Back to the Origins of Space and Place

This article is especially focused on the etymology and semantics of the words space, and place; it is the prosecution of the previous article – What Is Place? What Is Space? – so that everybody can have a first, basic, idea of the linguistic histories of those two words and the associated meanings.

There are a few points I would like to touch upon briefly to introduce the argument: the first regards the temporal succession through which the concepts of space and place appeared in the history of human knowledge. It is a voyage back to Greek and Latin sources, with the ultimate intent to verify if it is possible to get some insight from the analysis of the Proto-Indo-European language – the ancestral language that it was supposed to be spoken in the late Neolithic period in European and Eastern regions – whence the Greek and Latin languages descended.[1] I will start by taking into consideration what it seems to be the more recent, and, apparently, the more easily traceable history of the two concepts: space. Then I will try to reason about ‘place’, whose history is possibly older than ‘space’. At least, this is also what Albert Einstein believed: in his well-known foreword to Max Jammer’s book – Concepts of Space – Einstein speculated about the historical precedence of the concept of place with respect to the concept of space, and I believe Einstein’s hypothesis was especially due to the logical assumption that terms and concepts that have a strong connection to the physical world (this seems to be the case for the conceptualization behind the term ‘place’) have a temporal precedence with respect to those analogous conceptualizations that seem to be more abstract, such as the conceptualization behind the term space. In that foreword, Einstein says: ‘Now, as to the concept of space, it seems that this was preceded by the psychologically simpler concept of place.[2]

The second consideration regards the special attention that should be given when we consider the relation between modern concepts – that is, the way we currently think about concepts of space and place – and the old Latin and Greek terms that we think directly correspond to such modern concepts. If we go back to Latin or Greek sources and we look for one-to-one correspondences of current meanings and old terms, we cannot expect any perfect match. Actually, with respect to the concepts of space and place, I will argue against any automatic correspondence between modern concepts and old concepts expressed by cognate words; for instance, if we take the English ‘space’ and its cognate Latin form ‘spatium’, the very fact that we often use the term space in combination with time to imagine a tetra-dimensional realm was something unthinkable to old people. The same is true for the traditional sense that we currently attribute to space thought of as the ‘arena of events’ – i.e., the container-like idea or, in other words, space understood as a coherent system of three dimensions constituting a background for physical bodies (the so-called background space): I believe it is a trivial shortcut to ‘automatically’ transfer such traditionally modern ideas of space to the old Latin term ‘spatium’, or to any correspondent old Greek term, before the theories of Descartes and Newton appeared and became popular. Evidently, the idea of space that the well-known Roman architect Vitruvius had in mind when he used the word ‘spatium’ in his treatise ‘De Architectura’ (1st century B.C.) was different from the idea that modern architects have when they speak or think about space, as I have showed in a specific article.[3] This does not mean that people in antiquity had no idea of the continuum in which they were immersed; but it means that they had a different relation to it, a different sensibility and ultimately a different way to express or to describe it. In virtue of the ascertained preference that people (and authors) in classical antiquity had with respect to ‘being’ against ‘non being’, I would say that in ancient times people probably understood that continuum as a material continuum emanating from, or related to the objects rather than an immersive dimensional continuum per se (that sort of immersive void gap in-between objects that we usually think about), the difference resulting in a higher degree of abstraction needed to think of space as a void or as something separated from objects, something which was almost alien to the mind of ancient people with few remarkable exceptions.[4] It is as if the two conceptions – the material continuum and the dimensional continuum – stay on different levels, one actual and concrete the other more abstract and ideal. And my position with respect to such question, is that the term ‘space’ with the modern meanings it coveys,  is not the correct term to describe and speak about the material continuum of ancient people, because ‘space’ does not take into account important ontological and epistemological questions properly (I believe the modern idea of space had its raison d’être in the idea of  dimensional continuum of mathematical origin rather than in the idea of a concrete material continuum emanating from, or related to objects). Then, even if it is quite explicit the etymological relation between the English term ‘space’ and the cognate Latin word ‘spatium’, we cannot take for granted any direct correspondence of meaning behind those cognate words, or, to put it briefly, we cannot automatically translate a modern concept into an old term, and vice versa we cannot attribute an old term a modern meaning. In the end, we should be very cautious before taking for granted any direct correspondence between current concepts of space and old terms (the same holds for the concept of place).

And going farther back in time, our modern idea of space should be even more alien to that of the Greeks, the forerunners of Western thought; actually, if we can trace back the etymology of the term space to the Latin ‘spatium’, there is even a wider gap between Latin and Greek spatial, or ‘placial’, terms.[5] Therefore, by plainly associating a modern concept to an old term we may just fall victim to anachronism: a methodological and logical blunder, before than historical or philological.

If, at the times of those speaking Latin, discourses on space and place were usually made in terms of ‘spatium’ and ‘locus’ (but – as we have just seen for the case of the concept of space – with different shades of meaning with respect to our modern conceptualizations), we may suspect that analogous discussions in Greek employed the cognate Greek terms ‘stadion’ and ‘plateia’ from which the English terms ‘space’ and ‘place’ seem to derive etymologically. Actually, from different sources, we know this is not the case: in this regards, ‘chōra’ and ‘topos’ were the most relevant Greek terms.[6] A fortiori, we can now stress again the fact that the semantic gap between English, Latin, and Greek languages cannot be directly filled with one-to-one translations of terms and concepts when we deal with questions of space and place; different kind of explorations (linguistic, philological, historical, philosophical, mathematical, and – why not? – architectural) are needed to fill the gap between spatial meanings and words across different times. And just like in the case of the questionable automatic correspondence of meanings between the old Latin ‘spatium’ and the English ‘space’ (or Italian ‘spazio’, Frech ‘espace’, Spanish ‘espacio’, etc.), similar considerations can be made with respect to the Greek translations for ‘space’ and ‘place’. As the Dutch professor of Ancient and Medieval philosophy  Keimpe Algra explained in the text ‘Concepts of Space in Greek Thought’, and the Australian philosopher Jeff Malpas explicitly said in the text  ‘Place and Experience’, there is no warrant to the frequent assumption that we can literally translate ‘space’ as ‘chōra’ and ‘place’ as ‘topos’.[7] From the analysis of the first written sources, we know that sometimes they were used indifferently as synonymous and, according to Algra, it is better we rely on the general context in which those terms were used to establish the correct meaning.[8]

In light of these considerations, a third crucial issue arises: the possibility of considering space and place two inherently connected notions, a condition that we should always keep in mind whenever we think about those concepts critically. I briefly discuss it here.

We have just said that, at the time of the classical Greek culture, ‘chōra’ and ‘topos’ were the terms used to express what we would now call questions of  ‘space’ and ‘place’; we also said that there is a widespread, almost tacit, habit to translate ‘chōra’ as space and ‘topos’ as place. Given the fact that, as Algra and Malpas maintain, the philological and linguistic correctness of that choice is dubious, if we accept that tacit habit without further investigation (that is, space – the more abstract of the two terms – corresponding to ‘chōra’ and place to ‘topos’), we would find ourselves in the middle of a philological and linguistic conundrum: in fact,  by the analysis of the available written sources, it seems that the Greek term ‘chōra’ appears earlier than ‘topos’, and this is in apparent contradiction with the logical assumption we made before, when we said that abstract terms – or anyway terms that convey more abstract meanings – appeared later with respect to more concrete terms and concepts. It would mean that an abstract and complicated concept like space preceded the ‘psychologically simpler concept of place’ as Einstein puts it. However, it is precisely by relying on the interpretation of the available written sources that such question can be fixed: as reported by Professor Algra with respect to the plays of Homer and Aeschylus, the frequent assumption that ‘chōra’ is equivalent to ‘space’ is put into question, since in the plays of those authors, the term ‘chōra’ has basically the concrete meaning of ‘land, region, or ground’, that is, a meaning that reminds us of the concrete notion of place rather than an abstract space; and when the term ‘topos’ is found – in later sources – it was used largely as synonymous to ‘chōra’.[9] Then the hypothesis we mentioned at the beginning seems to be confirmed: historically, words denoting concrete situations usually precede abstract terms that seem to be referred to the same or to analogous situations (or, otherwise said: concrete modes of thinking precedes abstract modes of thinking).[10] Therefore, from the analysis of the first written sources, we find two terms denoting similar concrete situations (at this regards K. Algra explicitly speaks of the promiscuous use of ‘chōra’ and ‘topos’, being the two largely used as synonymous).[11] In spite of this fact, the term that we encounter first in written sources – that is chōra – contains within itself both a certain concrete idea of locale (which is inherently associated to the land, region, ground, field or place, to which the term is referred) as well as a suggestion to the ideas of extension, distance or ‘stretch’, occupied or amenable of being occupied; I would call this latter meaning a figurative meaning, something closer to the idea of pure extension – extensio -, or dimensionality that we usually associate to the idea of ‘space’; a meaning that may convey a more abstract sense to a word which, in the early epic, was especially used to define concrete situations (land or country, specific place, position…).[12] In spite of that, such an abstract sense of ‘chōra’ can also be traced back to some propositions in the Odyssey and Iliad.[13]

The question at issue here is twofold: not only might we have two natures within a single word – the original ‘chōra’; but, as soon as the other term – topos – appears in written sources, we might have two different words to convey those two senses that were initially conveyed by a single term. Of the two senses, one is more concrete (in virtue of the priority of concrete meanings on abstract meanings, and in virtue of its use in the early epic, we should logically infer that this is probably the original sense of the term) and we could refer it to the ‘intensive’ character conveyed by any actual region, land, plot or piece of ground to which the term ‘chōra’ is referred: this conception is more akin to our traditional idea of place than to space, and I call it ‘chōra’-as-place. The other sense contained within the word  is more abstract and we could refer it to the ‘extensive’ character – extensio – conveyed by the idea of a pure dimensional extension that may also be attached to the original piece of land or ground described as ‘chōra’: this is ‘chōra’-as-space (I repeat: the notion is just one, ‘chōra’; it is originally used to refer to concrete locales or environing situations, but it also may convey a more abstract sense connected with notions of dimensionality or extension).[14]

But, as we have seen, when ‘topos’ appeared in the later written sources, ‘chōra’ and ‘topos’ were used interchangeably and were almost synonymous: than we might also have a ‘topos’-as-place and a ‘topos’-as-space (this means that within the term ‘topos’ as well, we may find a sense of locale or environing situation coupled to a more abstract sense of extension and dimensionality).[15] I think much of the confusion, or ambiguity, between the concepts of space and place is traceable to such different, yet related notions, which go back to those ancient Greek terms and their associated meanings. But we must take such ‘con-fusion’ as a positive fact: it should be taken as the starting point for any successive elucidation of the terms and not as a free pass to use our modern concepts of space and place interchangeably across different domains, or, even worst, as a free pass to adapt our modern concepts to the old words (and vice versa), without taking into consideration any historical, philological, philosophical, or even mathematical, related questions. So we come back to where we started: there is a fundamental interconnection between placial and spatial notions (either we refer to them as ‘chōra’, ‘topos’, ‘spatium’, ‘locus’, ‘space’ or ‘place’), and as philosopher Jeff Malpas noted, ‘consideration of the vocabulary of place and space alone is indicative of the way these are part of a network in which each term is inextricably embedded’; then – Malpas continues – ’although there is a strong temptation to try to develop a set of clearly differentiated and independent concepts, and, in particular, to try to develop a notion of place that is clearly separated off from any concept of space, this temptation is one that ought to be resisted.[16]

Concerning the latter point, the structure of the revised notions of place and space I want to speak about lingers on the possibility of reinterpreting that original interdependence between the two concepts. I trace their  mutual relation back to the simultaneous presence of different levels of understanding within those original concepts, which provide distinction as well as continuity between that which is actual, or concrete – to such realm I trace back concepts of place -, and that which is abstract, or ideal – this is the way I understand space. Then the two notions – space and place – are parts of a single structure that I conceive of as fundamental to explain any phenomena of reality comprised between that which is concrete and actual, and that which is abstract and ideal (or even possible). For me, concepts of place and space are basic concepts which are inextricably connected and which are necessary to understand the continuum of reality expressed in different times through different terms and concepts: ‘apeiron’, ‘chaos’, ‘kenon’, ‘chōra’, ‘topos’, ‘ether’, ‘spatium’, ‘absolute/relative space’, ‘fields’, etc.

In the light of the mutual relation between those two notions – space and place – it follows that if we try to elucidate the meaning of one notion, we consequently have to elucidate or adjust the meaning of the other notion as if there is constant feedback between the two. This is the reason why if place is mainly taken as concrete notion – let’s briefly say ‘place the arena of things’ -, space cannot play the same actual role, that is, space cannot play the same role as ‘the arena of things’, but it must play a complementary role such as ‘the arena of thought’ can be. And it is precisely in virtue of the simultaneous presence of an intensive and an extensive character within the same concrete concept (one character originates in the idea of precise locale, or environing situation, the other in the idea of extended dimensionality intrinsically coupled to that situation) that abstraction can emerge as a complementary character with respect to what is originally concrete (place). Otherwise said: in place, or from place, space emerges as a complementary entity (an abstract concept). So, within the concept of place, which I take as the founding principle of reality, two natures are inherently included:  one concrete, the other abstract. This is similar to what we have seen concerning the original Greek concept, ‘chōra’. This is also the reason why in several occasions I will point out how close the notion of ‘chōra’ is (and especially the Platonic ‘chōra’) to the renewed interpretation of the concepts of place-and-space that I will speak of in this web site.[17] In the modern attribute ‘choral’, which has an evident etymological legacy with the ancient Greek term ‘chōra’, we still find an echo of that original sense of plurality into unity.[18]

To conclude this introduction, I think it is interesting to verify how those different natures contained within a single word – one more abstract and relative to ‘extension’, the other more concrete, and relative to ‘presence and localization’ – developed into different Greek and Latin terms and then into terms used in modern languages. I also think it may be interesting to see if those ancient designations can be traced further back to an original common source: the Proto-Indo-European language, the reconstructed language whence the Greek and the Latin languages developed from; this research of mine into language is mostly a suggestion for further investigations in the semantic field related to spatial terminology and notions.

Image 1: Partial tree diagram of the Indo-European family (from Merritt Ruhlen). [19]

1. On the Etymology of the Word ‘Space’

As in the previous item I simply start by introducing what a reliable source like the Oxford English Dictionary has to say about the etymology of the word ‘space’, reminding you that, the more we go back in time, the more difficult it is to speak about space without thinking about, or even mentioning, place. According to the OED, the term ‘space’ is an ‘adaptation of the Old French espace (aspace, espasse, spaze, etc., French espace = Provencal espaci, espazi, Portuguese espaco, Spanish espacio, Italian spazio)’, which is, in turn, an ‘adaptation of the Latin spatium (medieval Latin also spacium).[20] And we obtain the same information if we rely on the Oxford Concise Dictionary of English Etymology: the English term space is traced back to the Latin ‘spatium’, ultimately. [21]

From such brief notes we can gather together a couple of considerations: first, no explicit connection is made by the OED (or the OCDEE) between the Latin forms ‘spatium’, or ‘spacium’, and a corresponding Greek term; this is in general agreement with the fact that the old Greeks did not have an explicit word for ‘space’ (see note 5), and that no concept of space, like the one we have today, can be directly traced back to an ancient Greek term. Consequently – and we come to the second point – it seems to be even more difficult and risky to establish, with a reasonable amount of certainty, relevant connections between Latin, Greek and antecedent forms of spatial terminologies that can be traced back to the Proto-Indo-European (PIE) language.

Queries aren’t more fruitful if we take into consideration another dictionary that is widely accessible to the general public – the ‘Collin’s Etymological Dictionary’ , or if we also take into consideration ‘A Dictionary of English Etymology’, which was written in the second part of the XIX century by the British philologist Hensleigh Wedgwood: the English term space is a term of Latin descent (from the Latin ‘spatium’) and no reference to Greek terms or to PIE roots are hypothesized. [22]

Some additional information can be found in the work of the linguist Ernest Klein, ‘A Comprehensive Etymological Dictionary of the English Language’, whence we read that the Middle English ‘space’ (and the Old French ‘espace’) comes from the Latin ‘spatium’, which is probably a derivation from the Indo-European roots *spe(i)– or *sp-, two reconstructed roots that have different, but related, meanings: ‘to draw, stretch, span, spread, extend, swell, be successful’. In turn – Klein argues – from those IE roots the Greek verb spao – σπάω, meaning to draw, to tear away, or even to tear or drag away, to pull, to carry away, to draw aside, according to Liddel and Scott – may also descend. [23] And, we will see it soon, this root is probably the ultimate source of meaning – in a domain linked to basic agricultural practices – whence the concept of space as ‘extent’, ‘stretch’ or ‘interval’ on a piece of ground can be traced back to before it passed to denote the well-known ancient Greek meanings as an extent for running races, or a unit of length (‘stadion’).

1.2 Vertical and Horizontal Connections Between Languages

Regardless of their effective relevance, I take Klein’s observations to point out an important distinction when we have to reconstruct the origin of words: apart from the vertical, ‘genetic’, relation between languages (the one suggested by E. Klein), there are also historical factors that may have affected the meaning or the formal structure of words. To put it differently: given the plausible existence of a common linguistic root between Greek and Latin, how did historical facts (by the proposition ‘historical facts’ I mean the reciprocal sociocultural influence between different people living in the same period) contribute to change languages, the history and the meaning of words? With respect to the tree diagram represented in Image 1, this means that, apart from the explicit vertical transmission between languages (and consequently between words), there may be horizontal (or external) relations as well, depending upon the presence and frequency of contacts between different people or cultures; such connections may have influenced the way a term was adopted, its structure changed, or its meaning modified (this seems to be the case for the concepts of space and place).

This phenomenon is reflected in the way the English language is currently influencing other languages: for instance in the Italian language we find a genealogy of new words that are a mix between English and Italian: ‘brandizzato’, ‘customizzare’, ‘taggare’, ‘sponsorizzazione’, etc. The same holds for many newly coined Spanish terms.[24] This fact may give rise to a network of meanings between words and across different languages; if it seems quite easy to elucidate on-going hybridizations or loanwords between different languages spoken at the present time, it may be more difficult to trace back interconnections or networks of meanings between old words and old languages beyond any reasonable doubt. This is especially true in respect of ubiquitous concepts such as space and place and in respect of linguistic, social and cultural gaps that certainly existed between Latin, Greek, and Proto-Indo-European worlds. To be fully elucidated, without missing important information, such differences require not just linguistic argumentations, but also other kinds of converging argumentations (philological, philosophical, archaeological, anthropological, mathematical, architectural, etc.).

1.3 From the Greek ‘Spadion’ (or ‘Stadion’) to the Latin ‘Spatium’: Historical, Etymological, and Philosophical Argumentations

With respect to the etymology of the English term space represented in Image 2, below, this is just one between different possibilities that I came across during my etymological survey on the concepts of space and place. Given the unanimously accepted Latin descent for the English ‘space’ (via the old Latin term ‘spatium’ and the Medieval Latin ‘spacium’), now I’m going to take into consideration the frequently assumed hypothesis of the passage from the Greek to the Latin language. We have different hints pointing at a Greek descent for the Latin ‘spatium’ rather than pointing at a direct descent from PIE roots: as a matter of fact there are convincing historical, etymological and philosophical argumentations for that hypothesis, even if in another paragraph I will try to examine how important are those PIE roots for creating a network of meanings in which conceptualizations of space and place are embedded.

Image 2: Vertical and horizontal transmissions between languages.

From the history schoolbooks we all know there were many contacts between people living in the Italian peninsula and the Greeks (the inhabitants of the central region of the Italian peninsula – ‘Latium’, now Lazio, where Rome was founded in the 8th century BC -, were termed ‘Latini’ after the region they lived in, and their language was called ‘Latin’, properly).[25] Actually, the southern part of the Italian peninsula was colonized by the Greeks since the 8th century BC – that part of Italy was also called Magna Graecia – and this interaction between different people inevitably led to the adoption, or even mixture, of customs and practices; consequently the language too was somewhat affected by such proximity. There is no surprise if the Romans speaking Latin also borrowed terms from the Greeks. So, for instance, if we read what the classical scholar Theodor Mommsen writes in his ‘History of Rome’, concerning the influence that the Greeks had on the Romans for  certain practices related to festivals and athletic competitions we discover that: ‘just as the reform of the (Roman) constitution took place under the Greek influence, the city-festival may have been at the same time so far transformed as to combine Greek races with, and eventually to a certain extent to substitute them for, an older mode of amusement, the “leap” – triumpus (…). Moreover, while there is some trace of the use of the war-chariot in actual warfare in Hellas, no such trace exists in Latium. Lastly, the Greek term “stadion” – Doric “spadion”- was at a very early period transferred to the Latin language, retaining its signification, as “spatium”… It thus appears that (…) the Romans were indebted to them for the fruitful idea of gymnastic competition.”[26] This is the context within which we have to investigate if we want to find the traces of ‘space’ back to the Greek world: a context made of ceremonies events and… races. Actually, the Greek ‘stadion’ (or ‘spadion’) was a racecourse and that term also denoted the very distance (a unit of length) that athletes had to run and the place of assembly where they performed that race, a footrace precisely. The Latin language and the Roman culture adopted both terms – and the circumstances, or meanings, to which those terms were associated – changing them into ‘stadium’ and ‘spatium’. Of course, in the passage between Greek and Latin, different shades of meanings were also added, it is not simply a question of translation or of borrowing terms from others; this is a complicated issue that we cannot relegate to historical or to etymological questions only; it is a recurrent theme on which we will come back time and again in the following items where I will take into consideration the legacy that philosophers, or philosophical schools, like Anaximander, the Pythagoreans, the Atomists, Plato, Aristotle, the Stoics, the Neo-Platonists and many more, have with respects to concepts of space and/or place.

To remain within etymological boundaries, the passage from the Greek ‘stadion’ (or better, ‘spadion’) to the Latin ‘spatium’ and to the English ‘space’, is attested by many etymological Dictionaries: for instance, in the ‘Etyma Latina, An Etymological Lexicon of Classical Latin’, the English classical scholar Edward Ross Wharton, says that ‘spatium’ is the Etruscan term for *spadium (a hypothetical, reconstructed Latin form), coming from the Greek Aeolic ‘spadion’, which is, in turn, a modification of the Greek ‘stadion’, the notorious race-course.[27] Analogously, in the older ‘Etymological Dictionary of Latin Language’ by Rev. Francis Edward Jackson Valpy, we find that ‘spatium’  – meaning ‘a race ground, a place to walk in, space, room, size’ – stands for ‘spadium’, which is connected with the Aeolic Greek ‘spadion’, derivative form of ‘stadion’, a race-ground.[28] In spite of the actual reliability of the Latin form ‘spadium’, it is beyond doubts the semantic and phonetic affinity between the Latin ‘spatium’ and the Aeolic and Doric ‘spadion’ (‘stadion’ is the Attic variation).

1.3.2 The Various Meanings of ‘Stadion’ (or ‘Spadion’): Standard of Length, Footrace, and Place of Assembly

Apart from the abovementioned sense of the Greek term ‘stadion’ (or ‘spadion’) referred to the footrace, the distance that athletes had to run to win that footrace was also considered a well-known standard of length in the Greek and Roman societies. Thus, for instance, in the ‘Illustrated Companion to the Latin Dictionary and Greek Lexicon’ dating back to 1849, we read that the ‘stadium’ (Greek ‘stadion’ –  στάδιον) designates ‘a race-course for foot-racing, so named because of the famous race-course at Olympia measured exactly one stade, which contained 600 Greek feet.[29]

Image 3: The Stadion of Nemea in the region of Peloponnese, Greece.
Image 4: Semantic and Etymological connections between the English term ‘space’, the Greek words ‘spadion/spatium’ and the Latin ‘stadion/stadium’.

It was the Greek historian Herodotus, who lived in the 5th century BC, to tell us that one ‘stadion’ contained 600 Greek feet;[30] however, since in different parts of the Greek world (and the Roman world as well) many standard feet were found, the length of the ‘stadion’ varied as well; and with a wide range indeed.[31]

Now, I want to deal with a question that may seem irrelevant, but I believe it is not, since it may contribute to elucidate the etymological and semantic relation, between ‘space’, ‘spatium’ and ‘spadion/stadion’ as well as the sense of those terms. The input for such argumentation is offered by the following questions: is it logic to suppose that the race-course (a deep-seated sociocultural habit in the ancient Greek world) gave the name to the unit of length and to the place of assembly – the physically concrete ‘stadium’, that is, the architectural construction – where the race was performed? Or is the unit of length that gave the name to the race-course? Actually, it seems to me this is not a fixed question since during my research I’ve been through different hypotheses. I discuss it here.

As we have seen, we know from many attested sources that the ‘stadion’ was the name of the race-course performed since at least the 8th century B.C. (the Olympic Games were traditionally founded in 776 B.C.);[32] we also know there are many later written sources (i.e., Herodotus, Polybius, Pliny the Elder, Cassius Dio Cocceianus)[33] that mention the ‘stadion’ as a unit of length, but no direct assumption is made by those authors with respect to the origin of the term. Now, with respect to the ancient customs and habits in the Greek world, the most ancient written sources we often refer to are Homer and Hesiod; as far as I know, they do not mention the term ‘stadion’ – στάδιον – as a unit of measure. As we can read from A Dictionary of Greek and Roman Antiquities edited by the English lexicographer William Smith, the following units of length were mentioned by Homer: ‘δῶρον’ (palm), ‘ποῦς’ (foot), ‘πυγών’ (short cubit, elbow to end of knuckles of closed fist), ‘ὄργυια’ (fathom, stretch of both arms) and ‘πλέθρον’ (breadth of the ‘γύης’, which was a superficial measure corresponding to the acre).[34] While from Hesiod we have learned that the ‘γύης’ was the name of ‘the curved piece of wood in a plough to which the share was fitted’, Homer can be interpreted using that term (in compound forms) to represent a unit of superficial measure.[35] The step is short before we can accept as reasonable and logical the hypothesis according to which the land measurement system may have contributed to determining other units of length, among them the ‘stadion’. As a matter of fact, from the abovementioned source – A Dictionary of Greek and Roman Antiquities – we read that the ‘γύης’ was ‘the amount of ground which could be ploughed in one day’s work by a yoke of oxen’ and, the text – A Dictionary of Greek and Roman Antiquities – continues:

it is probable that the ‘stadion’ represented the furrow-long [that is] the distance which a yoke of oxen could drag, and a man could steer, the plough without a rest.[36]

More succinctly, The Oxford Classical Dictionary says that the ‘stadion’, in the origin, was ‘the distance covered by a single draught by the plough.[37]

Image 5: Origin of the Greek term ‘stadion’ and its relation to other units of length based on the standard measures of the human body.

Now, given the fact that neither Homer nor Hesiod mention the term ‘stadion’ as a unit of measure, I think we should interpret the ‘stadion’ as an attribution, made at a later stage, of that archaic measure, which ‘arose out of the measures of surface, which must of necessity be employed from a very early period in every civilized community for determining the boundaries of land.[38] In fact, in the same description given by A Dictionary of Greek and Roman Antiquities we also read that ‘the old name for the στάδιον (stadion) was αὖλος (aulos), this fact implying that the name ‘stadion’, understood as distance descending from such founding agricultural practices, begins to be used and becomes popular at a later stage: the period that coincides, in broad terms, with the diffusion of the athletic games to celebrate some peculiar event.

This hypothesis agrees with what the English topographer William Martin Laeke says in the paper – On the Stade as a Linear Measure – he presented before the Royal Geographical Society in November 1838: ‘As the stade could not have been introduced to common use as a measure until long after the establishment of the sacred games, we are not surprised to find, even so late as the time of Herodotus, traces of the earlier custom of describing distances in the ‘ὄργυια’, or fathom, the longest of the Greek measures before the stadion was introduced.’ [39]

We must refer to the first edition of A Dictionary of Greek and Roman Antiquities (1859) to find some straight explanation of the mechanisms and the meanings of the measurement systems in the early Greek and Roman period: under the Latin lemma ‘Mensura’ the text describes different Greek and Roman units of measurement, and after dealing with the origin of measures, which ultimately consist of fixing a standard of measurement – a unit – referred to some familiar object of nearly uniform length and constantly ready at hand, like  the various parts of the human body can be, we read that ‘at an early period, the larger measures were not derived artificially from the smaller, but were taken from distances which occur in nature and ordinary life…’; this is possibly the case for ‘the length of the Olympic foot-race-course, or Stadium, after which all the other Greek stadia were measured out, and which thus formed a universally familiar standard of reference for itinerary measurement… the point now insisted upon is that when an early Greek writer expressed a distance in stadia, he did not mean to suggest to his readers the idea of so many times 600 feet, but of so many times the length of the actual objective Olympic stadium, with which they were all familiar.”[40] I insisted upon that description to point out how a unit of measure, distance, or extension – something that we may think of as ‘abstract concept’ – is originally related to very concrete objects, situations or places: a part of the human body, a stretch of land ploughed by the oxen or mules, or a concrete stadion-stadium as the place of assembly where people observe athletes running the footrace. As an architect, I tend to exclude that a complicated thing like a building construction may have given the name to the reason for which the building was built (the footrace), as sometimes you can read. I believe the ‘stadion’ as footrace was logically precedent to the ‘stadion’ as architectural construction. In spite of that, the fact that the actual building – the ‘stadion/stadium’ – may have contributed to fixing the exact measure of the unit of length or to make it a popular unit, is another question and I think William Smith’s general argumentation is quite logic and plausible, other than consistent with what we know from the early written sources.

Up to now, we have seen that a certain unit of length related to basic agricultural practices (consisting in the interval of distance ploughed by a single draught by the plough) probably existed soon after those practices appeared thousands of years ago; however, the name ‘stadion’ to represent such unit of length was given, or attributed, only after the race-course and the stadium, as a place of assembly, became famous socio-cultural phenomena in ancient Greece.

As to the reason for which that famous footrace exactly corresponded to that particular distance and not to others, we can make some simple hypotheses. The first is that since agricultural practices were basic practices for the survival of archaic people, that distance – the length of the acre strip that was covered by a single draught by the plough – was probably a standard deeply fixed within the mental image of people in antiquity; actually, there were similar proportions between the Greek, the English, and Irish acre strips, which means that the ratio between the length and the breadth of the strips ploughed by oxen (or mules) existed in similar land systems elsewhere.[41] Therefore, to the hypothetical founding questions – ‘How long do we run? How long is the distance that we have to set for the footrace?’ one could have asked his mates -, we can imagine a prompt ‘Homeric’ answer: ‘As far off as is the range of mules in ploughing.[42] I believe this hypothesis is also supported by the fact that another important footrace, which was added to the Olympic program in 724 BC, was the ‘diaulos’ race, which was twice the stadion race in length, that is, a sprint down and back the length of the track.[43] This new event was nothing other than the mirror image of the ploughing of a field by the oxen, or mules, pulling the plough back and forth, as we can also read in the text Ancient Greek Athletics by Stephen Miller, Professor Emeritus of Classics at Berkeley.[44] This fact reconnects to what we said before concerning the old name of the ‘stadion’, that is ‘aulos’: this Greek term which means ‘channel, tube or pipe’ reminds us of the channel, or furrow, left by the plough pulled by oxen or mules.

Needless to say the ‘stadion’ – as a standard unit that gathers together man, the earth and animals in an archaic and divine practice (agriculture) – is also a square number if compared to the first traditional measurement systems based on the human body: that unit corresponded exactly to 100 orgyiae – ὀργυιαί -, that is, 100 times the stretch of both arms. I believe it is not by chance that the most attracting event at the modern Olympic Games is the 100 meter-dash, the running distance that crowns the fastest man in the World… 100 ὀργυιαί : a square number, is another good reason for adopting that distance and not one of the other infinite possibilities, for the main event at the sacred Olympic Games.

And finally, after having gathered together the divine, man and earth (the ground) by means of that extension (I mean the ‘stadion’) having an archaic meaning, I curiously went through another hypothesis, which would complete the famous Heideggerian ‘fourfold’: it is based on the diameter of the sun as the unit – again a square measure – that links together the time the sun takes to traverse its own diameter during the equinox and the distance covered by a walking man in the same period: exactly one ‘stadion’, or 100 ‘orgyiae’! Here it is the extended quotation taken from A Dictionary of Greek and Roman Antiquities (Vol II, 1891, page 162): ‘Brandis holds that the Babylonians determined the length of an hour of equinoctial time by the water-clock: in one hour the sun traversed a portion of the sky thirty times his own diameter; therefore every two minutes a portion equal to his apparent diameter. With this they equated the distance which an active walker can traverse on the earth in the same time: the stadion, therefore, is the distance traversed by an active walker in two minutes’. Then, earth, sky, mortals, and divinities are gathered into a single extension: an abstract expression of concrete practices.

Image 6:  Panathinaiko Stadio, Athen, Greece.
Image 7: ‘Estádio Municipal de Braga’ (Portugal), architect Eduardo Souto Moura, 2003.

The ‘stadion’, as a unit of length, was especially used at the times of the Greeks to measure great terrestrial distances like, for instance, the dimension of the Earth; but it was also used to determine astronomical distances like the distance between the Earth and the Moon or the Sun; and I suspect the latter types of measurement may have contributed to give the Latin term ‘spatium’, or ‘spacium’, and eventually to the English ‘space’, that astronomical meaning as ‘the immeasurable expanse in which the solar and the stellar systems, nebulae, etc., are situated.[45]

As also Mommsen already noted, in virtue of the frequent contacts between the Greeks and the Romans, it seems reasonable that the Romans borrowed both terms from the Greeks – ‘spadion’ and ‘stadion’ -, translating them as ‘spatium’ and ‘stadium’ (between those words there is a strong phonetic affinity because of which we can almost be sure they are cognate words, one deriving from the other),[46] differentiating the original meanings of distance as extension, or unit of measurement, race-course and/or place of assembly. At a later stage, ‘spatium’, changed into ‘spacium, whence the English ‘space’ ultimately derived. The passage from the Greek to the Latin language, denoted a shift of meaning – actually a stratification of different shades of meaning – from a single terrestrial distance or even to denote distances by sea, to flat areas, or regions, and from a single distance, interval, or extension and regions in the sky whence astronomical extensions could be derived, it began to denote any extension measured upward, downward and everywhere ad infinitum, that is, it began to denote any extent – the intervening space, properly – where the totality of distances-as-extensions, either between celestial bodies (yet, in this astronomical sense, space is actually a place: the place where celestial bodies are located), or between any physical bodies, could be included. With a certain anticipation with respect to forthcoming philosophical considerations, we could say that in this passage from Greek to Latin, the Latin spatium was able to encompass within a single term two classical Greek notions: the notion of distance understood as generic extension (whence the concept of space as interval, or diastemic space, might be extrapolated – diastema, a Greek term which means interval or extension);[47] the notion of extent, understood as room, where bodies roam (that is space as room – this is a common way to interpret the Greek notion chōra -, or the extent where body roam, or even, more generally, any extent available for the motions of physical bodies).[48] See Image 9, below.

It seems to me that in the passage from the Greek ‘stadion’, or ‘spadion’ – in the sense of extension originally describing the distance that a yoke of oxen could drag (this connotation of the verb is included in the Greek verb spao, σπάω, stemming from IE roots, as we have already noted above – see note [23] the plough without a rest – to the Latin ‘spatium’ there is a growing sense of abstraction and a stratification of senses that charged that term – I mean the Latin term ‘spatium’ – with an intricate web of meanings, from more concrete to more abstract, from simple dimensional distances to intervals, regions and ultimately to the immersive spatial expanse that we now refer to as space. In the passage, from ‘stadion’ to ‘stadium’, and from ‘spadion’ to ‘spatium’, we still find traces of that intricate and related web of meanings – concrete and abstract meanings related to notions of dimensionality and of locale – that we have seen with regards to the other spatial and/or ‘placial’ Greek notions, that is, ‘chōra’ and ‘topos’.

This stratification of meanings behind the notion of space, occurred during a long period of time and through different cultures – the Greek and the Roman cultures initially – and that stratification was certainly necessary before a quantitative measure of distance (henceforth, in this sense, an abstract entity such as a number representing a distance) could be turned into a really existing physical extension, which ultimately denoted the very thin and almost impalpable material essence in between corporeal substances: I’m referring to the concept of space that Newton, and partly Einstein, delivered to us in the end. And with such transformation into a substantial entity (the transformation of meanings attributed to the linguistic chains stadion > stadium; spadion > spatium > spacium > space may also illustrate a true process of reification from an abstract numerical extension – the stadion, or spadion, as simple numerical distance – to a concrete, but almost totally impalpable, physical entity) space definitely took that ‘nurturing’ role (in the sense of entity necessary for the existence of things) that once was assigned to place – topos – by Aristotle, thereby reducing place to a subsidiary function, at first within absolute space, then within relative spacetime.

To sum up the subtle but important differences between the Greek and the Latin terminology, I try to state differently what we have said so far: while the Greeks terms stadion and spadion were a linguistic differentiation of the same concepts – one is from the Attic dialect, the other from the Aeolic or Doric dialect – the Latin terms, stadium and spatium, which formally derived from the two Greek dialects respectively, marked the following distinctions: while the term stadium might denote the standard of length, the place of assembly and the racecourse, the term spatium – which was phonetically and semantically connected to spadion – was charged with spatial meanings, properly; it might denote  extension (intended as linear distance), region (either on the earth or in the sky), and spatial extent understood as the void extent available for the motion of bodies. Before space/spatium could develop into a fully-fledged notion, a very long time and many philosophical speculations were needed. It happened only after Descartes space was identified as congruent system of relations (between length, breadth, and height) of geometrical origin thereby denoting the three-dimensional extent now acknowledged universally; it was properly such highly abstract concept that was reified by Newton (who delivered us the concept of space we are now used to), before Einstein changed somewhat the interpretation of that concept. By following etymological and historical (social and cultural) paths, we may have some reasonable clues to reconstruct the different shades of meaning behind the concepts of space (and place). But it was only with the contribution of philosophical and scientific speculations that we finally arrived at establishing the modern interpretation of spatial and placial notions through fully-fledged concepts.

1.3.3 From the Greek ‘Stadion’ to the Latin ‘Spatium’: Philosophical Argumentation

Up to now, we have seen how the historical and etymological perspectives agree with the hypothesis of a Latin and Greek descent for the English term space, through the related linguistic chains stadion > stadium and spadion > spatium > spacium > space. Yet, I believe it was the philosopher Martin Heidegger who elucidated better than any other the ultimate meaning of those linguistic relations. In the famous lecture ‘Building Dwelling Thinking’, given to architects in Darmstadt in 1951, by introducing the example of the bridge as a way to investigate the philosophical meaning of the built thing – the bridge -, Heidegger says that ‘the space allowed by the bridge contains many places variously near or far from the bridge. These places, however, may be treated as mere positions between which there lies a measurable distance; a distance, in Greek ‘stadion’, always has room made for it, and indeed by bare positions. The space that is thus made by positions is space of a peculiar sort. As distance, or ‘stadion’, it is what the same word, ‘stadion’, means in Latin, a ‘spatium’, an intervening space or interval.’[49] Then, Heidegger says, the notion of distance – an interval between places treated as positions – is expressed employing the Greek term ‘stadion’, which in Latin corresponds to ‘spatium’, or space.

There is another exceptional passage in that lecture, through which Heidegger explains, with unreachable clarity, the meaningful relation between space and place, disclosing a different relation between spatial terminologies in different languages, and ultimately between the English ‘space’ and the German ‘raum’. Heidegger says: ‘what the word for space, ‘raum’, designates is said by its ancient meaning. Raum, rum, means a place that is freed for settlement and lodging. A space is something that has been made room for, something that has been freed, namely, within a boundary, Greek peras. A boundary is not that at which something stops but, as the Greeks recognized, the boundary is that from which something begins its essential unfolding. That is why the concept is that of horismos, that is, the horizon, the boundary. Space is in essence that for which room has been made, that which is let into its bounds. That for which room is made is always granted and hence is joined, that is, gathered, by virtue of a locale, that is, by such a thing as the bridge. Accordingly, spaces receive their essential being from locales and not from space.’ [50]

Apart from pointing out the possibility of another descent behind the notion of space (as ‘room’), which – I believe – can be semantically, if not etymologically, connected to the old Greek term ‘chōra’, and which is consistent with the hypothesis of the network of meanings within which the concept of space is embedded, Heidegger shows that space is ultimately contained within place, or, I would say, generated in it, from it: as a matter of fact, I believe any idea of locale and position (these are the terms used by Heidegger) should be ultimately reconnected to the notion of place. Drawing on Heidegger’s argumentation I would say that place – the concrete entity that is created anytime an actual boundary is generated – contains space as pure dimensionality, distance or extent within the boundary itself (that’s why we understand space as abstract entity); therefore space always accompanies place as its complementary part (dimensionality – space – as complementary aspect of locality – place; the abstractness of space as complementary part of the concreteness of place). Then place and space constitute an essential structure upon which reality unfolds comprised between the concrete and the abstract. Why do I say between the concrete and the abstract? Because reality (the term ‘reality’ comes from the Latin ‘realitas’, and ‘realis’ is what belongs to the ‘res’ – the thing – so that the real, or reality, ultimately consists in the modalities through which a thing exists, a quality of the thing)[51] emerges from the encounter between objects, and, in the end, between objects and subjects; it is the subject who simplifies the complex and actual reality of the multitude of things in which he/she/it is immersed by abstracting from their uncountable properties (it is but a short step from abstraction to idealization in the organisms that have a highly developed and specialized nervous system like man). It is by relying on abstraction that the concept of space may deceptively emerge as a detached reality with respect to the concreteness of what is set into its originating boundaries. It is precisely within (and from) such boundaries that the notion of pure dimensionality – to which the notion of space can ultimately be referred – can be imagined or idealized. However, in spite of any deceptive understanding of the concept of space as an independent concept with respect to place, the reciprocal bond, or interdependence, between place and space must be underlined every time we try to elucidate those concepts.

We are back to two important assets of this research: first, to disclose the intimacy and reciprocity between space and place; such reciprocity constitutes a unique structure that I sometimes term to by way of the hyphenated expression ‘space-and-place’; second, the co-existence, within that encompassing expression, of both notions of locale (in the form of concreteness – or concrete localized entities) and dimensionality (in the form of abstraction – or idealization – deriving from reasoning upon the extensive character of such localized entities). It was from such dualistic possibilities that the separate notions of place and space derived.

1.4 Spatial Terminology: Alternative Senses and Etymologies

As regards the meaning of space conceived of as ‘room’ in the sense that Heidegger argued (‘raum’, the German term for ‘space’, – Heidegger says – in its ancient meaning is ‘a place that is freed for settlement and lodging’), and its etymological link to the Greek and Latin spatial terminology, I now take into consideration a hypothesis that aims at expanding Heidegger’s observations: by relying on the Etymological Dictionary of Proto-Germanic of the Leiden Indo-European Etymological Dictionary Series, it is possible to trace back the English ‘room’ and the German ‘raum’ to the Proto-Germanic reconstructed root *ruma-, an adjectival form meaning ‘roomy, spacious’, which, in turn, may provide the Indo-European reconstructed protoform *HruH-mo.[52] From a similar reconstructed protoform (*Hreu-) developed the Tocharian A and B (two types of ancient eastern languages) verb ‘räw’- to open, while the Avestan (another language that was spoken in the north-east part of today’s Iran) noun ‘rauuah’- ‘open space’, the Latin ‘rus, ruris’ – countryside, and the Old Irish ‘roe’- field, open land, may have developed from *HreuH-es-. Again, from the similar reconstructed protoform *rumjan- developed the Old Norse verb ‘ryma’ and the German weak verb ‘raumen’, which mean ‘to clear’.[53] This chain of meanings and words that we have just analysed is perfectly consistent with Heidegger’s hermeneutic attempt to understand space as ‘something that has been made room for, something that has been freed within a boundary’; as a matter of fact, a consistent semantic affinity between different words (i.e., ‘space’, ‘open land’, ‘field’, ‘countryside’, ‘to clear’…), and different languages (English, German, Latin, Proto-Germanic, and Proto-Indo-European roots) is under scrutiny. Is it possible to reconnect such linguistic chain with the Greek term ‘chōra’? Even if from the etymological point of view I found no direct clues with respect to the descent of the ancient Greek term ‘chōra’- χώρα -, from the reconstructed Proto-Indo-European forms that the Etymological Dictionary of Proto-Germanic speaks of, that is, *HruH-mo, *Hreu-, or *HreuH-es (there is only a partial affinity of sounds with ‘chōra’ – der. ‘chōros’– in the first or in the second group of syllables), from a semantic perspective, the relation is quite consistent since ‘chōra’ has the original meaning of land, region, ground, or even countryside, which can be reconnected to the meaning that Heidegger speaks about: ‘a place that is freed for settlement and lodging.[54]

This sense of space, which is semantically connected to a certain concrete interpretation of the concept of place, is also connected to the Greek term ‘stadion’ or, better, ‘spadion’, understood as distance, or extension, derived from agricultural practices. Even in this case the connection between those words hinges on fields, or open lands, as wide territorial extensions cleared from obstacles and available to be crossed through or traversed, either by oxen, mules or by runners; specifically, an ideal or abstract connection can be hypothesized between the movement of the animals that draw the plough through the soil – or the motion of the athletes that run through a definite spatial extension – and chōra understood as classical Greek philosophical notion, that is, as room where bodies roam or, more generally, as room available for motion: the extension covered by the original linear motion of the plough drawn by oxen through the soil, or the distance – the stadion, properly – that the athletes run, can be ideally abstracted to imagine a spatial extension characterized by the motion of any body (the extension is termed ‘spatial’ properly in virtue of the verb spao, or span, that defines the original movement of the oxen that draw or drag the plough through a definite extension). As a matter of fact, the notion of movement, or motion, is a key notion to decipher the philosophical concept of space as room where bodies roam, that is chōra (in fact – we read from Edward Casey’s The Fate of Place – ‘room translates chōra, one of whose affiliated verbs is chorein, “to go” especially in the sense of “to roam”) [55], as well as the concept of space as distance associated with agricultural or ceremonial (in the case of the sacred race-course) practices.

Image 8: Hypothesis of etymological and semantic connections concerning the concept of space understood as ‘room’ (German ‘raum’), that is, territorial or dimensional extent freed from obstacles and capable of being occupied.

If we look at The Oxford Introduction to Proto-Indo-European and the Proto-Indo-European World by Professors James P. Mallory and Douglas Q. Adams, we are encouraged to see how close the Greek notion of chōra is to the etymological sequence we have seen before, even if, in this case too, it is the semantic affinity that strikes us; we read: ‘the concept of an “open space” is found in *reuhxes- which indicates “open fields” in Celtic (e.g., Old Irish roi “field, open land”) and Italic (e.g., Latin rus “countryside, open fields”) and “space” in Avestan ravah-. The same root with a different extension gives us Modern English room. The underlying verb (*reuhx-) is preserved only in Tocharian AB ru- “be open”. Semantically more opaque is *ghoh1ros which is a “free space, area between, land” in Greek khōros but a “pit, hole” in Tocharian (e.g.,Toch B, kare).[56]

There are other possible etymological and semantic links between different spatial terms that have contributed to enlarge the range of possible interpretations and expand that network of meanings that I’ve just mentioned concerning both notions of space and place. It seems to me worthwhile mentioning the one which reconnects the Greek term ‘chōra’, or the derivative form ‘chōros’, to other formally similar words like the Greek ‘chaos’ or ‘chaunos’, (having those terms a basic meaning of ‘loose, with holes‘ or even ‘hole, empty space, yawning opening‘ or even gaping,  hence, porous, spongy, loose)’[57] or the Latin ‘cavus’; or, again, the similar Proto-Germanic form *gaura– descending from the IE root *ghour-o-, similar to *ghou-ro-, which gives the Sanskrit ‘ghora’, meaning ‘terrible’, a meaning that might ideally reconnect to the unthinkable or inconceivable – in the sense of terrifying – idea of the void.[58] That figurative – almost psychological – shade of meaning can also be connected to the following associations: the Proto-Germanic *gaura– means ‘sad, grieved or mourne’, while the Greek chōra is often associated with the similar form chéra’- meaning ‘widow’ in Greek – whence it might also have assumed the meaning of ‘unoccupied space’ that the term widow connotes (from the PIE root *gheh1, to leave behind).[59] The meanings behind the Greek and the Latin terms we have mentioned above (chōra, chaos, chaunos, cavus) can be those of ‘unlimited empty space’ or even ‘abyss’ from which the modern terms ‘cave’, ‘gape’, ‘hole’ (English), ‘hohle’ (German), ‘cavo’, ‘caverna’ (Italian), ‘caveau’ (French), ‘cueva’ (Spanish) also derived.

All of these terms and the associated meanings probably had some role to play in the way we have developed our understanding of the notion of space (as well as the notion of void probably) through the centuries.

1.5 Proto-Indo-European Roots: Notions of Dimensionality and Locale

I close this etymological survey on space and its connection to the concept of place with a hypothesis about the ‘double nature’ that I believe to be at the base of both notions of spatiality (as dimensionality) and locality that we have analysed so far through the terms chōra, and topos, and that – I believe – were originally included within the concepts of space with respect to its linguistic dependency from the stadion/spadion concept (this fact restricts our observations to the Greek and Roman period, before concepts of space and place became distinguished notions in the modern vein after centuries of scholarly discussions).

With the expression ‘double nature’ I mean the existence of two underlying conceptualizations within those classic terms: one more concrete (and static) related to notions of position and locale, whence the traditional understanding of the concept of place ultimately descended; the other more abstract (and dynamic) related to notions of distance, extension or dimensionality – originally deriving from the gap between concrete positions or locales -, whence the modern understanding of space thought of as dimensional continuum originated.

Now, with respect to the original understanding of the concept of space, we have seen that, etymologically, it descended from the Greek Aeolic and Doric ‘spadion’, which corresponded to the Attic form ‘stadion’; their meaning was threefold: a footrace; a place of assembly; a distance, or extension, – that of the footrace – which was transformed into a standard of length. It seems to me that some clues about that original ‘double nature’ could be hypothetically traced back to the two linguistic roots ‘sta’ and ‘spa’, which gave the family of terms descending from those two roots different connotations: one (the one descending from the root ‘sta’) originating in the static notion of that which stands (in place, properly) or simply exists as something localized or located whence the concept of place derived ultimately; such static root, which communicates the idea of something fixed, as a standard of length deriving from a precise distance can be, also contributed to giving a sense to the idea of space, understood as pure extension abstracted from the original distance (diastemic space).[60] The other connotation (descending from the root ‘spa-’ of the verbs spao or span that characterizes the dynamic origin of the term space-as-spadion from agricultural practices) originates in the more dynamic notion of that which expands or spans from side to side, or simply extends from a certain location to another, stretch through an interval, or even spreads across any direction (as we have seen in the foregoing paragraph, the understanding of ‘space as room’ – or chōra – as extent where bodies move or roam, belong to this category of differentiated notions, which require a further process of abstraction with respect to the more intuitive notion of ‘diastemic space’); both sets of notions, the static and the dynamic, finally developed into the concept of space.[61] As to the PIE reconstructed roots that might be connected to the root  ‘spa’ and ‘sta’ there are different, and possible, attested forms including: *sp, *spe(i)-, *(s)peh2, *sph1to-, *sp(e)r-g, *sparg, etc. on one side; *sta-, *st(h)a, *steh2, *(s)teh2-, *st(e)h2-ti-, on the other. [62]

Therefore, on the one side we have a network of words, in different languages, characterized by a static shade of meaning: the very term ‘static’ is an exemplification with respect to its prefix ‘sta-’; but we can also think about the Latin verb ‘stare’ from which the past participle ‘status’ derives, as well as the noun ‘statio’ whence the English ‘state’, ‘situation’, ‘station’, or the verb ‘to stand’ derive (or ‘to stand together, to remain’ from the Latin ‘constare’; or ‘to stand firm’ from the Latin ‘restare’; or again the English ‘substance’, literally that which stays under, from the Latin verb ‘sub-stare’, etc.), as well as the Proto-Germanic reconstructed root *stadi and the German ‘stand’, or even ‘stadt’, ‘statte’, ‘stehen’, etc., derive.[63] Analogously, there are Greek words, beginning with ‘sta’, that convey similar ‘static’ images and concepts: ‘stadaios/stadios’, ‘stasis’ meaning ‘steady, firm’, or a ‘stance’; ‘stater’ meaning ‘standard’  (of measure), that is something which stands firm or is stable; or ‘diastema’- meaning distance or interval – as something which stands between or throughout (prefix dia), from the similar root of the verb ‘histemi’ meaning to stand or set… This is also the root whence the term ‘stadion’ derives, in the sense of something ‘firm, or fixed’ like a standard of length or a distance for a footrace can be. To put it briefly, either you understand the ‘stadion’ as racecourse or distance, in both cases, you need to fix some points, something which stands firms in a precise position, or location, and maintains it stable as the time passes by – such as a start and a finish line – before you can run with other athletes, or before you can measure the distance between positions and use it as a standard of measurement. Therefore, in the ‘stadion’ – whence the term ‘space’ derives via the Doric/Aeolic ‘spadion’ and the Latin ‘spatium’ – the concrete notion of positions or locales as that which stands firm (or simply stays) is always included; that notion is originally conveyed by the root ‘sta’. That ‘static’ connotation, which now seems so obsolete whenever we think about the concept of space, or even totally unrelated to it, was masterfully caught by Heidegger when he said that space was made by positions, that is: it is from positions, or locales (I trace back notions of position and locale to the notion of place ultimately) that an interval or a distance – the ‘stadion’, or ‘spatium’, that is space [64] – can be generated.

On the other side we have another network of words – descending from the root ‘spa’ – characterized by a dynamic shade of meaning, which is ultimately reconnected to the idea of expansion, extension or, anyway, movement necessary to get from one point – position, locale or place – to the other (note that the Latin prefix ‘ex’ – from which the terms ‘extension’ or even ‘extent’ are composed – has within itself the idea of movement ‘out of’ or ‘from’ a certain situation or locale). This sort of movement is what we logically expect from a footrace where athletes run from place to place – a start and a finish line. And if we recall the legacy that the ‘stadion/spadion’ has with the land measurement system, this movement, or action, obviously corresponds to the original activity of the oxen, or mules, pulling, drawing, or dragging the plough back and forth: a movement after which a start and a finish line can be determined (and with them an extension as measure of that movement can also be derived). Now, ‘to draw, to pull out, tear, drag’ in Greek is ‘spao’ – σπάω –, or even ‘span’ – σπάν.[65] There is a strong affinity between the activity of the oxen, or mules, which is linked to the spadion/stadion as place of movement and the image evoked by the Greek verbs ‘spao’ or ‘span’; I believe the ultimate source of that affinity can be traced back to the common root ‘spa’, which has within itself the capability to communicate the idea of a movement from point to point, an extent traversed or crossed through, which also contains the idea of  dimensionality strictly associated to it (from The Etymological Dictionary of Greek by Robert Beekes we read that the Greek verb ‘spao’ – σπάω – can be possibly connected to the root *(s)peh2– ‘to draw, set in motion violently’). [66]

I believe this is where we have to look for if we want to get the source whence the terms ‘stadion/spadion’ (and ‘space’ as term etymologically and semantically connected to those two Greek terms) stem from: in the first case – stadion – the focus is on the fixed situations or positions that determine the (fixed) distance to be traversed or covered (this is where the notion of ‘diastemic space’ probably derives); in the second case – spadion – the focus is on the idea of movement and the dimensionality attached to the movement required to define a certain extent (it was this sense of movement properly that was apt to describe an extent where body roam, similarly to the Greek term chōra or space as room). What is meaningful, is that similarly to the already analyzed cases of ‘chōra’ and ‘topos’, the term ‘stadion’, or ‘spadion’, could convey notions of locales and dimensionality inherent to such locales. The image, or idea, of movement necessary to fill the gap between distant points/locales and the dimensionality directly associated to that gap, was eventually retained in the root ‘spa’ – from PIE roots *sph1to-, *sp-, *sp(e)r-g, *(s)pen, *(s)peh2-, etc.- of the Latin ‘spatium’ and the English ‘space’; while the more concrete and static idea of locales that determine distances or intervals – the one explicit in the root ‘sta’ from the PIE roots *stah-, *steh-, *(s)teh-, *st(e)h2-ti-, etc. – was especially retained by the concept of place (I believe such ‘static’ connotation is probably the reason why place is often misplaced for simple location).

Image 9: Space is etymologically and semantically connected to the Greek term ‘spadion’ (Doric/Aeolic) – or ‘stadion’ (Attic) – via the Latin ‘spatium’, (medieval ‘spacium’). Two natures converged into space-as-dimensional extension deriving from the Greek terms: one, more static, evoked by the root sta-, and related to the notions of position or locale after which fixed distances can be determined and understood as interval or extension (diastemic space); the other, dynamic, and evoked by the root spa-, to which space is etymologically connected via the Greek verbs spao, or span (to draw or drag, with reference to the precise distance covered with a single draw by the linear movement of the oxen that draw the plough through the soil), and which, as a mode of abstraction, suggests us the idea of any extent or extension traversed by the movement of bodis (this is space as room where bodies roam, or, in Greek, chōra).

The ‘dynamic’ root ‘spa’ for space and the idea of extended dimensionality directly associated to movement, was retained in some modern languages descending from the Latin, thus we have Italian ‘spazio’, French ‘espace’, Spanish ‘espacio’ or the German verb ‘spazieren’. The semantic – dynamic and dimensional – association between the root ‘spa’ and the concept of space is particularly evident in the Italian language where a family of words descending from that root brings into common use those hidden meanings (the Italian language is obviously the one that is closer to Latin, the language that formalized the concept of space precisely): then we have verbs like ‘espandere’ (expand), ‘spargere’, (spread, spill), ‘sparpagliare’ (disperse), spappolare (smash), dispensare (distribute), spacciare (pass off), spaccare (split, cleave, smash), ‘sparigliare’ (divide), ‘spatolare’ (spatulate), spazzolare (brush), ‘spalmare’ (spread), spazzare (sweep) or, to a certain extent, sparire (disappear in the sense of going away, that is: sparisci! – go away!), sparare (shoot), ‘spanciare’ (swell); and obviously nouns like spanna, (span) spago (rope, string), spaghetto, spada (spade), spatola (spatula), spazzola (brush,), spazzino (street cleaner as the man who clears the street using a broom or brush), spazzolino (tootbrush), spasso (walk, roam), spiazzo… All of these terms connote some kind of action or movement and a dimensionality that is associated with that movement; as an architect I’ve learnt to translate words into figures, drawings and models (by way of points, lines, surfaces, volumes represented through different techniques) and for me all of these terms contain within themselves an intrinsic idea of direction and a dimensionality associated with direction; this is something that can be illustrated as a kind of vector (see Image 10, below).

Image 10: Retention of the root ‘spa’ (whence the term space descends) in many Italian terms, connoting the idea of movement to which the notion of extension or extended dimensionality is associated (if not precisely created by the movement itself).
Image 11: The act of cleaning: a spatial extent – a span properly – covered by the movement of the arm back and forth, (from the 1948 ad of the product).

Coming back to the etymological relation between words, we have seen that the root ‘spa’ may be connected to the Greek ‘spao’ or ‘span’ (to draw, pull, tear away, drag…) whence the term ‘spadion’ and the Latin ‘spatium’ might descend. To be more precise with respect to the provenience of those two different Greek terms – ‘spadion’ and ‘stadion’ – it might be interesting to note that of the two terms probably the term ‘spadion’ is the one that defined the name of the racecourse at Olympia; in fact we know that ‘spadion’ is a term belonging to the Doric and Aeolic Greek dialects; now, Olympia – the place where the first Olympic Games where held – was situated in that part of the Peloponnese peninsula where the Northwest Greek dialect – a close relative to the Doric dialect – was spoken. Then it is highly plausible that the original name of the sacred racecourse was ‘spadion’ properly. And this form was probably borrowed by the Latins (and transformed into ‘spatium’ as an immediate modification of ‘spadion’) since the Attic dialect was not attested in the Magna Graecia, the part of the Italian peninsula where the Greek colonies settled since the 8th and 7th centuries BC.[67] I believe the Attic form ‘stadion’, as modification of the original Doric and Aeolic ‘spadion’, became famous and widely adopted in the Greek and Roman world, with the parallel diffusion of the Greek culture and literature of the classical period, since the principal dialect of the classical Greek world was the Attic dialect precisely, the dialect of Athens and the surrounding region of Attica.[68] Eventually, it was the diffusion of the classical Greek culture and literature that determined the diffusion of the term ‘stadion’, instead of ‘spadion’ (for instance, the Attic-Ionic dialect was the dialect of the fifth-century historian Herodotus, who only used the Attic form ‘stadion’).[69]

As regards the root ‘spa’, it can also be connected to the Proto-Germanic ‘spannen’, and to the Latin ‘spannum’ or ‘spanna’, other than to ‘spatium’ of course, so that, in the end, we see that both vertical and horizontal connections between languages hold at the same time creating a web of semantic coherence between different words coming from the same or similar roots. Among the family of words that may be connected to the  root ‘spa’ and have preserved that sense of movement and dimensionality we have mentioned, we also have the English ‘span’, or ‘spate’; other terms like ‘spasm’, ‘spam’, or ‘sparkle’: they all connote a movement throughout some spatial extent, a distance or interval – either real or figurative – covered, traversed, crossed through; and what does the term ‘sparse’ communicate, if not the idea of something diffused, extended irregularly through some extent, expanse or territory? I believe there is an intrinsic idea of movement and dimensionality that is originally attached to the root ‘spa’ and it is precisely such idea of movement and dimensionality associated to movement that is still contained in the traditional idea of space, as when we say that a body moves through space either this body is our body moving from place to place, or a celestial body traversing a portion of the Vault of Heaven. It is precisely such idea of space, crossed through by bodies, which is so prolific for architects as well as for choreographers, film theorists, physicists of course, and many others… even if, in the end, it is not space that is traversed by bodies, but it is always a place actually, and a movement – any movement – is always a movement from place to place. Space is ‘just’ a concept – an abstract entity, a representational or figurative entity – related to the idea of dimensionality that is attached to the movement itself (of real bodies) or to the extended bodies.

Image 12: Space available for the movement of actors in a movie-scene. [70]
Image 13: Rudolf Laban’s theory of movement and space, 1926.
Image 14: The study of movement between functional areas is a basic tool for architects to create meaningful architectural spaces (Alessandro Calvi Rollino Architetto, con Sandro Panarese Architetto: Architectural Competition ‘Premio di Architettura Città dei Mille‘, Bergamo, 2003).
Image 15: Alessandro Calvi Rollino Architetto, con Sandro Panarese Architetto: Architectural Competition ‘Premio di Architettura Città dei Mille‘, Bergamo, 2003.

To sum up: within  the notion of spatiality, conveyed at first by the Greek terms ‘stadion/spadion’, then by the Latin ‘spatium’,  two levels of conceptualizations were originally contained: one ‘static’, conveyed precisely by the root ‘sta’ (the one in ‘stadion’), the other dynamic, conveyed by the root ‘spa’ (and retained in the terms ‘spadion’, ‘spatium’ and ‘space’ eventually). That you run a footrace – the ‘stadion/spadion’ as racecourse – or that you simply measure the distance between two points, and keep it fixed to be used as a standard of measurement – the ‘stadion’ as a unit of length – the actions involved are eventually the same, that is: there are fixed points or locations, and there is a necessary movement that covers the span between those locations, properly a distance, gap or interval. This is what the conceptualization behind space communicates if we look at the origin of that word: the presence of limits that allow for actions – movement, extension, expansion… – required to fill the gap, an interval or distance between those limits. As a matter of fact, only after the distance between two different positions is covered we can say that we have covered a span; that span – any span as gap or interval – is not immediately given but emerges as result of the action of covering a distance, that is, the necessary action of going from place to place, or from side to side. Note that such a distance can be either ideal or actual, that is it can be ‘covered’ by the mind only.

Image 16: A mental notion of space (similar to the modern notion) was probably grasped by medieval astronomers at first (detail of Kepler’s illustration of the orbits of the Sun and Mars hypothesized by Ptolemy in geoastral space.[71]

After the original distance between locales or positions has been covered, that span or interval between locales – that is space as sheer dimensionality – may remain without the necessity of thinking about what originated that distance, interval or gap (that is, two concrete positions and the gap between those positions). Either we regard space as a sheer distance between points, or as a concrete extension between locations, in the end, space emerges from places as locales and/or positions as also Heidegger argued. And what is a place if not a notion related to boundaries, as in the original intention of Aristotle? By reading Aristotle and Heidegger, we understand that notions of place (topos for Aristotle) and space respectively, are kept together within limits according to the two authors. With Heidegger, we understand that only concrete limits (which are the condition for locales, positions – and ultimately places – to exist) offer the possibility to transcend those limits and embrace the unlimited – this is the case for the (abstract) concept of space – as a possibility. Yet the dichotomy between the limited (place) and the unlimited (space) has to be read according to complementary ontological and epistemological perspectives: I believe that we can only reach for the unlimited – as a cognitive possibility – within the concrete physical limits of our minds and the actual world within which we concretely exist. We will see that this original view – the limited as a founding principle – was almost lost during centuries of discussions and is still lost in spite of Heidegger’s attempt to restore it from a different, modern perspective.

In the end, we have seen that notions of locale and dimensionality were closely related notions, which, at least in the origin, were conveyed by single terms: either we think of them as ‘chōra’ or ‘topos’, both notions could possibly be contained in and communicated by such terms, even if, as we already noted several times, a certain primacy had to be guaranteed to their interpretation as terms referring to concrete situations and locales, especially with respect to the older notion of chōra. And when we directed our attention to the etymological analysis of the Greek terms ‘stadion/spadion’, whence the Latin ‘spatium’ and the English ‘space’ descended, we embraced the possibility that the two roots – ‘sta’ and ‘spa’ – could preserve the complementarity between those notions of locale and dimensionality-as-extension. Yet, it was through the reliable argumentations of an authority like Heidegger that such intimate relation between locales, positions, and space, as dimensionality, extension or distance, could be elucidated eventually: ‘a distance in Greek ‘stadion’, always has room made for it’ Heidegger said (a distance is always a distance between locales, we have already seen it). It remains to discover when such notions began to be associated preferably, if not almost exclusively, to just one term, that is: chōra and spatium to space – where the notion of dimensionality prevails;  topos and locus to place as position and locality, although doubts remain with respect to such rigid distinction and to the understanding of place as simple location. This is a long history to be narrated and it requires many historico-philosophical and scientific passages that I’m going to discuss in the following items.

2. On the Etymology of the Word ‘Place’

Even if the previous paragraphs were focused on space, we have seen that, in the end, it was not possible to speak about space without mentioning place; actually, the two conceptualizations are closely connected, so that any rigid separation should be avoided. This fact does not imply that we shouldn’t look for distinctions and differences between the two terms and the conceptualizations behind them; quite the contrary. The difficulty, or complexity, behind those concepts lies in unveiling their mutual relation, or complementarity – according to which space and place cannot be separated concepts if not at the cost of breaking their original complementarity -, without confusing their domains of application, this fact implying they are truly different concepts. Ultimately, place and space are distinct concepts that cannot be separated since it is precisely their distinction that constitutes the premise for their reciprocity.

With a short digression I’d say that place and space constitute a sort of ‘yin-yang’ relation through which the concrete – place – and the abstract – space – are reciprocally connected; they might explain reality as overarching phenomenon emerging from concrete and abstract processes: whenever a process results in a concrete entity – for instance a process, or a number of processes, resulting in a physicochemical entity – that entity might be described as place – a physicochemical state of place precisely -, or as existing in place, given that place is understood as relational realm of many object-places, one of which is the concrete physicochemical entity of our example. Conversely, whenever a process results in an abstract entity – for instance a highly abstract cognitive process (a creative process) that results in the creation of a fantastic unicorn – that entity, the unicorn, might be described as a spatial entity, or as an abstract entity existing in space. Should that abstract, ideal, or even possible unicorn be created in the guise of an actual creature by means of some genetic trick resulting from really existent physicochemical and biological processes, that abstract spatial entity – the imaginary unicorn – would be transformed into a really concrete entity: the place of physicochemical and biological processes, to begin with – a biological state of place precisely – which, in turn, exists in some concrete place like an aseptic laboratory, a barn, a grassland… In the end concepts of place and space are concepts that refer to concrete and abstract dimensions of reality, which is the all-embracing realm of existence, that is, the realm emerging from the mutuality (or the encounter) of concrete and abstract processes related to objects and subjects respectively. Obviously, abstraction is related to the cognitive activity of the subjects, that is, it depends upon the life of the organisms; but with respect to the concept of space I will specifically consider abstraction in the guise of symbolization, a highly specific intellectual process, that is, as a process that characterizes some cognitive aspects of the human mind only; this is an aspect that differentiates a bit my abstract interpretation of space with respect to the one offered by Kant, even if, in the wake of Kant, I also believe space to be closely related to cognition. Therefore, to conclude this digression on the reciprocity of place and space, I wouldn’t qualify as ‘space’ the abstract mental image that any animal, apart from man, might have of its territory; to call it space is to forget the sociocultural processes that are intrinsic to the very creation of the notion of space.

Coming back to linguistic argumentations, the ambiguous etymological and semantic relation between space and place is clearly attested by the many different senses of place reported by the Oxford English Dictionary that we have analysed in the previous item – What Is Place? What Is Space?: out of the first five senses of the word ‘place’, four of them directly refer to space: then, we read that place is ‘1) an open space in a city… 2) a space… 3) a particular part of space… 5) a portion of space in which people dwell together…’. A vicious circularity between space and place (which has its reason in the original solidarity between the notions of locale and dimensionality) is established. Nonetheless, this circularity is not exactly the type of reciprocity that I call for in this website. I’d rather insist on a different type of circularity, which is founded on the complementarity of ontological and epistemological interpretations of reality, so that in the end we cannot say that a place is a space, or vice versa (first and foremost this is a Newtonian legacy related to a substantivalist interpretation of space – which I reject). For me, space and place are fundamental concepts that we use to come to terms with reality as the mutual realm, or domain, comprised between (or emerging from) the concrete and the abstract. Space and place are different concepts, but they cannot be understood as separated since they complete each other. Therefore, we cannot set up a definition of one term basing it on the other; otherwise, we just move the problem that a definition involves creating an ambiguous or vicious circularity between terms. To avoid such confusion, I will say that place is the concrete entity – a system as concretion of physicochemical, biological, social and symbolic processes – upon which reality unfolds (ontological interpretation), and out of which space emerge as abstract, or ideal, concept, the fruit of highly specialized cognitive processes (epistemological interpretation); a concept – space – which is useful and necessary for the human mind to come to terms with those ontologically founding processes or places.[72] A concept so pervasive in nature that is shaping, or forging, our modern minds and the modes of thoughts (and by admitting this possibility, I think I get closer to the Kantian interpretation of space with respect to its essential cognitive nature). In this way, I preserve their difference (they are different concepts) as well as their continuity (they cannot be separated unless at the cost of breaking their mutuality, which is necessary to understand reality as all-embracing realm emerging from the complementarity between the concrete and the abstract).

Concerning its etymology, what does the Oxford English Dictionary say about the term ‘place’? Literally, place is a substantive deriving from the Middle English place, previously French place (11th century), which is equal to Prussian plassa, Spanish plaza, Portuguese praça, Italian piazza, medieval Latin placia; the late Latin type *plattia stands for the classical Latin platea, which means broad way, open space; coming from the Greek adjective plateia, broad (plateia odos, means broad way). ‘The Latin word’ – the OED continues – ‘had been already taken into Old Northumbrian in the form plæce, plætse, rendering Latin platea of the Vulgate; but the history of the current word begins with the adoption of the French place in sense of space or extension in two or three directions, the modern use (an open space in a city, a square) being a more recent borrowing from the Romanic languages. Form the latter came also the Middle Dutch plaetse, Dutch plaats, German platz… Place has superseded Old English stow and (largely) stede; it answers to French lieu, Latin locus, as well as to French place, and the senses are thus very numerous and difficult to arrange.’[73] Again, as it was the case for the term ‘space’, no direct legacy to PIE roots is given. We discover the same etymological descent between terms if we check the Oxford Concise Etymological Dictionary or the popular Collins Etymological Dictionary: in both cases the term place is traced back to the Latin ‘platea’ (‘a broad way, an open space’), which is, in turn, a derivation of the Greek adjective ‘plateia’, feminine of ‘platus’, broad.’[74] It seems we are in a similar situation with respect to the term ‘space’: the proximity between two cultures and people (the Greeks and the Romans) certainly facilitated what we previously called a ‘horizontal transmission’ of terms between different languages.

What about possible ‘vertical’ connections? To find hypothetical roots back to the Proto-Indo-European language, we have to refer to more specific resources. Thus, for instance, in ‘The Oxford Introduction to Proto-Indo-European and The Proto-Indo-European World’ we find that the reconstructed term for the Greek ‘plateia’ and the Latin ‘platea’ – both Greek and Latin terms refer to the concept ‘broad’- is possibly given by the root *pl th2us, which is derived from *pleth2meaning ‘spread’.[75] And with respect to the Greek attribute ‘platus’, from the Etymological Dictionary of Ancient Greek, we find a similar PIE reconstruction in the root *plth2-u-,[76] (image 17, below).

Image 17: Etymology of the English word ‘place’ from the PIE roots *pl-.

Then, if we go back to Latin, Greek and to PIE roots, it seems that the source where the word ‘place’ stems from has been traced back to some sort of dimensional notion that has within itself the idea of extension – such is the meaning of the terms ‘broad’, or even ‘spread’. It is as if no ‘place’ could exist unless some characteristic dimensional extension – the one for which we can say that a thing is ‘broad’, or ‘spreads’ within certain limits – is not attached to it. This is the umpteenth confirm of the fact that, at least in the origin, behind spatial or ‘placial’ conceptions, both notions of locale and dimensionality were involved. Moreover, I believe this fact – the ‘qualitatively’ extended character of place – could be critical when we will try to draw a distinction between that which is concrete and actual and that which is abstract and ideal, or even possible: though very tentatively, I would say that any concrete aspect of reality-as-place has an intrinsic minimal dimension, or even a mass or energy, which is non-zero (this is what I mean when I speak of ‘qualitatively’ extended character of place); conversely any abstract, ideal, or even possible aspect of reality has a physical dimension which is zero, or even zero-mass and energy. Such argumentation should reconnect us to the Aristotelian concept of place (topos) as a bounded entity, that is, place as an entity that offers things the possibility to exist concretely (intensively) and extensively only if/when they are located within boundaries. Then we could say that that which has a boundary – or, otherwise said, that which has a non-zero extension or non-zero mass and energy – may be identified as concrete place; a position reminiscent of some Neo-platonic thinkers. [77]

Concerning the notion of ‘boundary’, understood as a founding character for the interpretation of the concept of place, I need to make another brief speculative digression. I believe that the concept of boundary should be elucidated with respect to the mutual relation between epistemological and ontological perspectives: in fact I believe boundaries are attributions of the perceiving subject rather than properties of objects, since there is not a real physical boundary – I mean an actual line of demarcation – between the skin that contains my body and the chair I’m sat on at this moment; if we go down beneath the biological level out of which living organisms emerge, we would just see clouds of electrons spinning and moving at incredibly high speeds, repelling and attracting forces acting between atoms or between its constitutive parts; and if we still go down further with the scale of the phenomena involved, we would just see an intense activity of physical fields but, in any case, we will never see a ‘boundary’ as a clear cut line of demarcation that separates me from the chair, quite the contrary: my existence as biological entity and the existence of the atoms that compound my body are entangled with the existence of the multitude of atoms that compose the chair and those that compose the environment in which me and the chair are plunged in; there is an original ‘withness’ between those atoms, which ultimately result in the ‘withness’ between me and the chair, between subjects and objects, as well as between objects themselves. It is precisely in virtue of that original ‘withness’ that ‘the other’ can be recognized as a different entity, and order between different entities can be established. It is precisely such fundamental order that the concepts of place and space have tried to describe according to the tradition.

 Coming back to the main argument, we could say that everything that exists as an actual and concrete entity having a non-zero dimension, and/or non-zero mass-energy, is a place. As I use to say: reality is a place, ultimately. For me, not only is place a necessary concept to reasoning about the order of things; place itself is constitutive of that order since place originally contains both the extensive and the intensive character of the thing. Beyond the linguistic veil, the concept of place can also be used to define the very existence of the thing. The thing coincides with (its) place or to put it differently: the thing is a place (or vice versa, the place is a thing). We are here in the middle of highly speculative considerations; in the middle of philosophy and physics: a critical territory for the concepts of space and place. The necessity to ‘rethinking space and place’, which is the reason for a website named like this, is precisely due to the ongoing physical and philosophical redefinitions of critical concepts such as space (or spacetime), place, time, matter, energy, force, subjectivity, objectivity, causality… through which we try to understand (and represent) the phenomena of reality.

In the end, with respect to the term ‘place’, the etymological analysis confirms the same inextricable mutuality between locales and dimensionality that we have observed behind the other spatial, or ‘placial’, terms already analysed: chōra, topos, and space (understood with respect to its etymological and semantic link with the Latin and the Greek terms spatium, spadion or stadion). All things considered, what stands out from such basic etymological reconstruction with respect to the term ‘place’ (see Image 17) is that there is a certain semantic gap between the English ‘place’ and other words of Romance, or even Greek origin, descending from the same root: as a matter of fact, in those languages, the corresponding traditional meanings for the English ‘place’ are possibly conveyed by terms that are not etymologically connected to it, that is: the Italian term ‘luogo’, Rumanian ‘loc’, French ‘lieu’, Spanish ‘lugar’ (they all descend from the Latin ‘locus’), or the Greek ‘topos’.

2.2 Latin and Greek terms for Place: Locus and Topos

In the previous paragraphs, we have said that one of the first terms we have some written records of, and through which the notion of place has been formalized, was the Greek ‘chōra’, which chronologically preceded the other Greek term ‘topos’. We also noticed that the two terms, at least in the origin, had a similar meaning – they were largely used as synonymous – even if chōra might denote a region of larger extent than topos. Moreover, we have seen that the use of ‘chōra’ was attested in the early epic, while ‘topos’ appears later in the Attic tragedies[78]; and finally, we have seen that it became a diffused, even if controversial, habit to translate chōra as space and topos as place.

As regards the Latin terminology, the modern concept of place has always been associated with the Latin term ‘locus’, which was also used by Latin writers and scholastic translators to render the Greek topos. In spite of the fact that both the Greek topos and the Latin locus are usually translated as ‘place’, it is difficult to establish a convincing etymological relation between the two terms on the base of structural and phonetic affinity; it is also difficult to find traces back to PIE roots that are beyond any doubt. This is a cause of puzzlement among linguists.

With respect to the Greek topos, in order to avoid such impasse, the eminent English lexicographer John Chadwick, made the intriguing hypothesis that the term could be a true invention of the Greek language, therefore a primary word, in the sense that it was not borrowed from, or it did not descend from any other language or PIE roots. In the end, the possibility of a new coinage was a smart solution to avoid those difficulties that I also found when I had to establish some certain etymological relation from attested sources. At this regard, the Etymological Dictionary of Greek belonging to the Leiden Indo-European Etymological Dictionary Series, confirms that ‘the broad semantic range renders etymologizing difficult’; in spite of that difficulty some PIE roots are hypothesized even if they are not conclusive in the end (for instance: *top-o-, or *tokw-o-, as well as the root *tep- ‘to hit, stick, smear’ which could yield a noun *top-o- ‘stain, spot’ which in turn developed to ‘spot, place’).[79] The French linguist Pierre Chantraine, an authority in the field of Ancient Greek philology, is even more tranchant with his response on the etymology of the Greek topos: ‘inconnue’, unknown, obscure.[80] Then, we come back to the intriguing hypothesis argued by Chadwick. But how did he explain the new coinage of that Greek term? I report his own words included in the Lexicographica Graeca (terms and statement between brackets are mine): ‘… it began with a replay to a question containing the interrogative  “ποῦ” (poù – where?) with an expression such as “περì τὸ ποῦ ἀπορώ” (perì tὸ poù aporό – I wonder about where…). This might have been misinterpreted with a change of accent as the genitive (τόπου – tόpou) of a noun “τόπος” (tόpos), which was thus created by back-formation. The new coinage filled a very useful function in the language, which down to this date appears to have had no single noun to describe location in space. For nouns created from interrogatives compare English “where-abouts”, the “why and wherefore”, Italian “ubicazione”.’[81] Assuming my translation is not too misleading, and independently of the ‘back-formation’ of the word, this is an interesting hypothesis since the new coinage is originally given a figurative context, or, to put it differently, at the beginning, the term had an abstract meaning that realized a sort of symmetrical situation with respect to ‘chōra’, the other Greek term that was initially used to represent concrete environing situations: in fact, we previously said that ‘chōra’ had originally the concrete meaning of ‘land, region, or ground’, that is, a meaning that reminds us of the concrete notion of place with a particular reference to geographical locales, while according to Chadwick’s hypothesis, the term topos emerges as figurative meaning (such ‘figurative’, or rhetoric meaning, is typically retained in the widely diffused metaphoric expression ‘commonplace’ from the Greek: tópos koinós). As Chadwick explicitly said with respect to the term topos, the earliest uses seem to be fairly restricted… The simplest meaning appears to be a point or region in space, geographical locality, place, spot.’ Apart from the philological problems behind the proposition ‘point or region in space’ used by Chadwick (I remind you that the Greek had no words for space – see note 5), it is confirmed the fact, at least in the origin, chōra was used to refer to wider extents than topos (and this is probably the reason why chōra , in spite of its original concrete meaning, was ultimately translated by later authors as space, while topos was translated as locus, or place within space, even if each term – chōra, topos, spatium, locus, space, or place – has different shades of meaning that a simple translation cannot account for).

As regards the Latin locus, we know from Quintilianus that its archaic form was ‘stlocus’;[82] but, analogously to the Greek topos, some difficulties arise as soon as we try to look back for still older PIE hypothetical roots. Therefore, in the Etymological Dictionary of Latin and the other Italic Languages by the Dutch linguist Michiel de Vaan, we read that ‘stlocus’ might descend from the root *stel- meaning ‘to place’, even if there is no suffix *-oko-. Another possibility is that the prefix stl- goes back to *sl- so that a preform *slok-o- might be hypothesized. ‘The further etymology remains unclear’, we read.[83] That PIE root, *stel-, is also attested by The Oxford Introduction to Proto-Indo-European and the Proto-Indo-European World, but no direct connection is made with respect to the Latin locus: in fact, we read that ‘general words for “a place” are built on the verbal root *steh2– ‘stand’, hence we have *ste´h2tis (e.g., Lat statio ‘position, station’, NE stead, Lith stacias ‘standing’, Grk stasis ‘place, setting, standing, stature’, Av staiti- ‘station’, Skt sthıti- ‘position’);[84] those are roots that we have already analysed in the previous paragraph concerning the prefix ‘sta-’ of the word ‘stadion’, as a mode of position, or fixed localization, between points, or locales, that determine a (fixed) distance to be used as standard of length.

It is interesting to note that, by means of the linguistic root ‘sta’, which can be ultimately associated to meanings very close to the notion of place, we might have an empirical confirmation of the ‘logical’ hypothesis with which we have opened the discussion on the etymology of place and space, namely that the notion of place preceded the (more abstract and psychologically more complex) notion of space: as a matter of fact, according to the American linguist Morris Swadesh, among the list of 100 words that are considered to be constitutive of the basic vocabulary of the Proto-Indo-European language, apart from the demonstrative pronouns ‘this’ and ’that’- from which a derivative order of territorial relations may be established on the base of the adverbs of place ‘here’ and ‘there’- the only term we find that can be associated to some of the spatial/placial notions we have analysed so far is precisely the root term *(s)teh2, whose meaning is related to the notion of position as standing.[85] Interestingly enough that root can be recorded in almost any language belonging to the Proto-Indo-European family and only words like I, You, We, This, That, Foot, Sleep, Water, and Name are considered to be more frequent in use.[86] No term of that basic list of 100 words can be referred to abstract entities or concepts (this type of pioneering considerations on the chronology of words, made at first by Morris Swadesh, led to a new field of research in the domain of linguistics: glottochronology).[87]

Coming back to etymological considerations, with respect to the root *stel-, The Oxford Introduction to Proto-Indo-European and the Proto-Indo-European World considers that root as a verb of placement whose meaning is: to put into a standing position, or put in place, (make) stand (e.g., Modern English stall, New High German stellen meaning ‘put, place’, Old Prussian stallit, ‘place’, and Greek ‘stéllō’, ‘make ready, send’ or even ‘to set, arrange’).[88] It is from such root that different words having a strong semantic affinity with the notion of place or with the notion of that which is placed and stand still, or stand in an upright position derive: so for instance, we have the Latin and the Italian stele (landmark) and stella (star), the Greek stele (landmark, column) or even the German stelle, which means place in the sense of location or position, precisely.[89] Again, closely related to such network of meanings is the reconstructed Proto-Germanic root *stalla– meaning ‘standing, stand, stall, stable’ whence the Old English ‘steal’ (position, place), English ‘stall’, and Old Frisian ‘stal’ (stall in a stable; standing) derive.[90]


The priority of the more concrete notion of place over the more abstract notion of space has been considered on the base of linguistic, historical, philological and philosophical argumentations. Even if we are used to considering space and place two separated concepts, we have seen that, in the origin, notions of locale – or environing situation – and dimensionality – or extension -, whence the separated concepts of place and space ultimately emerged, were closely associated notions; not only is this true with respect to the old Greek notion ‘chōra’, but also with respect to the more recent Greek and Latin terminology: ‘topos’, ‘stadion/spadion’ and ‘spatium’.

A certain temporal and physical primacy, or priority, of the concrete notion of place has been observed concerning its association to the old uses of the term chōra, in the early epic. A philosophical priority of the notion of place over space has been more recently rediscovered by Martin Heidegger: it is from locales, or positions, that distance as space (stadion in Greek, spatium in Latin) can be generated, we have seen. It was precisely from what I have called a double nature originally contained within those placial/spatial terms – one nature more concrete, related to notions of locale, environing situation and position; the other nature more abstract, related to notions of dimensionality-as-extension  – that notions of place and space began to constitute ‘a network in which each term is inextricably embedded’ as philosopher Jeff Malpas said; a network of meanings that is difficult to disentangle if we do not rely on different historical, linguistic, philological and philosophical considerations, at least.

With respect to the notion of space descending from the Greek-Latin couple stadion (or, better, spadion) and spatium, I’ve argued that the abovementioned twofold nature is traceable to the different roots ‘sta-’ and ‘spa-’ originally contained within those terms that converged into the single notion of space from different, but related, semantic and etymological courses: one root, ‘sta-’, indicates the more concrete and static notion of fixed positions, or locales, between which distance is generated (this is also the root whence the almost intuitive notion of diastemic space – that is space as distance, interval or extensionstems from); the other, indicates the movement – and the dimensionality associated with movement – that is required to cover the distance between locales, either that distance is covered by physical bodies that might run, make measurements, or plough an open field, or by the mind only as pure form of abstraction (this is the root whence the notion of space as room – or chōra – available for the movement of bodies stems from). It was precisely the action or movement of the oxen that traversed a portion of ground ‘by a single draught by the plough’ that determined the famous distance that became a widely known standard of length in antiquity – the stadion, whence the Latin term spatium descended via the Doric/Aeolic variation spadion -, after the sacred Olympic footrace became popular (the race-course gave its name to that distance, which, earlier in time, was known as ‘aulos’).  From the etymological perspective, with a number of examples from different languages, I’ve argued that it was the dynamic sense of movement and the dimensionality that is associated with movement, that was eventually retained by the root ‘spa-’ of the Greek ‘spadion’ and Latin ‘spatium’ and by the terms that descended from it: English ‘space’, Italian ‘spazio’, French ‘espace’, Spanish, ‘espacio’, etc. The exclusive association of the abstract notion of dimensionality – as a sheer extension – with the concept of space, was a conquest that needed many centuries of discussions; it was not just a linguistic or philological matter, but philosophical, astronomical, mathematical considerations played an important role. As a matter of fact, the Greeks had no concepts for space the same way we intend it, and I’ve argued for a progressive sense of abstraction in the passage from the Greek to the Latin spatial terminology that was ultimately synthesized by the concept of space, as expressed by the English language and by other Romance languages (Italian, French, Spanish, etc.).

Finally, by means of the etymological analysis of the word ‘place’, we have confirmed its probable descent from what I previously called ‘a static root’ – ‘sta-‘, which is attested by different PIE roots, one of which – *(s)teh2 – has been considered a basic root since the origins of the human language; I believe this hypothetical reconstruction made by linguists could be interpreted as a linguistic proof for the primacy of concrete placial concepts over more abstract spatial concepts.

Moreover, by means of an alternative root whence the term ‘place’ directly descends – the PIE root *pl th2us -, we have seen that place could be ‘qualitatively’, rather than ‘quantitatively’, characterized by its being ‘spatially extended’, that is ‘broad’  (platus in Greek or platys in Latin): such etymology suggests the fact that placial notions and dimensionality are intimately connected  and  most of all, – I’ve argued – it could suggest that being intrinsically and concretely ‘extended’ (that is ‘broad’, ‘platus’), could guarantee place a sort of ontological primacy with respect to space: that which is concrete – namely place – has a material extension, which is non-zero, and which is constitutive for the material being of any actual entities; conversely, that which is abstract or figurative – namely space – has no concrete physical extension at all, it is immaterial, an ideal extension, a position that, in the past, was also maintained by some Neoplatonic thinkers. This is, for me, what differentiates place from space ultimately.

In the end, I believe the linguistic analysis of words and concepts is a basic way to start thinking about the meaning of concepts critically; this is precisely true with respect to ubiquitous concepts such as space and place. I believe we cannot explain the meaning of concepts if we do not consider their history; the linguistic analysis goes hand in hand with history, philology, and philosophy, but I believe other disciplines might contribute to the debate in order to have a perspective, as wide as possible, on the meaning of the concepts of space and place.


[1] For an introduction to the Proto-Indo-European world and language, see: J. P. Mallory and D. Q. Adams, The Oxford Introduction to Proto-Indo-European and Proto-Indo-European World (New York: Oxford University Press Inc., 2006). Another interesting and easily readable text that aims at tracing back the evolution of languages from a common mother tongue is: Merritt Ruhlen, The Origin of Language (New York: John Wiley, 1994). Broadly speaking, Professor Ruhlen says that the Proto-Indo-European language was ‘an unwritten language spoken at least 6,000 years ago’ (p. 6). While Professors Mallory and Adams, who are specifically focused on the Proto-European-Language, take different pieces of evidence – archaeological, linguistics, cultural – that might offer a temporal range for dating the horizon of the Proto-European-Language, to be included in the period between c. 4500 and 2500 BC (pages 92-104).

[2] Max Jammer, Concepts of Space: The History of Theories of Space in Physics (New York: Dover publications, 1993), xv.

[3] the article I refer to is Concepts of Space in Vitruvius.

[4] In this context, by the term abstraction, I refer to the abstract modes of thought that characterized the development of the Greek world since the 7th century BC. Like the French philosopher Michel Serres said in his text ‘Le Origini della Geometria’ (p. 65), I believe it was the Greek thinker Anaximander (VII-VI century BC) who inaugurated the modes of abstract thinking to explain the phenomena of the world: the ‘apeiron’ – that which is without limits, i.e., the unlimited or the boundless – is the first principle for all the (existing) things according to Anaximander. Then, for the very first time in the history of mankind, an abstract principle – the ‘apeiron’ – is taken as the ultimate principle to explain the origin of everything: not a concrete substance like water, air, or fire, but an abstract principle. Apart from the ‘apeiron’ another important abstract concept related to questions of space and place is ‘the void’ – ‘to kenon’- of the Atomists through which they offered an alternative cosmology with respect to the plenist theories of Aristotle.

[5] Heidegger explicitly said that the Greeks had no word for ‘space’. But according to Heidegger himself, ‘this is no accident, for they do not experience the spatial according to ‘extensio’ but instead according to place (topos) as ‘chōra’, which means neither place nor space but what is taken up and occupied by what stands there’; in Martin Heidegger, Introduction to Metaphysics (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2000), 69. Similarly, the American mathematician Salomon Bochner, who provided the entry ‘Space’ for the ‘Dictionary of the Histories of Ideas’ maintains that the Greeks had no conceptions of space in the common way of (modern) thinking: ‘topos’ as place was the nearest appellation for space among the Greeks, denoting an ‘area, region, province’ and what is taken up and occupied by objects and bodies; see Salomon Bochner, “Space”, in Dictionary of the History of Ideas (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1973), pp. 295-307.  I would like to point out that ‘what is taken up and occupied’ – as both Heidegger and Bochner say more or less explicitly – should be interpreted out of the dualism between matter and place (or space), which is typically modern. If ‘intensio’ is the main character of that which occupies, we can read ‘extensio’ either as its complementary character or as character emerging from ‘intensio’. In both cases, we reconnect to the hypothesis that in those original spatial designations – ‘chōra’ and ‘topos’ – we find both traces of dimensionality and locale. I have developed the aforementioned considerations on Heidegger and Bochner after Jeff Malpas: see also  Jeff E. Malpas, Place and Experience (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999), 24.

[6] For instance, according to the Australian philosopher Jeff Malpas, ‘although the English “space” is traceable to the Greek term stadion, while “place” is connected with the Greek term, plateia, discussions of place and space in Greek sources do not employ any terms etymologically connected with the English “place” or “space”. The most directly relevant Greek terms here are topos and chōra’; see: Jeff E. Malpas, Place and Experience (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999), 23.

[7] Keimpe Algra, Concepts of Space in Greek Thought (Leiden: Brill, 1995), 31-38. Jeff E. Malpas, Place and Experience (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999), 24-25.

[8] Keimpe Algra, Concepts of Space in Greek Thought, 36.

[9] ‘Of the terms “chōra” and “topos” the former is the one which appears earliest in the written sources. Its basic meaning seems to be “land/ region/ground” (…) e.g., in the 8th book of the Odyssey (…). In written sources, the term “topos” is not encountered before Aeschylus. To judge from the ways it was generally used, we may infer that it was largely synonymous to “chōra”.‘ from Keimpe Algra, Concepts of Space in Greek Thought (Leiden: Brill, 1995), 33.

[10] As ambiguous as that statement may appear in virtue of the fact that thinking is inherently abstract, I just want to put focus on the obvious fact that thinking, in turn, can be referred both to concrete and to abstract situations or facts; and, as we explained at the beginning of the paragraph, the reference to concrete objects, situations, or facts logically precedes to reference to abstract objects, situations or facts.

[11] Keimpe Algra, Concepts of Space in Greek Thought, 33-34.

[12] See: Homer, Iliad, book 6, line 516; Homer, Iliad, 17, 394; Homer, Iliad, 23, 349; Homer, Iliad, 23, 521; Homer, Odyssey, book 16, line 352; Homer, Odyssey, 8, 573 in, Henry George Liddell and Robert Scott, A Greek-English Lexicon, revised and augmented throughout by Sir Henry Stuart Jones with the assistance of Roderick McKenzie (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1996), 2015.

[13] Ibid., p. 33: at this regard, Algra reports a couple of quotations from the Odyssey and the Iliad and he concludes that ‘in those cases where chōra should be translated “place/space” the idea is always that of an extension, whether two- or three-dimensional, which is occupied or which can be occupied’. That sense of chōra, which I call ‘abstract’, is especially evident in the following passage (Iliad, 23, 521): ‘and the horse is running directly in front of it and there is but a small stretch (χώρας) between them’.

[14] As we are going to see in the following paragraph about the etymology of the term ‘chōra’, there is also a plausible suggestion that this term is linked to a similar term – khera – meaning ‘widow’, so that the idea of something vacant can also be associated with the word in the sense of void or vacant place, a conceptualization that might have contributed to convey the term ‘chōra’ an abstract shade of meaning as well.

[15] Philosopher Jeff Malpas used the following sentence concerning the notion of place: ‘Place is inextricably bound up with notions of both dimensionality, or extension, and of locale, or environing situation’; in Malpas, Place and Experience, 25.  In the same context and page, with respect to the notions ‘chōra’ and ‘topos’, Malpas says: ‘Topos seems to be originally the more abstract term (though this is clearly a matter of degree – topos retains a certain concreteness absent from some contemporary, though otherwise similar, terms)’, see note 18 in Malpas’s book.

[16] Ibid., p. 25. This is the extended quotation: ‘although there is a strong temptation, particularly if one’s focus is on the concepts of place or locale, to try to develop a set of clearly differentiated and independent concepts, and, in particular, to try to develop a notion of place that is clearly separated off from any concept of space (something that often motivates authors to look to the Greek terms rather than the English), this temptation is one that ought to be resisted.

[17] The hyphenated expression ‘place-and-space’ suggests that in the end there is only one structured, or composite, conception behind those two words, that is: the spatial/placial contains within itself both the more concrete notion that we usually associate to place – in the sense of locale or environing situation – and the more abstract notion that we usually associate to space – in the sense of dimensionality or extension of that situation or locale. It is precisely such fundamental, composite, structure that I’m trying to elucidate by rethinking concepts of place and space so that they can be understood as complementary notions; and I’ve said that the platonic ‘chōra’ is a historical concept that is closer to that composite conception I speak of since I interpret it a conceptualization where, in a certain sense, both notions of concrete locality and abstract, or ideal, dimensionality or extension are present. I believe concepts of place and space are fundamental concepts to interpret the phenomena of reality, and I attribute them ontological and epistemological relevance. This is for me indispensable to disentangle the somewhat complicated structure of their relation; in my theoretical framework the concept of place is the fundamental concept to understand the nature of that which is concrete and actual (ontological perspective) as well as the source from which abstraction is generated: actually, everything that exists is a place of processes so that for me existence – the being of things – and place are correlated concepts; there is not being without place and vice versa, there is no place without being – the distinction we make is merely a conceptual or linguistic one, as also Descartes intuited. Within that framework the concept of space belongs to place as an abstract entity, emerging from symbolic processes that are exclusive of the human mind (epistemological perspective) and by means of which the human mind characterizes, points out – that is: it abstracts from other characters – the extensive nature of the physical bodies. This fact reconnects us to the necessity of understanding reality as encompassing realm resulting from the encounter between objects and subjects (correlation between ontological and epistemological perspectives): while physicochemical processes are exclusive of objects, in a world which is also populated by subjects, biological, social, and symbolic processes complete the domain of existence of that which is real (without subjects there are no biological, social or even symbolic processes if the subject is a human being). Place and space are two of the most fundamental and ubiquitous notions that are necessary to explain the encompassing phenomena of reality and I understand them as complementary concepts through which reality can be explained; since physicochemical, biological, social and symbolic processes are what ultimately lies behind phenomena, we can understand reality as the place – not space – where those processes become actual; then place is a concept that belongs to the arena of things and bodies (actually the arena itself is the totality of the things and bodies understood as places themselves) while space belongs to the arena of thought: space is an abstract entity ultimately, a fictitious entity, which is necessary for the human being to come to terms with places, which are the ultimate entities of reality.

[18] As far as I know the English attribute ‘choral’ is specially referred to a musical context, while in the Italian language, for instance, it has a much wider sense and it is used in different contexts to denote a multiplicity within unity.

[19] Merritt Ruhlen,  The Origin of Language (New York: John Wiley, 1994), 7.

[20] The Oxford English Dictionary, 2nd edition, prepared by J. A. Simpson and E. S. C. Weiner (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1989), Volume XVI, 87.

[21] The Oxford Concise Dictionary of English Etymology , edited by Hoad  T.F. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996), 451.

[22] Collin’s Etymological Dictionary, school edition (London and Glasgow: Collin’s Clear Type Press), 326; Hensleigh Wedgwood, A Dictionary of English Etymology, 2nd edition (London: Trubner & Co., 1872), 622.

[23] Ernest Klein, A Comprehensive Etymological Dictionary of the English Language. (Amsterdam: Elsevier Publishing Company, 1966), 1479. See also: Henry George Liddell, Robert Scott, An intermediate Greek-English Lexicon, (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1889), 739. Here is a web-link to the specific entry. The link between the Indo-European stem giving ‘spaein’ in Greek, ‘to draw, stretch out’, whence the meaning of ‘a certain stretch, extent, area of ground, an expanse’ derives and can be traced back to the Doric ‘spadion’ and Attic ‘stadion’ is also attested in Ivor Leclerc, The Philosophy of Nature (Washington: The Catholic University of America Press, 1986), 91.

[24] In general, we are observing that a new way of speaking is diffusing between people of  the Italian or Spanish mother tongue, whose native language is influenced by terms taken from the English language: ‘Itanglish’ or ‘Spanglish’ are the terms that define this new phenomenon of ‘horizontal’ hybridization between languages.

[25] James P. T. Clackson, “Latin“, in The Ancient Languages of Europe, ed. Roger D. Woodard (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008), 73.

[26] Theodor Mommsen, The History of Rome, Vol. 1. (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2010), 238.

[27] Edward Ross Wharton, Etyma Latina (London: Rivingtons, 1890), 98.

[28] F. E. J. Valpy, An Etymological Dictionary of the Latin Language (London: printed by A.J. Valpy, sold by Baldwin and Co., 1838), 439.

[29] Anthony Rich, The Illustrated Companion to the Latin Dictionary, and Greek Lexicon (London: Longman, Brown, Green and Longmans, 1849), 617.

[30] Herodotus, Histories, 2.149, in Henry George Liddell and Robert Scott, A Greek-English Lexicon, revised and augmented throughout by Sir Henry Stuart Jones with the assistance of Roderick McKenzie (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1996), 1631.

[31] This question about the exact measure of the ‘stadion’ is highly debated, as we can read from the different lengths reported by The Oxford Classical Dictionary, edited by S. Hornblower and A. Spawforth, Fourth Edition, Volume II, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012), page 917. I mention two authors who have dealt with this specific issue extendedly: Donald Engels, “The Length of Eratosthenes’ Stade“, The American Journal of Philology, Vol. 106, No. 3, Autumn, 1985, 298-311. Martin Leake “On the Stade as a Linear Measure“, The Journal of the Royal Geographical Society, Vol. 9, 1839, 1-25.

[32] Stephen G Miller, Ancient Greek Athletics (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2004), 31.

[33] Henry GeorgeLiddell and Robert Scott, A Greek-English Lexicon, 1631.

[34] Smith, William, Wayte William, Marindin G.E. (eds.). A Dictionary of Greek and Roman Antiquities, Third Edition, Vol. II. (Boston: Little, Brown, and Company, 1890), p. 161. See also: The Oxford Classical Dictionary, edited by S. Hornblower and A. Spawforth, Fourth Edition. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012), 917.

[35] ‘The unit of superficial measure in Homer is the γύης (found only in the compounds πεντηκοντόγυος and τετράγυος), which probably meant the space traversed by the plough in one day’s work. It probably derived its name from the ancient form of the plough (called αὐτόγυον by Hesiod)’; see: Smith, William, Wayte William, Marindin G.E. (eds.), A Dictionary of Greek and Roman Antiquities, p. 161. See also: Hesiod, Work and Days, 427, 436, in Liddell and Scott, A Greek-English Lexicon, 361.

[36] William Smith, William Wayte and G.E. Marindin, A Dictionary of Greek and Roman Antiquities, 161.

[37] The Oxford Classical Dictionary, edited by S. Hornblower and A. Spawforth, Fourth Edition, Volume II. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012), 917.

[38] William Smith, William Wayte and G.E. Marindin, A Dictionary of Greek and Roman Antiquities, 163.

[39] Martin Leake, On the Stade as a Linear Measure, 3.

[40] William Smith, A Dictionary of Greek and Roman Antiquities, Second Edition (Boston: Little, Brown, and Company, 1859), 752.

[41] William Smith, William Wayte and G.E. Marindin, A Dictionary of Greek and Roman Antiquities, 162.

[42] Homer, Iliad. 10. 351- 352, translation by A.T. Murray.

[43] Stephen G. Miller, Ancient Greek Athletics, 32.

[44] This is the description of the ‘diaulos’ race by Professor Miller: ‘As indicated by the name, runners in the diaulos (“double channel” or “double-pipe”) ran in lanes, which were marked by lime, and turned around individual turning posts. Thus ancient authors would compare running the race to plowing a field, where the oxen pull the plow back and forth’. In Stephen G. Miller, Ancient Greek Athletics, 44.

[45] The Oxford English Dictionary, 2nd edition, Volume XVI, prepared by J. A. Simpson and E. S. C. Weiner. (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1989), 88.

[46] At this regard, in the text The Origin of Language written by the American linguist Merrit Ruhlen, we read that ‘the classification of languages into language families is based on discovering words in different languages that are similar in sound and meaning… The reason this method (of classification) is so successful is because it is based on the most fundamental property of human language, namely, that a word – any word in any language – is an arbitrary association of certain sounds with a certain meaning’ (pages 8, 11).

[47] I have taken the term diastemic space from Edward Casey. The concept of extension as a spatial notion was especially elaborated by the Roman poet Lucretius on the base of the old Greek notion ‘diastema’. See Edward S. Casey, The Fate of Place: A Philosophical History (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1997), 84.

[48] The first thinkers who got a glimpse into the important connection between chōra and a concept of space understood as void extent where body roam or, more abstractly, as extent available for possible occupation were the latter-day Atomist Epicurus (341-270 B.C.) and the Stoic Chrysippus (280-206 B.C.). Together with Epicurus, his disciple, the Roman poet Lucretius (ca. 99-55 B.C.), also observed the intimate link between (i) extension, (ii) room as extent through which bodies room and (iii) the not yet fully-fledged (with respect to Lucretius’s own epoch) concept of space.  See: Edward S. Casey, The Fate of Place, 83, 84, 86-87. See also the article Place and Space: A Philosophical History, which is a presentation of Casey’s book.

[49] Martin Heidegger, Basic Writings (New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 1993), 357.

[50] Ibid., 356.

[51] Martin Heidegger, What is a Thing ? (South Bend: Gateway Editions Ltd., 1976), 212. In the wake of Aristotle, we could say that ‘The modalities through which a thing exists’ can be actual or potential, that is concrete or abstract; in this respect, space is an abstract reality; place is a concrete reality.

[52] Goos Kroonen, Etymological Dictionary of Proto-Germanic (Leiden: Brill, 2013), 418.

[53] Ibid., 418.

[54] According to the ‘Etymological  Dictionary of Greek’ belonging to the Leiden Indo-European Etymological Dictionary Series, ‘chōra’ means space, interspace, place, position, rank, location, region, estate, land, country’ but also ‘eye-hole’; while the variant form ‘chōros’  means ‘space, region, land’; see: Robert Beekes, Etymological Dictionary of Greek (Leiden: Brill, 2010), 1654.

[55] Edward S. Casey, The Fate of Place: A Philosophical History (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1997), 83.

[56] James P. Mallory and Douglas Q. Adams, The Oxford Introduction to Proto-Indo-European and the Proto-Indo-European World (New York: Oxford University Press Inc., 2006), 287.

[57] Robert Beekes, Etymological Dictionary of Greek, 1614; see also: Liddell and Scott,  A Greek-English Lexicon, 1981.

[58] Concerning the Proto-Germanic form *gaura- and the possible PIE reconstructions, see: Goos Kroonen, Etymological Dictionary of Proto-Germanic (Leiden: Brill, 2013), 172.

[59] Robert Beekes, Etymological Dictionary of Greek (Leiden: Brill, 2010), 1630-31, 1655.

[60] This notion, which regards space understood as an extension abstracted from the distance between concrete points or locales, is probably the first notion of space isolated in antiquity: at this regards, see Edward Casey’s The Fate of Place with respect to Epicurus. See also  Strato’s understanding of topos (place) as interval, or diastema, as well as Philiponus’s understanding of place as an extension (diastema) in three-dimension: these philosophical notions let us give a glimpse into the strong kinship between notions of place and space in the period of their formation. Casey, Edward S., The Fate of Place: A Philosophical History, 84, 85, 94. At this regard, see also the article in this website Place and Space: A Philosophical History.

[61] To give you a term of comparison with respect to the double nature of space I’m speaking of, when Deleuze and Guattari speak about ‘smooth and striated’ spaces, they make explicit such original duality of meanings that intrinsically belongs to space understood according to its twofold connection (etymological and semantic) with ‘spadion’ and ‘stadion’. Gilles Deleuze  and Felix Guattari, A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press), 474-500.

[62] On the PIE roots *sp, *spe(i), see: Klein Ernest. A Comprehensive Etymological Dictionary of the English Language. (Amsterdam: Elsevier Publishing Company, 1966), 1479; on the PIE root *sph1to-, and *sp(e)r-g,*sparg see: de Vaan, Michiel. Etymological Dictionary of Latin and the other Italic Languages. (Leiden: Brill, 2008), 578; for *(s)peh2, see Robert Beekes, Etymological Dictionary of Greek (Leiden: Brill, 2010), 1378.

On the PIE roots *(s)teh2-; *steh2 and *st(e)h2-ti-, see: J. P. Mallory and D. Q. Adams, The Oxford Introduction to Proto-Indo-European and the Proto-Indo-European World, p. 98, 285; see also: Robert Beekes, Etymological Dictionary of Greek, p. 1390-91. The root *st(h)a-, from the Indo-European base *sta is attested by Klein; see lemmas ‘stasis’, ‘state’, ‘stater’ or ’static; see Ernest Klein, A Comprehensive Etymological Dictionary of the English Language, 1506. On the same root *sta-, ‘to stand’ see also J. P. Mallory and D. Q. Adams, Encyclopedia of Indo-European Culture (London: Fitzroy Dearborn Publishers, 1997), 542-43.

[63] The Proto-Germanic form *stadi is attested by the Etymological Dictionary of Proto-Germanic; it means ‘place, town’ and from that root stem the Old English stede (place, spot, locality) the English stead, Dutch. stad , city, Old HighGerman stat, place, German stadt ‘city’. See: Goos Kroonen, Etymological Dictionary of Proto-Germanic. (Leiden: Brill, 2013), 472.

[64] Martin Heidegger: ‘a distance, in Greek ‘stadion’, always has room made for it, and indeed by bare positions. The space that is thus made by positions is space of a peculiar sort. As distance, or ‘stadion’, it is what the same word, ‘stadion’, means in Latin, a ‘spatium’, an intervening space or interval’, in Martin Heidegger, Basic Writings (New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 1993), 357.

[65] In the Etymological Dictionary of Greek, we read that σπάω (spao) means ‘to draw’, e.g., a sword, ‘to pull out, tear, drag, suck in, slurp down’ from the IE root *(s)peh2– ‘draw’: in Robert Beekes, Etymological Dictionary of Greek (Leiden: Brill, 2010), p. 1378. In A Comprehensive Etymological Dictionary of the English by Klein, we read that ‘space’ probably derives from the IE base *spe(i)- or *spe– meaning ‘to draw, stretch, span, spread, extend, swell, be successful’ whence the Greek σπάν (span) ‘to draw, to tear away’ derives; see: E. Klein, A Comprehensive Etymological Dictionary of the English Language, 1479.

[66] Robert Beekes, Etymological Dictionary of Greek, 1378

[67] Roger D. Woodard, The Ancient Languages of Europe (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008), map 1, between pages 49-50.

[68] Ibid., 14.

[69] Liddell and Scott, A Greek-English Lexicon, 1631. Concerning the diffusion and localization of the Greek dialects, see Roger Woodard, The Ancient Languages of Europe (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008), 14-72.

[70] Sergei M. Eisenstein,  Lezioni di Regia (Torino: Piccola Biblioteca Einaudi, 1964), 40-49.

[71] Julian B. Barbour, The Discovery of Dynamics (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001), 295.

[72] Places are the result of processes: whenever a boundary if formed a place emerges as the result of its originating process, or system of processes. Then, the concept of boundary is a fundamental concept as well to explain reality, which is ultimately the result of the encounter between objects (objects, or things, are places – bounded entities, actually – in virtue of the physicochemical processes that sustain their existence as individual entities against other entities, which we usually understand as background) and subjects (subjects are places or bounded entities as well,  in virtue of the physicochemical and biological processes, at least, that sustain their existence; or to put it differently: subjects are the place of physicochemical and biological processes at least – think of the simplest living organisms, e.g., a virus or a bacterium). It is from the encounter between objects and ultimately between objects and subjects that concepts of place and space may be described; I use to say that reality – as system of all the existing processes – is a place actually; we need a language to express concepts referred to concrete as well as to abstract entities and concepts of place and space are useful to describe such complementary aspects of reality.

[73] The Oxford English Dictionary, 2nd edition, prepared by J. A. Simpson and E. S. C. Weiner (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1989), Volume XI, 937.

[74] See: The Oxford Concise Dictionary of English Etymology, edited by Hoad  T.F. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996), 355; Collin’s Etymological Dictionary, school edition (London and Glasgow: Collin’s Clear Type Press), 263.

[75] J. P. Mallory and D. Q. Adams, The Oxford Introduction to Proto-Indo-European and the Proto-Indo-European World (New York: Oxford University Press Inc., 2006), 297.

[76] Robert Beekes, Etymological Dictionary of Greek (Leiden: Brill, 2010), 1205.

[77] I believe the peculiar character of extension as attribute of place and as mode of distinction between actual and ideal beings, or entities, has some similitude with the positions held by the Neoplatonic Simplicius and with the Damascian idea of ‘place as metron’; see Edward S. Casey, The Fate of Place: A philosophical History (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1997), 91, 97-98.

[78] The English linguist and classical scholar John Chadwick said: ‘there is a problem about the origin of this word (topos), since it is absent from early epic and it appears first in Attic tragedy, where is regularly used by all three tragedians (Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides)’, in: John Chadwick, Lexicographica Graeca (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 2003), 280. Professor Keimpe Algra explicitly says: ‘in written sources the term “topos” is not encountered before Aeschylus”, in Algra, Concepts of Space in Greek Thought, 33. See also: Liddell and Scott, A Greek-English Lexicon, 1806.

[79] Robert Beekes, Etymological Dictionary of Greek, 1494.

[80] Pierre Chantraine, Dictionnaire Etymologique de la Langue Grecque, 1125.

[81] John Chadwick, Lexicographica Graeca (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 2003), 280.

[82] See: the Oxford Latin Dictionary, 2nd edition, Volume XVI, edited by P.G.W. Glare. (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1968), 1039; Michiel de Vaan, Etymological Dictionary of Latin and the other Italic Languages (Leiden: Brill, 2008), 347.

[83] Michiel de Vaan, Etymological Dictionary of Latin and the other Italic Languages, p. 347.

[84] J. P. Mallory and D. Q. Adams, The Oxford Introduction to Proto-Indo-European and the Proto-Indo-European World,  287, 295.

[85] Ibid., 98.

[86] Ibid,. see table 6.3, 97-99.

[87] Ibid., 93-96.

[88] Ibid., see paragraph 18.4 and table 18.4, 295.

[89] For the Greek stele from stello, see: Robert Beekes, Etymological Dictionary of Greek, 1404.

[90] Goos Kroonen, Etymological Dictionary of Proto-Germanic (Leiden: Brill, 2013), 472.

Works Cited

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de Vaan, Michiel. Etymological Dictionary of Latin and the other Italic Languages. Leiden: Brill, 2008.

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—. Introduction to Metaphysics. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2000.

—. What is a Thing? South Bend: Gateway Editions Ltd., 1976.

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Kahn, Charles. Anaximander and the Origins of Greek Cosmology. New York: Columbia University Press, 1960

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Malpas, Jeff E. Place and Experience. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999.

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Mommsen, Theodor. The History of Rome, Vol. 1. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2010.

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Image Credits

Featured Image on

Image 3 by Robin Iversen Rönnlund.

Image 7 by Forgemind ArchiMedia

Image 12 (source), retrieved from Sergei M. Eisenstein’s book, Lezioni di Regia (see note 70, above)

Image 16 (sorce), retrieved from Julian B. Barbour’s text, The Discovery of Dynamics (see note 71, above).

Images 1, 2, 4, 5, 8-10, 14, 15, 17 by Alessandro Calvi Rollino, CC BY-NC-SA

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