Cognitive grammar was developed by American linguist and professor emeritus at the University of California, San Diego, Ronald Langacker.1 Developed in the 1980s as a response to Chomsky’s generative grammar, cognitive grammar was one of the first projects of cognitive linguistics. Langacker hypothesized that knowledge of grammar, semantics, and vocabulary exist on a continuum, rather than being distinct processes.2 Langacker detailed the complexities of cognitive grammar in his seminal two-volume work, Foundations of Cognitive Grammar.
Volume 1: Theoretical Prerequisites was published in 1987, and explored the original hypothesis that grammar can be deconstructed into cognitive patterns.2Volume II: Descriptive Application was published in 1991, and elaborated on the ways that different cognitive grammar concepts can be applied to linguistics.3
Langacker believed that all linguistic structures are meaningful, even seemingly abstract categories like nouns or past tense.2 These structures could be fully described in cognitive and perceptual terms, not as distinct entities. Lexicons (the words we know) and grammatical rules exist on a continuum from concrete, meaningful symbols (i.e. “chair” and “dog”) to schematic, generalizable symbols (i.e. subjects and clauses).
Langacker believed that language is usage based: speakers are knowledgeable about symbolic units because we make connections across different cognitive events, allowing our past experiences to inform our current understanding.1 To illustrate the cognitive and perceptual aspects of grammar, Langacker liked to use images.2 The image here, for example, distinguishes between the infinitive “to walk” on top, and the noun “a walk” on the bottom.
Both images have the same contents but different emphases on the image’s meaning, as indicated by the bolded lines and arrows. “To walk” focuses on the components that are involved in the act of walking, while “a walk” focuses on the action as a whole.
Ultimately, Langacker believed that there are only three components that make up grammar:2
- Semantics and phonemes, which are pairings between sounds and cognitive structures. Examples include the word “tree” or the question, “Can you pass the gravy?”
- Cognitive schemas. Examples include nouns, auxiliaries, and verb tenses.
- Categorizing relationships between sounds and cognitive structures, and particular cognitive schemas. For example, identifying that “tree” is a noun, or that “can you pass the gravy?” is an interrogative clause.
To expand on the three components of grammar, Langacker detailed many different concepts. One concept was the idea that all expressions evoke a frame, known as a base, and highlight a certain part of the frame, known as the profile.2 The expression “my uncle” evokes the frame of a familial network, and profiles where an uncle falls in that network. Without prior knowledge of what an uncle is or how familial networks work, you would not understand the expression “my uncle.”
Another concept Langacker focused on was relations, which are the connections between different symbols.2 Relations include things like prepositions, adjectives, and verbs. The preposition “below” expresses relation between two entities in space; the adjective “better” expresses a relation between the quality of one entity and another; the verb “eats” expresses a relation between a person and a meal; etc.
Beyond relations, construal is our ability to conceive and portray the same situation in different ways.2 Recall “the dog is behind the ball” and “the ball is in front of the dog.” Both describe the same scenario, but they portray it differently: “the dog is behind the ball” focuses on the dog’s point of view; “the ball is in front of the dog” focuses on the ball’s point of view. Construal also relates back to the idea of bases and profiles: the two examples evoke the same base — a relationship between a ball and a puppy. However, they highlight different profiles. “The dog is behind the ball” profiles the dog’s position. In contrast, “The ball is in front of the dog” profiles the ball’s position.
Finally, linguistic units are another important concept proposed by Langacker. These units are a thoroughly mastered cognitive structure: they are the cognitive routines we engage in when we use language.2 This sounds abstract, so, to illustrate, let us think about the act of golfing. Golfing is a multi-step process. First, a club needs to be picked. Then, it needs to be lifted to a certain degree. Finally, it needs to be swung with a certain amount of force to send the golf ball to a desired location.
Imagine you were learning how to golf. At first, you would need to practice each of these individually: you’d need to learn the right grip; learn the right angle to raise your club; and learn how much oomph you need to add to the swing. But after a while, all these steps become part of a single activity — golfing. Per cognitive grammar, language works the same way. Putting sentences together is like learning how to golf: instead of putting together how to grab, angle, and swing a ball, we put verbs, tenses, and subjects, and more together. Over time, this becomes a single cognitive routine we use to create sentences.