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Lecture 4 18 Oct., 2005. Cognitive Grammar. Helena Gao. Required readings:

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cognitive grammar

Lecture 4 18 Oct., 2005

Cognitive Grammar

Helena Gao

Required readings:
  • Langacker, R. (l998). Conceptualization, symbolization and grammar. In M.Tomasello(ed.) The New Psychology of Language. Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Publishes. pp. 1-39
  • Hsieh, Hsin-I. (2005 to appear). Toward a Global Grammar of Chinese, Language And Linguistics Monograph Series Number W-3, 1-17. Papers In Honor Of Professor William S-Y. Wang On His Seventieth Birthday.

Recommended readings:

  • Pinker, S. (1994). The Language Instinct. New York: Morrow. Chapter 4: How language works. pp. 83-125; Chapter 10: Language organs and grammar genes. pp. 297-331
  • Goldberg, A. E. (2004). But do we need Universal Grammar? Comment on Lidz et al. (2003) Cognition 94. 77-84
  • Fillmore, C., Kay, P., & O’Connor, M. C. (2003). Regularity and Idiomaticity in Grammatical Constructions: The Case of Let Alone. In M. Tomasello (ed.), The new psychology of language: Cognitive and functional approaches to language structure, Vol. 2. NJ, US: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Publishers. pp. 243-270
cognitive approaches to grammar
Cognitive approaches to grammar
  • Theories of grammar that relate grammar to mental processes and structures in human cognition. (Wikipedia Encyclopedia by Sergei Starostin, 1953-2005)
  • Noam Chomsky and his fellow generative grammarians
    • Grammar is an autonomous mental faculty
    • It is governed by mental processes operating on mental representations of different kinds of symbols that apply only within this faculty.
  • Proponents of cognitive linguistics
    • Grammar is not an autonomous mental faculty with processes of its own, but it is intertwined with all other cognitive processes and structures.
    • The basic claim is that grammar is conceptualization.
    • Some of the theories that fall within this paradigm
      • e,.g., construction grammar, cognitive grammar, and word grammar.
cognitive approaches to grammar guiding principles
Cognitive approaches to grammar - Guiding Principles
  • The symbolic thesis:
    • The basic unit of a grammar is a form-meaning pairing termed variously a symbolic assembly in Langacker’s Cognitive Grammar or a construction in a construction grammar.

A symbolic unit

The relationship between semantic, phonological and symbolic units

cognitive approaches to grammar guiding principles6
Cognitive approaches to grammar - Guiding Principles
  • The usage-based thesis:
    • There is an intimate relationship between the grammar (defined as the mental repository of symbolic units), and language use.
distinct cognitive approaches to the study of grammar
Distinct Cognitive Approaches to the Study of Grammar
  • ‘Inventory-based’ theories
    • Cognitive Grammar
    • Construction Grammar
      • Fillmore and Key’s Construction Grammar
      • Goldberg’s Construction Grammar
      • Embodied Construction Grammar
      • Radical Construction Grammar
  • ‘Grammatical subsystem-based’ theories
    • The theory of Conceptual Structuring Systems
    • Grammaticalisation Theory
Inventory-based approaches to grammar - An overview of distinct cognitive linguistic theories of grammar
characteristics of the cognitive approach to grammar
Characteristics of the Cognitive Approach to Grammar
  • The ultimate aim of a cognitive approach is to model speaker knowledge in ways which are consistent with the two key commitments which underlie the cognitive linguistics enterprise.
Generalisation Commitment
    • a commitment to the characterisation of general principles which are responsible for all aspects of human language
      • Categorisation, polysemy, metaphor
  • Cognitive Commitment
    • a commitment to providing a characterisation of general principles for language which accords with what is known about the mind and brain from other disciplines.
      • Attention, categorization, metaphor
the generalization commitment
The Generalization Commitment
  • Lexicology:e.g., Over
    • a. The picture is over the sofa [‘above’]
    • b. The picture is over the hole [‘covering’]
    • c. The ball is over the wall [‘on-the-other-side-of’]
    • d. The government handed over power [‘transfer’]
  • e. She has a strange power over me [‘control’]
  • Morphology:e.g., Agentive –er Suffix
    • a. teacher
    • b. villager
    • c. toaster
    • d. best-seller
  • Syntax: e.g., Ditransitive construction
    • Subject Verb Object 1 Object 2
the cognitive commitment
The Cognitive Commitment
  • Attention
    • The boy kicks over the vase [ACTIVE]
    • The vase is kicked over [PASSIVE]
    • The vase smashes into bits [SUBJECT-VERB-COMPLEMENT]
    • The vase is in bits [SUBJECT-COPULA-COMPLEMENT]
basic concepts of langacker s cognitive grammar an overview
Basic Concepts of Langacker’s Cognitive Grammar: An Overview
  • 1) Attention: “…attention is intrinsically associated with the intensity or energy level of cognitive processes, which translates experientially into greater prominence or salience” (Langacker, 1987: 115)
focal adjustments
Focal adjustments:
  • Linguistic expressions relate to conceived situations or “scenes”
  • The concepts employed to structure conceived situations can vary along three parameters: selection, perspective and abstraction.
    • Such variation is termed focal adjustment
  • By choosing particular focal adjustments and hence organising a scene in a particular way, through language, the speaker or hearer provides a particular construal of the scene in question

Focal adjustments of selection determine which aspects of a scene are being dealt with:

  • i) Conceptual Domains: a body of knowledge within our conceptual system that contains and organizes related ideas and experiences
basic conceptual domains langacker 1987
Basic Domain










Pre-conceptual Basis

Vision, touch, kinaesthesia



Touch, somesthesia

Touch, kinaesthesia, somesthesia

Touch, somesthesia


Temporal awareness

Affective system

Basic conceptual domains (Langacker, 1987)
  • a. The tree is quite close to the garage [spatial]
  • b. It’s already close to Christmas [temporal]
  • c. The paint is close to the blue we want for the dining room [colour]
  • d. Steve and his sister are very close [emotion]
ii) Profiling: the conceptualisation designated by a linguistic utterance constitutes its profile, a focal point. However, a particular focal point is always prominent with respect to a particular context. This constitutes profile/base organisation.
a) Open class subsystem
    • e.g., Profile-base organisation for elbow
  • b) Closed class subsystem
    • John hit the ball
    • The ball was hit

Perspective relates to the position from which a scene is viewed, with consequences fro the relative prominence of its participants

  • i) Trajector and landmark: In an action chain, trajector (TR)/Landmark (LM)
    • Organisation relates to the participants in a profiled relationship.
    • While the TR constitutes the focal participant, the landmark constitutes the secondary.
a. The boy hit the ball [active]
  • b. The ball was hit by the boy [passive]
  • “boy” “ball”

TR-LM organisation relates to subject/object distinction.


An instance of the more general phenomenon

of figure-ground organisation:

ii) Viewpoint: The perspective and orientation taken on a scene provides a different way of construing it, e.g., from the perspective of the agent or patient as in active/passive distinction


Abstraction relates to the degree of specificity at which a scene is portrayed.

  • a. The basketball player is tall
  • b. The basketball player is over six feet tall
  • c. The basketball player is about six feet five inches tall
  • d. The basketball player is exactly six feet five and one half inches tall
some concepts in langacker s cognitive grammar 1991
Some concepts in Langacker’s cognitive grammar (1991)
  • “Force-dynamics”
    • “Active zone”
    • “energy flow”,
    • “energy source”
    • “energy sink”
Human cognitive system is built up on the basis of a whole complex structure but on the surface level of linguistic structures details are backgrounded or visualized only in the brain but not explicitly expressed in speech. (Gao, 2001: 27)