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Cognitive Approaches to Language and Grammar

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: English Language
Wordcount: 4747 words Published: 4th Sep 2017

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1. Introduction of This Section

Cognitive grammar is a cognitive approach to language developed by Ronald Langacker, which considers the basic units of language to be symbols or conventional pairings of a semantic structure with a phonological label. Grammar consists of constraints on how these units can be combined to generate larger phrases which are also a pairing of semantics and phonology. The semantic aspects are modeled as image schemas rather than propositions, and because of the tight binding with the label, each can invoke the other.

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Cognitive Grammar belongs to the wider movement known as cognitive linguistics, which in turn is part of the functional tradition. Besides cognitive grammar, important strands of cognitive linguistics include construction grammar, metaphor theory, the study of blends and mental spaces, and various efforts to develop a conceptualist semantics. Among other major components of functionalism are discourse-pragmatic analyses, the study of grammaticalization, and universal-typological investigation via crosslinguistic surveys. Naturally, terms like “cognitive linguistics” and “functionalism” are fluid in reference and subsume a diverse array of views. There is at best a broad compatibility of outlook among the scholars concerned, certainly not theoretical uniformity.

Cognitive Linguistics grew out of the work of a number of researchers active in the 1970s who were interested in the relation of language and mind, and who did not follow the prevailing tendency to explain linguistic patterns by means of appeals to structural properties internal to and specific to language. Rather than attempting to segregate syntax from the rest of language in a ‘syntactic component’ governed by a set of principles and elements specific to that component.

The principal focus of functional linguistics is on explanatory principles that derive from language as a communicative system, whether or not these directly relate to the structure of the mind. Functional linguistics developed into discourse-functional linguistics and functional-typological linguistics, with slightly different foci, but broadly similar in aims to cognitive linguistics. Language is traditionally considered to open the gate into the world around us. However, language is viewed by cognitive linguistics as the product of cognition as well as a means of cognition, a means that helps reveal human beings” mental world and secrets of cognitive processes.

Language structure is the product of our interaction with the world around us. The way we build discourses and develop linguistic categories can immediately be derived from the way we experience our environment and use that experience in speciesspecific communication (Heine, 1997) .

As its name implies, Cognitive Grammar is first and foremost a theory of grammar. Rather surprising, therefore, are statements to the effect that “Langacker doesn’t believe in grammar- everything is semantics.” Rest assured that cognitive grammar neither threatens nor denies the existence of grammar. Grammar exists. The issue is rather the natureof grammar and its relation to other dimensions of linguistic structure.

1.1. What is Cognitive Grammar?

Cognitive Grammar belongs to the wider movement known as cognitive linguistics, which in turn is part of the functional tradition. Besides Cognitive Grammar, important strands of cognitive linguistics include construction grammar, metaphor theory, the study of blends and mental spaces, and various efforts to develop a conceptualist semantics. Naturally, terms like “cognitive linguistics” and “functionalism” are fluid in reference and subsume a diverse array of views (Langacker, 2008).

1.2. What is about Cognitive Grammar in general?

Language is part of cognition and that linguistic investigation contributes to understanding the human mind-that much is shared by many approaches, both formal and functional.

Within functionalism, cognitive linguistics stands out by emphasizing the semiological function of language. It fully acknowledges the grounding of language in social interaction, but insists that even its interactive function is critically dependent on conceptualization. In this part, I’ve considered cognitive grammar as an approach to explain the phenomena of languages.

As for cognitive grammar in particular, care is taken to invoke only well-established or easily demonstrated mental abilities that are not exclusive to language. We are able, for example, to focus and shift attention, to track a moving object, to form and manipulate images, to compare two experiences, to establish correspondences, to combine simple elements into complex structures, to view a scene from different perspectives, to conceptualize a situation at varying levels of abstraction, and so on. Can general abilities like these fully account for the acquisition and the universal properties of language? Or are specifi c blueprints for language wired in and genetically transmitted? Cognitive Grammar does not prejudge this issue. We are evidently born to speak, so it is not precluded that language might emerge owing to substantial innate specification peculiar to it. But if our genetic endowment does make special provisions for language, they are likely to reside in adaptations of more basic cognitive phenomena, rather than being separate and sui generis. They would be analogous in this respect to the physical organs of speech.

2. Some reasons for selecting cognitive grammar to explain the phenomena of languages

2.1. Cognitive Grammar and Cognitive Linguistics

2.1.1. What is Cognitive linguistics?

Cognitive Linguistics is a new approach to the study of language which views linguistic knowledge as part of general cognition and thinking; linguistic behaviour is not separated from other general cognitive abilities which allow mental processes of reasoning, memory, attention or learning, but understood as an integral part of it.

2.1.2. The relationship between Cognitive Grammar and Cognitive Linguistics

Idea from Cognitive Grammar now widely held in Cognitive linguistics. And Cognitive linguistics, provide good evidence that doing linguistics from a cognitive perspective leads to rich insights into many linguistics phenomena, ranging from studies in phonology, to those in semantics pragmatics, and psychological aspects of language use.

In addition, language and culture are inseparable. Language is part of a certain culture, therefore acquiring a language, being a member of a language community, inevitably means absorbing certain cultural aspects of that community. Culture and the lifestyle of the community where one grows up influence their habits and world views and it was these factors that have decided awareness of the language of each individual, from which formed the phenomena of languages.

Cognitive Linguistics, recognizing the mutual influence between cognition and language, naturally accords these crucial aspects of human life, and thereby cognition, their share of reciprocity with language.

According toBielack and Pawlak (2013) suggested that in cognitive linguistics and cognitive grammar the relationship between language and cognition is considered to be dialectic; not only does human cognitive functioning tell us something about the language faculty, but also our insight into language provides important clues to understanding cognitive processes. Although this claim is reminiscent of the formalist understanding of the term cognitive as used with reference to language study, in cognitive linguistics this term is, as has just been explained by referring to the formative linguistic role of cognitive processes, understood much more broadly.

In brief, cognitive grammar represents a specific practical and theoretical approach to language within the broader discipline of cognitive linguistics. Cognitive linguists view all forms of language as rooted in the same basic cognitive mechanisms involved in other areas of experience in our wider encounters with the world.

For cognitive linguists, language is embodied; it is grounded in our physical, bodily experiences as human beings. Furthermore, this embodied experience has an important social and cultural dimension. Cognitive linguists recognise the specific uses to which language is put within a sociological context, and their role in shaping the linguistic system.

2.2. The status of linguistic cognition

For a cognitive linguist, linguistic cognition simply is cognition; it is an inextricable phenomenon of overall human cognition. Linguistic cognition has no special or separate status apart from any other cognition. This means that we expect patterns of cognition observed by psychologists, neurobiologists and the like to be reflected in language. Furthermore, the various phenomena of language are not cognitively distinct one from another. Although it is often useful and convenient for linguists to talk about various “levels” or “modules” of language, these distinctions are perceived by cognitive linguists to be somewhat artificial. The truth is that all the “parts” of language are in constant communication, and indeed are really not “parts” at all; they are a unified phenomenon operating in unison with the greater phenomena of general consciousness and cognition. Linguists have frequently observed that the borders between traditional linguistic phenomena can be crossed. Phonology, for example, can be affected by morphology, semantics, syntax, and pragmatics; and syntax has likewise been shown to be vulnerable to the workings of phonology, semantics, and pragmatics. The fact that these items are not pristinely discrete is perhaps not news, but for a cognitive linguist this type of evidence is expected, pursued, and focused on rather than being relegated to the status of something marginal and unimportant.

2.3. The status of meaning

All the various phenomena of language are interwoven with each other as well as with all of cognition because they are all motivated by the same force: the drive to make sense of our world. Making sense of what we experience entails not just understanding, but an ability to express that understanding, and indeed these two projects inform each other: our experience is formative to expression, but it is also the case that our expressive resources have some influence on how we perceive our experiences. Of course language does most of the heavy lifting (and the finer handiwork) in this job of expression that is so important to cognition. All phenomena of language are mobilized for this task, and all are therefore driven by the need to express meaning. Meaning underwrites the existence of all linguistic units and phenomena, none of which are semantically empty. Meaning is therefore not tidily contained in the lexicon, but ranges all through the linguistic spectrum, because meaning is the very energy that propels the motor of language. Grammar is an abstract meaning structure that interacts with the more concrete meanings of lexicon. Grammar and lexicon are not two discrete types of meaning, but rather the extreme ends of a spectrum of meaning containing transitional or hybrid types (functor words like prepositions and conjunctions are examples of hybrids that carry both lexical and grammatical semantic freight). From the supra- and segmental features of phonology through morphology, syntax, and discourse pragmatics, all of language shares the task of expressing meaning. This includes even idioms and “dead metaphors”, which remain motivated within the system of a given language, and whose motivation can be made explicit.

2.4. The conceptualist view of meaning

From a cognitive linguistic perspective, the answer is evident: meanings are in the minds of the speakers who produce and understand the expressions. It is hard to imagine where else they might be. A conceptualist view of meaning is not as self-evident as it might first seem and has to be properly interpreted. The platonicview treats language as an abstract, disembodied entity that cannot be localized. Like the objects and laws of mathematics (e.g. the geometric ideal of a circle), linguistic meanings are seen as transcendent, existing independently of minds and human endeavor. And more reasonable is the interactivealternative, which does take people into account but claims that an individual mind is not the right place to look for meanings. Instead, meanings are seen as emerging dynamically in discourse and social interaction. Rather than being fixed and predetermined, they are actively negotiated by interlocutors on the basis of the physical, linguistic, social, and cultural context. Meaningis not localized but distributed, aspects of it inhering in the speech community, in the pragmatic circumstances of the speech event, and in the surrounding world.

2.5. Foundation of meanings

A considerable progress is that meanings are being made in cognitive linguistics,in the broader context of cognitive science. Conceptualization resides in cognitive processing. Having a certain mental experience resides in the occurrence of a certain kind of neurological activity.

Cognitive grammar embodies a coherent and plausible view of conceptualization, allowing a principled basis for characterizing many facets of semantic and grammatical structure.

Meaning is equated with conceptualization. Linguistic semantics must therefore attempt the structural analysis and explicit description of abstract entities like thoughts and concepts. The term conceptualization is interpreted quite broadly: it encompasses novel conceptions as well as fixed concepts; sensory, kinesthetic, and emotive experience; recognition of the immediate context (social, physical, and linguistic); and so on. Because conceptualization resides in cognitive processing, our ultimate objective must be to characterize the types of cognitive events whose occurrence constitutes a given mental experience.

Cognitive semantics has focused on the former, which is obviously more accessible and amenable to investigation via linguistic evidence. Cognitive semantics claims that meaning is based on mental imagery and conceptualizations of reality which do not objectively correspond to it but reflect a characteristic human way of understanding. Thus, one of the basic axioms of cognitive semantics is that linguistic meaning originates in the human interpretation of reality. It is part of the cognitive linguistics movement. Semantics is the study of linguistic meaning. Cognitive semantics holds that language is part of a more general human cognitive ability, and can therefore only describe the world as people conceive it.It is implicit that there is some difference between this conceptual world and the real world.

An imaginative phenomena prove essential to conceptualization and linguistic meaning. A primary means of enhancing and even constructing our mental world is metaphor, where basic organizational features of one conceptual domain – usually more directly grounded in bodily experience – are projected onto another. In (4), aspects of the source domain, pertaining to the manipulation of physical objects, are projected metaphorically onto the target domainof understanding and communicating ideas. (Riemer, 1972)

(4) (a) I couldn’t grasp what she was saying.

(b) We were tossing some ideas around.

(c) The message went right over his head.

(d) He didn’t catch my drift.

A linguistically appropriate characterization of meaning should accommodate such differences. Cognitive grammar defines the meaning of a composite expression as including not only the semantic structure that represents its composite sense, but also its “compositional path”: the hierarchy of semantic structures reflecting its progressive assembly from the meanings of component expressions. For example, that the composite semantic values of pork and pig meat are identical. As an unanalyzable morpheme, pork symbolizes this notion directly, so its compositional path consists of the single semantic structure [PORK]. However pig meat is “analyzable,” that is, speakers recognize the semantic contribution of its component morphemes. The meaning of pig meut therefore incorporates not only the composite structure [PORK], but also the individually symbolized components [PIG] and [MEAT] together with the relationship that each of them bears to the composite value. The two expressions arrive at the same composite value through different compositional paths (a degenerate path in the case of pork), with the consequence that they differ in meaning.

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2.6. Metaphor and metonymy and semantic domains in cognitive grammar

The example discussed in this section returns to an issue raised earlier (section 2) and demonstrates that sameness versus difference of semantic domain should not be taken as the basis on which to distinguish metaphors from metonymies. Slap in (17) can be paraphrased as ‘make move by slapping’, which reveals its nature as a metonymic extension from the verb’s basic meaning to the result of the verbal action: (Raymond W. Gibbs & Steen, 1997)

(17) Louise is coming to-night to see me slap the masked fellow to the dust.

(OED slap 1b. vt. 1889 drive back, beat down, knock to the ground, etc. with a slap.)

Slap here is analyzed as ‘x make y move by slapping’, but it is unlikely that a slap, or even a series of slaps, in the sense of a “blow, esp. one given with the open hand, or with something having a flat surface” (OED slap sb.) would be enough to achieve this result: in order to knock someone to the ground a more forceful type of P/I with a more rigid impactor than the hand, which is jointed and thus weakened at the wrist, would be necessary (except in the case of an exceptionally strong agent and an exceptionally weak patient). There is thus a mismatch between the inherent semantics of the verb slap and the context in which it appears. One way to describe this situation would be as understatement: slap in (17) plays down the effort needed to overcome the opponent. I propose that the understating effect of (17) derives from its nature as a metaphorical application of the initial metonymic extension. The physical actions needed to bring down the masked fellow – presumably a whole repertoire of aggressive moves taking place in

the context of a struggle – are represented as equivalent to a different class of physical actions, slapping. The effect of this metaphor is to treat the metaphorical target (the actions that do in fact take place) in a way that makes it seem minor and inconsequential. The present meaning of slap can therefore be derived through a two-step process. First, slap is extended metonymically from its root meaning to the meaning ‘make move by slapping’; secondly, this newly created meaning is applied in a metaphorical fashion to a situation which does not actually involve any slapping, but which is imagined as doing so in order to conceive of the event in a certain perspective (i.e. as unstrenuous and trivial). The fact that both the action really needed to down the opponent and the action of slapping are in the same general semantic domain of ‘contact through impact’ or some such is not relevant and certainly does not make (17) an example of metonymy, as it would for those analysts who define metonymy as intra-domain meaning extension. (17) counts as a metaphor (a metaphorical application of the initial metonymic extension to ‘make move by slapping’) because it uses one class of events as a conceptual model for another class, thereby imposing a particular understanding of the second class. The fact that both target and vehicle of the metaphor share the same general semantic domain issues not in a classification of the figure as metonymic, but simply as an understatement.

Metaphor is an interesting linguistic phenomenon which has attracted the attention of many linguists. Metaphor has traditionally been viewed as one of the figures of speech, a rhetorical device, or a stylistic device used in literature to achieve an aesthetic effect. Metaphor in the light of cognitive linguistics is not only used in poems and prose but also in daily life language. In short, metaphor in cognitive linguistics is considered not merely a means of communication but also a means of cognition, reflecting the mechanism by which people understand and explain about the real world.

In short, the meaningfulness of grammar becomes apparent only with an appropriate view of linguistic meaning. In cognitive semantics, meaning is identified as the conceptualization associated with linguistic expressions. This may seem obvious, but in fact it runs counter to standard doctrine. A conceptual view of meaning is usually rejected either as being insular – entailing isolation from the world as well as from other minds – or else as being nonempirical and unscientific. These objections are unfounded. Though it is a mental phenomenon, conceptualization is grounded in physical reality: it consists in activity of the brain, which functions as an integral part of the body, which functions as an integral part of the world.

Linguistic meanings are also grounded in social interaction, being negotiated by interlocutors based on mutual assessment of their knowledge, thoughts, and intentions. As a target of analysis, conceptualization is elusive and challenging, but it is not mysterious or beyond the scope of scientific inquiry. Cognitive semantics provides an array of tools allowing precise, explicit descriptions for essential aspects of conceptual structure. These descriptions are based on linguistic evidence and potentially subject to empirical verification. Analyzing language from this perspective leads to remarkable conclusions about linguistic meaning and human cognition.

Remarkable, first, is the extent to which an expression’s meaning depends on factors other than the situation described. On the one hand, it presupposes an elaborate conceptual substrate, including such matters as background knowledge and apprehension of the physical, social, and linguistic context. On the other hand, an expression imposes a particular construal, reflecting

just one of the countless ways of conceiving and portraying the situation in question. Also remarkable is the extent to which imaginative abilities come into play. Phenomena like metaphor (e.g. vacant star) and reference to “virtual” entities (e.g. any cat) are pervasive, even in prosaic discussions of actual circumstances. Finally, these phenomena exemplify the diverse array of mental constructions that help us deal with – and in large measure constitute – the world we live in and talk about. It is a world of extraordinary richness, extending far beyond the physical reality it is grounded in.

Conceptual semantic description is thus a major source of insight about our mental world and its construction. Grammatical meanings prove especially revealing in this respect. Since they tend to be abstract, their essential import residing in construal, they offer a direct avenue of approach to this fundamental aspect of semantic organization. Perhaps surprisingly – given its stereotype as being dry, dull, and purely formal – grammar relies extensively on imaginative phenomena and

mental constructions. Also, the historical evolution of grammatical elements yields important clues about the meanings of their lexical sources and semantic structure more generally. The picture that emerges belies the prevailing view of grammar as an autonomous formal system. Not only is it meaningful, it also refl ects our basic experience of moving, perceiving, and acting on the world. At the core of grammatical meanings are mental operations inherent in these elemental components of moment-to-moment living. When properly analyzed, therefore, grammar has much to tell us about both meaning and cognition. It fully acknowledges the grounding of language in social interaction, but insists that even its interactive function is critically dependent on conceptualization. Compared with formal approaches, cognitive linguistics stands out by resisting the imposition of boundaries between language and other psychological phenomena.

3. Conclusion

In a nutshell, as their names suggest , cognitive linguistics and Cognitive Grammar view language as an integral part of cognition. Conceptualization is seen (without inconsistency) as being both physically grounded and pervasively imaginative, both individual and fundamentally social. Being conceptual in nature, linguistic meaning shares these properties. It fully acknowledges the grounding of language in social interaction, but insists that even its interactive function is critically dependent on conceptualization. Compared with formal approaches, cognitive linguistics stands out by resisting the imposition of boundaries between language and other psychological phenomena.

Grammatical meanings are schematic. At the extreme, they are nothing more than cognitive abilities applicable to any content. The more schematic these meanings are, the harder it is to study them, but also the more rewarding. Grammatical analysis proves, in fact, to be an essential tool for conceptual analysis. In grammar, which abstracts away from the details of particular expressions, we see more clearly the mental operations immanent in their conceptual content. These often amount to simulations of basic aspects of everyday experience: processing activity inherent in conceptual archetypes is disengaged from them and extended to a broad range of other circumstances. In this respect, grammar reflects an essential feature of human cognition.


Bielack, J., & Pawlak, M. (2013). Applying Cognitive Grammar in the Foreign Language Classroom.

Heine, B. (1997). Cognitive Foundations of Grammar.

Langacker, R. W. (2008). Cognitive Grammar: A Basic Introduction.

Raymond W. Gibbs, J., & Steen, G. J. (1997). Metaphor in Cognitive Linguistics.

Riemer, N. (1972). Cognitive Linguistics Research: The Semantics of Polysemy


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