The cognitive linguistics enterprise is characterized by two fundamental commitments (Lakoff 1990). These underlie both the orientation and approach adopted by practicing cognitive linguists, and the assumptions and methodologies employed in the two main branches of the cognitive linguistics enterprise: cognitive semantics, and cognitive approaches to grammar, discussed in further detail in later sections.
The first key commitment is the Generalization Commitment (Lakoff 1990). It represents a dedication to characterizing general principles that apply to all aspects of human language. This goal is just a special subcase of the standard commitment in science to seek the broadest generalizations possible. In contrast to the cognitive linguistics approach, other approaches to the study of language often separate the language faculty into distinct areas such as phonology (sound), semantics (word and sentence meaning), pragmatics (meaning in discourse context), morphology (word structure), syntax (sentence structure), and so on.
As a consequence, there is often little basis for generalization across these aspects of language, or for study of their interrelations. This is particularly true of formal linguistics.
Formal linguistics attempts to model language by positing explicit mechanical devices or procedures operating on theoretical primitives in order to produce all the possible grammatical sentences of a given language. Such approaches typically attempt precise formulations by adopting formalisms inspired by computer science, mathematics and logic. Formal linguistics is embodied most notably by the work of Noam Chomsky and the paradigm of Generative Grammar, as well as the tradition known as Formal Semantics, inspired by philosopher of language Richard Montague.
Within formal linguistics it is usually argued that areas such as phonology, semantics and syntax concern significantly different kinds of structuring principles operating over different kinds of primitives. For instance, a syntax ‘module’ is an area in the mind concerned with structuring words into sentences, whereas a phonology ‘module’ is concerned with structuring sounds into patterns permitted by the rules of any given language, and by human language in general. This modular view of mind reinforces the idea that modern linguistics is justified in separating the study of language into distinct sub-disciplines, not only on grounds of practicality, but because the components of language are wholly distinct, and, in terms of organization, incommensurable.
Cognitive linguists acknowledge that it may often be useful to treat areas such as syntax, semantics and phonology as being notionally distinct.
However, given the Generalization Commitment, cognitive linguists do not start with the assumption that the ‘modules’ or ‘subsystems’ of language are organized in significantly divergent ways, or indeed that wholly distinct modules even exist. Thus, the Generalization Commitment represents a commitment to openly investigating how the various aspects of linguistic knowledge emerge from a common set of human cognitive abilities upon which they draw, rather than assuming that they are produced in encapsulated modules of the mind.
The Generalization Commitment has concrete consequences for studies of language. First, cognitive linguistic studies focus on what is common among aspects of language, seeking to re-use successful methods and explanations across these aspects. For instance, just as word meaning displays prototype effects – there are better and worse examples of referents of given words, related in particular ways – so various studies have applied the same principles to the organization of morphology (e.g., Taylor, 2003), syntax (e.g., Goldberg, 1995), and phonology (e.g., Jaeger & Ohala, 1984).
Generalizing successful explanations across domains of language isn’t just a good scientific practice – it is also the way biology works; reusing existing structures for new purposes, both on evolutionary and developmental timescales. Second, cognitive linguistic approaches often take a ‘vertical’, rather than a ‘horizontal’ strategy to the study of language. Language can be seen as composed of a set of distinct layers of organisation – the sound structure, the set of words composed by these sounds, the syntactic structures these words are constitutive of, and so on.
If we array these layers one on top of the next as they unroll over time (like layers of a cake), then modular approaches are horizontal, in the sense that they take one layer and study it internally – just as a horizontal slice of cake. Vertical approaches get a richer view of language by taking a vertical slice of language, which includes phonology, morphology, syntax, and of course a healthy dollop of semantics on top. A vertical slice of language is necessarily more complex in some ways than a horizontal one – it is more varied and textured – but at the same time it affords possible explanations that are simply unavailable from a horizontal, modular perspective.
The second commitment is termed the Cognitive Commitment (Lakoff 1990). It represents a commitment to providing a characterization of the general principles for language that accord with what is known about the mind and brain from other disciplines. It is this commitment that makes cognitive linguistics cognitive, and thus an approach which is fundamentally interdisciplinary in nature.
Just as the Generalization Commitment leads to the search for principles of language structure that hold across all aspects of language, in a related manner, the Cognitive Commitment represents the view that principles of linguistic structure should reflect what is known about human cognition from the other cognitive and brain sciences, particularly psychology, artificial intelligence, cognitive neuroscience, and philosophy. In other words, the Cognitive Commitment asserts that models of language and linguistic organization proposed should reflect what is known about the human mind, rather than purely aesthetic dictates such as the use of particular kinds of formalisms or economy of representation (see Croft 1998 for discussion of this last point).
The Cognitive Commitment has a number of concrete ramifications. First, linguistic theories cannot include structures or processes that violate known properties of the human cognitive system. For instance, if sequential derivation of syntactic structures violates time constraints provided by actual human language processing, then it must be jettisoned. Second, models that use known, existing properties of human cognition to explain language phenomena are more parsimonious than those that are built from a priori simplicity metrics.
For example, quite a lot is known about human categorization, and a theory that reduces word meaning to the same mechanisms responsible for categorization in other cognitive domains is simpler than one that hypothesizes a separate system for capturing lexical semantics. Finally, it is incumbent upon the cognitive linguistic researcher to find convergent evidence for the cognitive reality of components of any proffered model or explanation.
Having briefly set out the two key commitments of the cognitive linguistics enterprise, we now briefly map out the two, hitherto, best developed areas of the field. Cognitive linguistics practice can be roughly divided into two main areas o research: cognitive semantics and cognitive (approaches to) grammar.
The area of study known as cognitive semantics is concerned with investigating the relationship between experience, the conceptual system, and the semantic structure encoded by language. In specific terms, scholars working in cognitive semantics investigate knowledge representation (conceptual structure), and meaning construction (conceptualization). Cognitive semanticists have employed language as the lens through which these cognitive phenomena can be investigated. Consequently, research in cognitive semantics tends to be interested in modelling the human mind as much as it is concerned with investigating linguistic semantics. A cognitive approach to grammar is concerned with modelling the language system (the mental ‘grammar’), than the nature of mind per se.
However, it does so by taking as its starting points the conclusions of work in cognitive semantics. This follows as meaning is central to cognitive approaches to grammar.4 It is critical to note that although the study of cognitive semantics and cognitive approaches to grammar are occasionally separate in practice, this by no means implies that their domains of inquiry are anything but tightly linked –most work in cognitive linguistics finds it necessary to investigate both lexical semantics and grammatical organization jointly.
As with research in cognitive semantics, cognitive approaches to grammar have also typically adopted one of two foci. Scholars such as Ronald Langacker have emphasized the study of the cognitive principles that give rise to linguistic organization. In his theory of Cognitive Grammar, Langacker has attempted to delineate the principles that structure a grammar, and to relate these to aspects of general cognition.
The second avenue of investigation, pursued by researchers including Fillmore and Kay, Lakoff),Goldberg and more recently Bergen and Chang (2005) and Croft (2002), aims to provide a more descriptively and formally detailed account of the linguistic units that comprise a particular language. These researchers attempt to provide a broad-ranging inventory of the units of language, from morphemes to words, idioms, and phrasal patterns, and seek accounts of their structure, compositional possibilities, and relations.
Researchers who have pursued this line of investigation are developing a set of theories that are collectively known as construction grammars. This general approach takes its name from the view in cognitive linguistics that the basic unit of language is a form-meaning pairing known as a symbolic assembly, or a construction.
Cognitive semantics, like the larger enterprise of which it is a part, is not a unified framework. Those researchers who identify themselves as cognitive semanticists typically have a diverse set of foci and interests. However, there are a number of guiding principles that collectively characterize a cognitive approach to semantics. In this section we identify these guiding principles (as we see them). In section 5 we explore some of the major theories and research areas which have emerged under the ‘banner’ of cognitive semantics. The four guiding principles of cognitive semantics are as follows: i) Conceptual structure is embodied (the ‘embodied cognition thesis’) ii) Semantic structure is conceptual structure
iii) Meaning representation is encyclopaedic
iv) Meaning construction is conceptualization
Conceptual structure is embodied
Due to the nature of our bodies, including our neuro-anatomical architecture, we have a species-specific view of the world. In other words, our construal of ‘reality’ is mediated, in large measure, by the nature of our embodiment. One example of the way in which embodiment affects the nature of experience is in the realm of color. While the human visual system has three kinds of photoreceptors (i.e., color channels), other organisms often have a different number.
For instance, the visual system of squirrels, rabbits and possibly cats, makes use of two color channels, while other organisms, including goldfish and pigeons, have four color channels. Having a different range of color channels affects our experience of color in terms of the range of colors accessible to us along the color spectrum. Some organisms can see in the infrared range, such as rattlesnakes, which hunt prey at night and can visually detect the heat given off by other organisms.
Humans are unable to see in this range. The nature of our visual apparatus – one aspect of our embodiment – determines the nature and range of our visual experience. The nature of the relation between embodied cognition and linguistic meaning is contentious. It is evident that embodiment underspecifies which color terms a particular language will have, and whether the speakers of a given language will be interested in ‘color’ in the first place (Saunders, 1995; Wierzbicka, 1996). However, the interest in understanding this relation is an important aspect of the view in cognitive linguistics that the study of linguistic meaning construction needs to be reintegrated with the contemporary study of human nature.
The fact that our experience is embodied – that is, structured in part by the nature of the bodies we have and by our neurological organization – has consequences for cognition. In other words, the concepts we have access to and the nature of the ‘reality’ we think and talk about are a function of our embodiment. We can only talk about what we can perceive and conceive, and the things that we can perceive and conceive derive from embodied experience. From this point of view, the human mind must bear the imprint of embodied experience. This thesis, central to cognitive semantics, is known as the thesis of embodied cognition. This position holds that conceptual structure (the nature of human concepts) is a consequence of the nature of our embodiment and thus is embodied. Semantic structure is conceptual structure
The second guiding principle asserts that language refers to concepts in the mind of the speaker rather than, directly, to entities which inhere in an objectively real external world. In other words, semantic structure (the meanings conventionally associated with words and other linguistic units) can be equated with conceptual structure (i.e., concepts). This ‘representational’ view is directly at odds with the ‘denotational’ perspective of what cognitive semanticists sometimes refer to as objectivist semantics, as exemplified by some formal approaches to semantics.
However, the claim that semantic structure can be equated with conceptual structure does not mean that the two are identical. Instead, cognitive semanticists claim that the meanings associated with linguistic units such as words, for example, form only a subset of possible concepts. After all, we have many more thoughts, ideas and feelings than we can conventionally encode in language. For example, as Langacker (1987) observes, we have a concept for the place on our faces below our nose and above our mouth where moustaches go.
We must have a concept for this part of the face in order to understand that the hair that grows there is called a moustache. However, there is no English word that conventionally encodes this concept (at least not in the non-specialist vocabulary of everyday language). It follows that the set of lexical concepts, the semantic units conventionally associated with linguistic units such as words is only a subset of the full set of concepts in the minds of speaker-hearers.