Cognitive Linguistics

Cognitive linguistics is not a single theory but is rather best characterized as a paradigm within linguistics, subsuming a number of distinct theories and research programs. It is characterized by an emphasis on explicating the intimate interrelationship between language and other cognitive faculties. Cognitive linguistics began in the 1970s, and since the mid-1980s has expanded to include research across the full range of subject areas within linguistics: syntax, semantics, phonology, discourse, etc. The International Cognitive Linguistics Association holds bi-annual meetings and publishes the journal Cognitive Linguistics.

The various theoretical frameworks within the cognitive paradigm are to a large degree mutually compatible, differing most obviously in the kinds of phenomena they are designed to address. Construction grammar advances the hypothesis that grammatical constructions are linguistic units in their own right, and that the constructional templates in which verbs are embedded contribute to determining argument structure and MEANING (Goldberg 1995). Mental spaces theory (Fauconnier 1985) focuses on the subtle relationships among elements in the various mental models that speakers construct, relationships that underlie a vast array of semantic phenomena such as scope ambiguities, negation, counterfactuals, and opacity effects.

A number of cognitive linguists are exploring the central role of METAPHOR in SEMANTICS and cognition (Lakoff and Johnson 1980), while others focus on the specific relationships between general cognitive faculties and language (Talmy 1988). Though not self-identified as a cognitive theory, Chafe's (1994) information flow theory is certainly compatible with the cognitive linguistic paradigm, as it explores the relationship between DISCOURSE units and information units in mental processing.

Arguably the most comprehensive theoretical framework within this area is cognitive grammar (Langacker 1987, 1991). The goal of cognitive grammar is to develop a theory of grammar and meaning that is cognitively plausible and that adheres to a kind of theoretical austerity summed up in the content requirement (Langacker 1987): the only structures permitted in the grammar of a language are (1) phonological, semantic, or symbolic structures that actually occur in linguistic expressions (where a symbolic structure is a phonological structure paired with a semantic structure, essentially a Saussurean "sign"); (2) schemas for such structures, where a schema is a kind of pattern or template that a speaker acquires through exposure to multiple exemplars of the pattern; and (3) categorizing relationships among the elements in (1) and (2) (for example, categorizing the syllable /pap/ as an instantiation of the schematic pattern /CVC/).

While not all cognitive linguists adopt the content requirement specifically, the principle of eschewing highly abstract theoretical constructs is endorsed by the cognitive linguistic movement as a whole.

The published work in cognitive grammar has focused on developing a fundamental vocabulary for linguistic analysis in which grammatical constructs are defined in terms of semantic notions, which are themselves characterized in terms of cognitive abilities that are well attested even outside of the linguistic domain. Basic grammatical categories (noun, verb, subject, etc.) and constructions are given cognitive semantic characterizations, obviating the need for abstract syntactic features and representations.

The possibility of defining grammatical notions in semantic terms depends upon taking into account construal. Construal refers to the way in which a speaker mentally shapes and structures the semantic content of an expression: the relative prominence of elements, their schematicity or specificity, and the point of view adopted. Many grammatical distinctions that had been traditionally considered to be "meaningless" (i.e., lacking in stable semantic content) are found instead to be markers of subtle distinctions in construal. The subject/object distinction, for example, is defined as a linguistic correlate of the more general ability to perceive figure versus ground. Active and passive versions of the "same sentence" therefore do not mean the same thing, even if they have identical truth conditions; they differ in figure/ground organization. The semantic definitions of grammatical categories similarly rely upon construal, although the details would require a great deal more discussion.

There are several key principles uniting the various theories and approaches within the cognitive linguistic paradigm.

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Additional links

-- Karen van Hoek


Chafe, W. (1994). Discourse, Consciousness and Time. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Fauconnier, G. (1985). Mental Spaces. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Goldberg, A. (1995). Constructions. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Haiman, J. (1980). Dictionaries and encyclopedias. Lingua 50:329-357.

Lakoff, G. (1987). Women, Fire and Dangerous Things. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Lakoff, G., and M. Johnson. (1980). Metaphors We Live By. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Langacker, R. W. (1987). Foundations of Cognitive Grammar, vol. 1: Theoretical Prerequisites. Stanford: Stanford University Press.

Langacker, R. W. (1991). Foundations of Cognitive Grammar, vol. 2: Descriptive Application. Stanford: Stanford University Press.

Talmy, L. (1988). Force dynamics in language and cognition. Cognitive Science 12(1):49-100.

Taylor, J. (1989). Linguistic Categorization: Prototypes in Linguistic Theory. Oxford: Oxford University Press.