Cognitive Grammar

The Basic Idea

Does “the dog is behind the ball” mean the same thing as “the ball is in front of the dog”? Most people would say so. Perhaps you picture an adorable puppy on the left and a tennis ball on the right, and you think to yourself “Yeah, the puppy is in the same place regardless.”

Through the lens of cognitive grammar, however, these two phrases are not the same. While they may discuss the same situation, they are cognitively different.

Cognitive grammar is one of the major approaches to structure and meaning in grammar and linguistics.1 The idea is that language is grounded in general cognitive processes. Knowing a language is knowing a network of symbolic units where sounds are paired with meanings. Essentially, cognitive grammar is exactly what it sounds like: it reduces all grammar into cognitive concepts, focusing on the minds of speakers.

Linguists are no different from any other people who spend more than nineteen hours a day pondering the complexities of grammar and its relationship to practically everything else in order to prove that language is so inordinately complicated that it is impossible in principle for people to talk.

– Ronald Langacker, linguist and pioneer of cognitive grammar

Key Terms

Cognitive linguistics: An interdisciplinary approach to studying language, the mind, and sociocultural experiences. Cognitive linguistics is characterized by the belief that meaning and linguistic form are inseparable.

Cognitive grammar: A subset of cognitive linguistics. Cognitive grammar characterizes knowledge of grammar on a continuum, based on cognitive processes and symbolic units.

Semantics: The study of meaning in language

History

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

  1. Semantics and phonemes, which are pairings between sounds and cognitive structures. Examples include the word “tree” or the question, “Can you pass the gravy?”
  2. Cognitive schemas. Examples include nouns, auxiliaries, and verb tenses.
  3. 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.

Consequences

Since its development, cognitive grammar has offered a new way of considering the construction of language.1 It has been applied to educational contexts, especially in the case of teaching verb tenses to foreign English language learners.4 Cognitive grammar’s emphasis on the meaning of grammar and the use of pictorial representations has been effective in helping build learners’ grammatical knowledge, compared to traditional instructional methods that focus on distinct components.

As a result, researchers have focused on developing pedagogical strategies to incorporate cognitive grammar into the classroom.5 These strategies emphasize the usage-based aspect of cognitive grammar, such that prior experiences can inform current linguistic understanding. In applying cognitive grammar to teaching, researchers have used its concepts to explore classic literary studies like Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen and Animal Farm by George Orwell.6

Controversies

Concerns have been raised regarding the complexity of cognitive grammar, impacting its accessibility and thus its usefulness.7 The many terms and concepts involved in cognitive grammar can be more difficult to understand, than, for example, Chomsky’s generative grammar. Langacker himself suggests that his two-volume work is aimed at advanced undergraduate and beginning graduate level studies, for those who already hold a linguistics background.1 If anything, Langacker described his books as ideally suited for a two term graduate course. Other linguists have offered interpretations of his studies and tried to make it more accessible, but it can still be a difficult framework to approach and apply.7

Cognitive grammar is a subset of cognitive linguistics, which combines research from cognitive psychology, social psychology, and linguistics.1 Cognitive linguistics, however, has been criticized for simply slapping “cognitive” in front of “linguistics” without good reason.8 As a result, it has been labelled a pseudoscience, which consists of statements and practices that claim to be rooted in science, but are actually incompatible with the scientific method. These critics also hold that cognitive linguistics’s view of cognition is at odds with basic neuroscience. Additionally, cognitive linguistics has been criticized for taking other researchers’ results and presenting them as its own work.9

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Sources

  1. Chapman, S., & Routledge, C. (2009). Key Ideas in Linguistics and the Philosophy of Language. Edinburgh University Press.
  2. Langacker, R. W. (1987). Foundations of Cognitive Grammar: Volume I: Theoretical Perspectives. Stanford University Press.
  3. Langacker, R. W. (1991). Foundations of Cognitive Grammar: Volume II: Descriptive Application. Stanford University Press.
  4. Bielak, J., & Pawlak, M. (2013). Applying cognitive grammar in the foreign language classroom. In Second Language Learning and Teaching. Springer.
  5. Uzum, B. (2010). Applications of cognitive linguistics: Cognitive approaches to pedagogical grammar. Studies in Second Language Acquisition, 32(1), 160-161.
  6. Harrison, C., & Giovanelli, M. (2020). Cognitive Grammar in the Classroom. Oxford University Press.
  7. Nesset, T. (2009). Ronald W. Langacker, cognitive grammar: A basic introduction. Journal of Linguistics, 45(2), 477-480.
  8. Peters, B. (1998). Cognitive musings. Word, 49(2), 225-237.
  9. Schwarz-Friesel, M. (2012). On the status of external evidence in the theories of cognitive linguistics: Compatibility problems or signs of stagnation in the field? Or: Why do some linguists behave like Fodor’s input systems? Language Sciences, 34(6), 656-664.

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