions are:

  • What is the etymology and history behind above, on, over and top.
  • Why was there a need to have these words when as shown above, within a specific context, ambiguity in meaning is eliminated.
  • Which English words, if any, contain the preposition, on, coupled with a concrete noun to form one word.
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1 - etymonline. 2 - 'why' presumes intention, and in language history there is none. 3 in English, 'super-' is the prefix used, just like Italian. –  Mitch Jul 20 '13 at 17:34
Some can. It's an interesting question, and illustrates nicely the difference between Romance languages, where almost all the vocabulary comes from Latin, and English, where only half comes from Latin, leaving open other possibilities. –  John Lawler Jul 20 '13 at 18:13
Preposition meaning depends to a large extent on context and idiomatic usage. We say we are on an airliner when we're actually in it. We can say we live on Lake Michigan when we actually live near it. We can also say that someone arrived on time (meaning at a designated hour) and also in time (at a moment after which some condition would not be met), and either of those can be used to describe the same thing in some circumstances. –  Robusto Jul 20 '13 at 18:22
But all of the words Mari-Lou mentioned (except top, which is a noun, not a preposition) come from the same PIE root, *uper-, some via Latin, some via Germanic. We now have the use of both these sets of words in English, where we use them for whatever we please, as we always do with words we borrow from other languages. –  John Lawler Jul 20 '13 at 18:27
Yes - prepositions start off as simple little words showing spatial then temporal relationships, easily classed as lexical words and illustrated in infant grammars, then are soon forced into lexically-hard-to-define syntactic relational roles galore. –  Edwin Ashworth Jul 23 '13 at 7:03

5 Answers 5

up vote 4 down vote accepted

above at a high level ORIGIN Old English abufan (as an adverb), from a- ‘on’ + bufan (from bi ‘by’ + ufan ‘above’).

on physically in contact with (but also at a high level) ORIGIN Old English on, an, of Germanic origin; related to Dutch aan and German an, from an Indo-European root shared by Greek ana .

over at a high level same as above) or beyond (ORIGIN Old English ofer, of Germanic origin; related to Dutch over and German über, from an Indo-European word (originally a comparative of the element represented by -ove in above) which is also the base of Latin super and Greek huper .

on top of this is showing or identify that something is highest in the order of other things.

on top of 1 on the highest point or uppermost surface of: a town perched on top of a hill. • so as to cover; over: trays stacked one on top of another. • in close proximity to: we all lived on top of each other. 2 in command or control of: he couldn't get on top of his work. 3 in addition to: on top of everything else, he's a brilliant linguist.

(same Apple dictionary source)

Could over be similar to sopra? in application rather than meaning? overuse, overcoat, overseen, overhead, overhaul, overhand, overflow

There seems to be an English obsession (historical) with this desire of knowing where something is in relation to other things. Think on the reason why this and that code for proximity. Why is that important? short answer, we don't know.

etymology from Apple dictionary (Version 2.2.3 (118.5). Holmes (2001:329 -An Introduction to Sociolinguistics) raises this question on this v that and proximity...and why it seems important to code for it.

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citations added above –  Qube Jul 29 '13 at 12:28
I'm not convinced by the this that argument, I think it's a poor example and I'm pretty certain most languages have words which express the difference between an object close at hand and one which is further away: "[...] while English speakers would have difficulty in interpreting the significance of the fact that the English demonstratives this vs that code degrees of proximity of the speaker [...] –  Mari-Lou A Aug 1 '13 at 4:57
I've just realized that your definition of "on top of" is a figure of speech as in "on top of that..." In my example, on top of the furniture I'm talking about position of place and not the order of things. –  Mari-Lou A Aug 1 '13 at 5:38
I think it can denote position of place as well. See edit above. –  Qube Aug 2 '13 at 10:56
Yes, it's much better now. It completes your answer more. :) –  Mari-Lou A Aug 2 '13 at 13:26

Need is an odd word to use. Does English need four words here? No, as Italian apparently does not, but as an English speaker I can spot plenty of points of confusion. Does English need plurals? Not really, as Japanese doesn't pluralize ("5 apple" implies 5 apples, so why bother putting an "s" on the end?) but again, I like to have the specificity. Do languages need to have male or female words? No, because English does not, yet plenty of other languages specify la/le/un/une and so forth.

Specificity is a nice thing to have, I think, and so I'd rather say mascara is on the eyelashes but eyebrows are above the eyelashes, and I wear a coat over my clothes but seawater got on my clothes while washing over it, but I don't need to.

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I know my request might sound a bit petulant or begging the question. But I'm curious as to whether the English language had these different prepositions to start off with, or did it begin by having only two or three? Which ones came later into being, and why? Which were forced upon by virtue of invasion, which were loaned, if any, during its long history? –  Mari-Lou A Jul 24 '13 at 16:51
It started off with Germanic prepositions and then got invaded by Romance prepositions, from Latin (several waves over the course of a millennium) and French (one big wave that lasted 400 years). Do we need them? Maybe, maybe not; how could one tell? But it's clear that we use them. In English the impulse is to find a single word with a single meaning, and most people believe that's the way language works (It doesn't, but that doesn't bother English speakers). –  John Lawler Jul 27 '13 at 15:58
One reason for this attitude is because we no longer have any morphology left, unlike Romance languages. So we have to have one word rat and another word mouse, one word chair and another couch, where Spanish simply uses diminutive (-(c)ito) or augmentative (-on) affixes to form words from the same root. –  John Lawler Jul 27 '13 at 16:00
@JohnLawler why don't you write this in an answer? For me this is still relatively new. In Italian there are similar diminutives and augmentives such as. "ino/a", "one" (OH-ne) issimo/a etc. As in altissima, piccolissimo and piccolina. Thank you for your comments. Much appreciated.. –  Mari-Lou A Jul 29 '13 at 8:35
There are a few old jokes along these lines. A sign or salesman says "A nickel for a pickel" / so the customer says "And how much for just this pickelini?" / "For that pickelini, just a nickelini!" –  hunter2 Aug 2 '13 at 11:27

"Which English words, if any, contain the preposition, on, coupled with a concrete noun to form one word..."

Online springs to mind. There are others, eg onboard. They might begin as separate words but become one word through common usage. Onboard = going on board of the ship. This is common as long as it doesn't lead to ambiguity.

John was busy on line one. (ie on the phone)
John was busy online.

Similarly words like e-mail tend to lose their hyphens over time and become email.

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Online of course! –  Mari-Lou A Jul 26 '13 at 12:12
Onlooker, onset. –  oosterwal Jul 30 '13 at 23:44

We do have the prefix supra in English which is equivalent in meaning.

According to m-w.com

Definition of SUPRA- 1 : super- 2a 2 : transcending See supra- defined for kids » Origin of SUPRA- Latin, from supra above, beyond, earlier; akin to Latin super over — more at over

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can you give me any examples? I can't think of any offhand. –  Mari-Lou A Jul 30 '13 at 4:34
@Mari-LouA Supraman - n. an aviator // (This is a joke, made earlier in Catch-22, a excellent novel. It would mean that, but it's not a real word. I'm annoyed to realize that I can't think of any non-joke examples offhand, but will return when I do.) –  hunter2 Aug 1 '13 at 9:48

Sometimes the context is not enough to distinguish the different kinds of "sopra". In my kitchen, the microwave is on the counter. In some fancier kitchens it is above the counter. Bridges are usually above or over the water, but sometimes (for example http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lacey_V._Murrow_Memorial_Bridge) they can be on the water.

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Could you explain the difference between "above" the water and "over" the water? Is there any real difference? But I agree there is a difference between "on" and "above" the counter. (I'm trying to think what it is in Italian!" :) –  Mari-Lou A Jul 25 '13 at 6:24
For bridges, I'd consider "above the water" and "over the water" synonymous; I intended only to point out the difference from "on the water. –  Andreas Blass Jul 25 '13 at 15:30
Thanks for replying! For the microwave above the counter bit, in Italian we say it is "inbuilt", rather than "sopra" for obvious reasons. And the link to the bridge has a proper name, a floating bridge, which would be the same in Italian too! –  Mari-Lou A Jul 25 '13 at 15:34
Regarding bridges: consider The Bridge on the River Kwai, which is a nifty piece of wordplay. "On the river" denotes a geographical location (although you wouldn't usually use it to describe a bridge - you have "property on the river", for example), and it also describes the bridge's condition at the end of the story, when it's been partially demolished (SPOILER ALERT!) and is literally "on the river". –  MT_Head Jul 27 '13 at 7:55
@MT_Head I liked how you backed up Andreas's answer. –  Mari-Lou A Jul 30 '13 at 4:38

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