Basic concepts of cognitive linguistics

Cognitive linguistics is an approach to the study of language which is based upon human perception and conceptualization of the world. The main concepts of cognitive linguistics. Literal, figurative language as complex concepts. The notion of "metaphor".

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Basic concepts of Cognitive Linguistics

Cognitive linguistics is an approach to the study of language which is based upon human perception and conceptualization of the world. In other words, it studies the ways in which linguistic units and structures reflect the manner in which human beings perceive, categorize and conceptualize the world.

Cognitive linguistics is a considerably new approach to language analysis. It introduces a fundamentally different conception of language structure, linguistic investigation and the mode of language description. The central claim of cognitive linguistics is that grammar forms a continuum with lexicon and can be described in terms of symbolic units. Thus, cognitive linguistics, or cognitive grammar, as it is often called, focuses on meaning and explains it by the fact that language as an integral part of human cognition is symbolic in its nature, and accordingly, it makes available to the speaker an open-ended set of linguistic signs or expressions, each of which associates a semantic representation of some kind with a phonological representation. From the symbolic nature language follows the centrality of meaning - meaning is what language all about. As any linguistic structure is treated as a direct reflex of cognition, it follows that a particular linguistic expression is associated with particular way of conceptualizing a given situation. This leads to a quite different view between language and cognition in general: universal principles governing the design of all languages are rooted in cognition.

The idea that linguistic expressions reflect a particular way of perceiving the world got its systemic description by the American language analyst Ronald W. Langacker, professor of linguistics at the University of California, San Diego, in his book published in 1987 “Foundations of Cognitive Grammar”. in this book he proves that grammar is not autonomous with respect to semantics but rather reduces to patterns for the structuring and symbolization of conceptual content. R.W. Langacker offered Cognitive Grammar as an alternative to the generative tradition. The linguist rejected many of its underlying assumptions thus opposing his theory of language to Chomsky's theory in which grammar is considered to constitute autonomous formal level of presentation.

Basic concepts of Cognitive linguistics are usually described with the notions of “construal”, “perspective”, “foregrounding”, “highlighting”, “framing” and “metaphor”. In interaction with each other, these notions have implications for an understanding of the nature of communication. In particular, they suggest that meaning is not a property of utterances but a product of the interaction between an utterance and a human being's knowledge base.

The notion of “construal”

There is a long tradition in linguistics to believe that the role of language is to map elements of the external world onto linguistic form. According to this view, situations can be dissected into a number of component parts, each of which corresponds to some element of language. In contrast, cognitive linguists argue that there is no such direct mapping, a particular situation can be “construed” in different ways, and that different ways for encoding a situation constitute different conceptualizations, e.g.

(1) John gave the book to Betsy.

(2) John gave Betsy the book.

The traditional view is that these sentences express the same meaning and the syntactic difference has no correspondence in semantics. However, in some cases only one of these constructions is natural, e.g. we can say “John gave the fence a new coat of paint” but it would be odd to say “John gave a new coat of paint to the fence”. Conversely, whereas “He brought the apples to the table is fine”, the sentence “He brought the table the apples” is strange. These two differences suggest that the two constructions illustrated in (1) and (2) involve different ways of construing “the same situation” and that in certain cases only one mode of construal is appropriate or natural.

The notion of “perspective”

One factor involved in alternative construals has to do with perspective.

(3) The path falls sleeply into the valley.

(4) The path climbs sleeply out of the valley.

Although these sentences could be used to describe the same scene, it is impossible to say that they have the same meaning. The difference between them lies in perspective.

In (3) the viewpoint is that someone I looking down into the valley, whereas in (4) it is of someone looking up from the valley floor. The actual position of the speaker in this case is irrelevant. One does not have to be looking down to say (3), nor is one necessarily looking up when uttering (4); one might be looking at a painting, viewing the scene sideways-on.

As a second example, consider the contrast between (5) and (6):

(5) John bought the car from Betsy.

(6) Betsy sold the car to John.

Here we have a pair of sentences which refer “the same event” but they could hardly be said to express the same meaning. Again the contrast has to do with perspective: sentence (5) construes the situation from John's point of view, whereas (6) is an expression of Betsy's viewpoint.

In many cases pragmatic factors influence the choice of the reference point and position of the object.

The notion of “foregrounding”

A second factor involved in contrasting construals has to do with the relative prominence of the various components of the situation, in other words, this term means that certain elements in discourse are more prominent than the others. Foregrounding is partly a function linguistic patterning and partly a matter of perception. For example, suppose when somebody is mowing the lawn, one of the blades strokes strikes a stone, causing it to fly into the air and break a window. This event can be reported:

(1) I've broken the window.

(2) A stone has broken the window.

These codings involve different construals. (1) foregrounds the speaker's role in the event, whereas (2) foregrounds that of the stone, thereby back grounding the speacker's involvement in the event.

(3) You won't be able to open this door with that key.

(4) The key won't open this door.

Either of these examples could be used in a situation where the addressee is about to try to open a door with a particular key, but (3) gives greater prominence to the involvement of the addressee that does (4).

Perspective and foregrounding connect linguistic coding closely to visual perception. Just as a particular construal of a situation highlights certain elements in a scene and backgrounds others, so the process of visual perception involves focusing on certain elements and relegating others to the periphery of our visual field. In other words, the entity from whose perspective we view a situation is often also the most salient participant.

The notion of “metaphor”

cognitive linguistics language concept

The concept of construal is closely clinked with another important feature of Cognitive linguistics that differentiates it from other theories of language - namely, a concern with metaphor. Metaphor used to be thought of as a special device characteristic of the literary language. The literary use of metaphors is ancient and well-studied, and the fields of rhetoric and literary criticism have developed a formidable battery of Greek terms in naming different kinds of metaphor. But metaphors are commonplace in ordinary speech and writing: we speak of the foot of a mountain, the eye of a needle and so on. Any language is full of thousands of metaphors and most of them are so familiar that language users no longer even regard them as metaphorical in nature. Metaphors are a commonplace way of extending the expressive resources of a language.

In cognitive linguistics a metaphor is understood as a non-literary use of a linguistic form, designed to draw attention to a perceived resemblance. It is a fundamental property of everyday use of language and is linked to the notion of construal because different ways of thinking about a particular phenomenon (that is a different construal of that phenomenon) are associated with different metaphors. A metaphor can be defined as a device that involves conceptualizing one domain of experience in terms of another. For example, understanding or not understanding an argument may be construed as following someone: I don't follow you; You've lost me; I am not with you. Alternatively, it can be thought in terms of seeing: I don't see what you are getting at; Your explanation is not clear; It was really obscure lecture.

A cognitive metaphor serves as mental mapping between two domains: a domain of familiar meanings and a domain of the new meaning. Therefore, for any given metaphor we can identify a source domain and a target domain. Source domains tend to be relatively concrete areas of experience while target domains are more abstract, e.g. He's a really cold person and She gave us a warm welcome the source domain is the scene of touch and the target domain is the more abstract concept of intimacy.

Metaphors involve not only ways of thinking about phenomena but also ways of thinking about them. In some cases this can have significant social implications: investigations of the 20th c. suggest that different modes of discourse were employed at different times to make nuclear weapons palatable to the public. Part of this process involves the names that were applied to such weapons. In the early days of intercontinental ballistic missiles names, such as Jupiter, Titan, Zeus and Atlant were used. This process is metaphorical in that it invokes all the connotations of the source domain of classical mythology.

In some cases metaphors are large-scale structures that influence our thinking about the whole areas of human experience. Metaphor is in fact a prime manifestation of the cognitive claim that language and thought are inextricably intertwined.

In cognitive linguistics frame is defined as a set of knowledge that are used to provide interpretive information about a language unit. The concept of frame as understood by cognitive linguistics can be best illustrated by example. If one were asked by a non-native speaker of English what the word wicket meant, one might consult a dictionary for help. The Concise Oxford Dictionary gives the following definition of the word: “one set of three stumps and two bails”. But how much would this mean to a non-native speaker of English who knew nothing of cricket?

If one were asked to explain the meaning of the word wicket, it would be natural to say not only what a wicket is but also something about its overall role in the game. The explanation could be pretty long as it involves a lot of details. In other words, a good understanding of the word wicket requires a significant amount of knowledge that extends well beyond the dictionary definition. We refer to this background knowledge as the “frame”.

The frame is not itself what is generally thought of as “the meaning” of a word but it is nevertheless crucial to an understanding of it.

Everything that a speaker knows about the world is a potential part of the frame for a particular term, even though some aspects of that knowledge base are more immediately relevant to a particular term than others.

The notion of frame has both a conceptual and a cultural dimension. An understanding of the word weekend, for instance, involves knowledge that it refers to the days that we call Saturday and Sunday rather than to the days that we call, e.g. Monday and Tuesday. In other terms, this term profiles a certain part of the seven-day cycle. This could be regarded as a conceptual knowledge. But that knowledge is overlaid with other aspects of knowledge that are also the part of the frame: Saturday and Sunday have a special status as non-working days for the most of people in our culture. In other words, part of the knowledge base for weekend involves an understanding of certain specific cultural patterns. This means that the concept of frame embraces the traditional concept of “connotation”. For many people the word weekend conjures up pleasant images of relaxation, sport, trips to the beach, and so on, just as a term mother conjures up images of warmth, affection, and care.

The concept of frame also has implications for language change. When new frames arise, existing words are often carried over into the new domain, thereby undergoing some change of meaning. Most of the terminology that relates to the aircraft and air travel is derived from the nautical domain. The process of entering the plane is called “boarding”, the main passenger area is called the main “deck”, and the kitchen is called the “galley”. In some cases the nature of the referent is different from the corresponding entity in the source domain (e.g., the deck), so that there is a significant shift in meaning.

Appearance of new words can sometimes be explained in terms of the frame shift. Some creative moves have both a cognitive and a linguistic dimension. The word workaholic, which has entered the language relatively recently. Clearly, there must have been an occasion on which a particular individual produced this word for the first time. It was motivated by the perception of similarities between addiction to alcohol and “addiction” to work. This was a creative event since in many respects working hard and drinking heavily are activities that have very little in common. Working hard is generally perceived as socially virtuous, while drinking heavily is not. Normally, therefore, it is a compliment to describe someone as a “hard worker” but not to call them “a heavy drinker”.


1. Ronald W. Langacker Cognitive Linguistics Research

2. Laura A. Janda Cognitive Linguistics

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