Cognitive linguistics

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Cognitive linguistics (CL) is an interdisciplinary branch of linguistics, combining knowledge and research from both psychology and linguistics. It describes how language interacts with cognition, how language forms our thoughts, and the evolution of language parallel with the change in the common mindset across time.[1]

According to Merriam-Webster, the word "cognitive" is defined as "of, relating to, being, or involving conscious intellectual activity (such as thinking, reasoning, or remembering)". Merriam-Webster also defines linguistics as "the study of human speech including the units, nature, structure, and modification of language".[2] Combining those two definitions together to form cognitive linguistics would provide the notion of the concepts and ideas discussed in the realm of CL. Within CL, the analysis of the conceptual and experiential basis of linguistic categories is of primary importance. The formal structures of language are studied not as if they were autonomous, but as reflections of general conceptual organization, categorization principles, processing mechanisms, and experiential and environmental influences.

Since cognitive linguistics sees language as embedded in the overall cognitive capacities of human beings, topics of special interest for cognitive linguistics include: the structural characteristics of natural language categorization (such as prototypicality, systematic polysemy, cognitive models, mental imagery, and conceptual metaphor); the functional principles of linguistic organization (such as iconicity and naturalness); the conceptual interface between syntax and semantics (as explored by cognitive grammar and construction grammar); the experiential and pragmatic background of language-in-use; and the relationship between language and thought, including questions about linguistic relativity and conceptual universals.

What holds together the diverse forms of cognitive linguistics is the belief that linguistic knowledge involves not just knowledge of the language, but knowledge of the world as mediated by the language.[3] In addition, cognitive linguistics argues that language is both embodied and situated in a specific environment.


Cognitive linguistics is a relatively modern branch of linguistics. It was founded by George Lakoff and Ronald Langacker. Lakoff coined the term "cognitive linguistics" in 1987 in his book "Women, Fire, and Dangerous Things", one of his most famous writings. Lakoff had already previously written many publications discussing the role of various cognitive processes involved in the use of language. Some of these previous publications include "The Role of Deduction in Grammar"[4] and "Linguistics and Natural Logic".[5]

In 1975, he published the paper "Cognitive Grammar: Some Preliminary Speculations", in which he also coined the term "cognitive grammar".[6] Soon after the field of cognitive linguistics had emerged, it was criticized by many prominent linguists. However, by the end of the 1980s, the field had attracted the attention of many people and started to grow.

The journal Cognitive Linguistics was established in 1990 as the first journal specialized in research in that field.[7]

Three central positions[edit]

Cognitive linguists deny that the mind has any module for language-acquisition that is unique and autonomous. This stands in contrast to the stance adopted by Noam Chomsky and others in the field of generative grammar. Although cognitive linguists do not necessarily deny that part of the human linguistic ability is innate, they deny that it is separate from the rest of cognition. They thus reject a body of opinion in cognitive science suggesting that there is evidence for the modularity of language. Departing from the tradition of truth-conditional semantics, cognitive linguists view meaning in terms of conceptualization. Instead of viewing meaning in terms of models of the world, they view it in terms of mental spaces.

They argue that knowledge of linguistic phenomena — i.e., phonemes, morphemes, and syntax — is essentially conceptual in nature. However, they assert that the storage and retrieval of linguistic data is not significantly different from the storage and retrieval of other knowledge, and that use of language in understanding employs similar cognitive abilities to those used in other non-linguistic tasks.

Three dogmas of embodiment[edit]

Cognitive linguistics suffers from three defective dogmas, which are the scope of much of the criticism CL receives. These three dogmas are from the hypotheses of embodiment engendered by CL.

  1. Embodiment as an eliminative reductionism: Sociocultural linguistics is an interdisciplinary science that conceptualize the linguistics as a resultant of the interaction of language with social and cultural components. However, cognitive linguistics empirical methodologies somehow contradict this. Lakoff's Neural Theory of Language asserted that “cognitive linguistics is not cognitive linguistics if it ignores relevant structure about the brain,” where brain’s structure imposes its superpositions, image schemas, and universal primitives onto language. The main objection to this concept is that the excessive focus on the brain structure, anatomically and functionally, will eliminate the socio-cultural theories of language. That is because you are studying the brain outside its “natural environment”.
  2. Embodiment as temporally static: This dogma complements the first one. We are live creatures, our brain is a dynamic and organic organ, and the development of the brain across time is a critical factor in determining the brain functions, the structure of the brain, and the molecular processes that govern it. Brain functions suffer a lot of biological variabilities; it varies across age; children, adults, and aging brain, it varies in right-handed versus left-handed people, in certain injuries, and evolutionarily over generations. Thus, since brain function and structure are dynamic, then language must be dynamic too. However, results from cognitive linguistics, so far, do not take the temporal progression into consideration. It merely describe facts about the use of language under certain solid conditions.
  3. Embodiment as consciousness (or as unconscious): There is a common misconception that studying a mental process means we are actually “conscious” of it. Nevertheless, that is not the case in cognitive linguistics. For example, our brain slices sound waves into phonemes unconsciously. Such process is studied using techniques like EEG which is not informative about whether neurolinguistics processes are conscious or not.[8]

Two key commitments[edit]

Two basic commitments were described by George Lakoff in 1990. These two commitments are the basis of orientation and approach followed by cognitive linguists:

  1. The Generalization Commitment: The aim of the generalization commitment is to pinpoint the broadest generalizations. Thus, molding and understanding general rules that fit all aspects and characteristics of human language. Since this commitment seeks generalization of principles of language, the previous ways of studying the language, like semantics (the meaning of words and meaning), phonology (sound), and morphology (word structure) won’t be suitable, because there is little room for generalization.
  2. The Cognitive Commitment: The cognitive commitment aim is to characterize the general principles of used language that are consistent with what is known about brain anatomy and functions from other sciences. So, this core philosophy of this commitment is that rules of the used language should agree with what is known about cognition from other sciences, especially psychology and cognitive neuroscience.[8]

Areas of study[edit]

Cognitive linguistics is divided into three main areas of study:

Aspects of cognition that are of interest to cognitive linguists include:

Related work that interfaces with many of the above themes:

  • Computational models of metaphor and language acquisition.
  • Dynamical models of language acquisition
  • Conceptual semantics, pursued by generative linguist Ray Jackendoff, is related because of its active psychological realism and the incorporation of prototype structure and images.

Cognitive linguistics, more than generative linguistics, seeks to mesh together these findings into a coherent whole. A further complication arises because the terminology of cognitive linguistics is not entirely stable, both because it is a relatively new field and because it interfaces with a number of other disciplines.

Insights and developments from cognitive linguistics are becoming accepted ways of analysing literary texts, too. Cognitive poetics, as it has become known, has become an important part of modern stylistics.

Controversy and Noam Chomsky's view[edit]

There is significant peer review and debate within the field of linguistics regarding cognitive linguistics. Critics of cognitive linguistics have argued that most of the evidence from the cognitive view comes from the research in pragmatics and semantics, and research in metaphor and preposition choice. They suggest that cognitive linguists should provide cognitive re-analyses of topics in syntax and phonology that are understood in terms of autonomous knowledge (Gibbs 1996).

There is also controversy and debate within the field concerning the representation and status of idioms in grammar and the actual mental grammar of speakers. On one hand it is asserted that idiom variation needs to be explained with regard to general and autonomous syntactic rules. Another view says such idioms do not constitute semantic units and can be processed compositionally (Langlotz 2006).

In his lectures and many of his publications, Noam Chomsky discussed the cognitive components that are related to the languages and its use -- in other words, studying language as a branch of cognitive sciences.[9] He thinks that the two fields address language aspects that are complementary to each other. However, he believes that his generative grammar linguistic theory and cognitive linguistic philosophical foundations oppose each other. He also believes that cognitive linguistics needs to accept some foundation from the theory of generative grammar.[10]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Robinson, Peter (2008). Handbook of Cognitive Linguistics and Second Language Acquisition. Routledge. pp. 3–8. ISBN 978-0-805-85352-0.
  2. ^ Merriam-Webster Collegiate Dictionary. Merriam-Webster, Incorporated. 2003. pp. 240, 724. ISBN 978-0-87779-809-5.
  3. ^ The Oxford Handbook of Cognitive Linguistics.
  4. ^ Holt, Rinehart and Winston (1971). "The Role of Deduction in Grammar. In Fillmore and Langendoen". Studies in Linguistic Semantics.
  5. ^ Reidel (1972). "Linguistics and Natural Logic". Semantics in Natural Language.
  6. ^ G. Lakoff, H. Thompson (1975). "(with H. Thompson) Dative Questions in Cognitive Grammar. In Functionalism,". Chicago Linguistic Society.
  7. ^ Benjamin Berge, Vyvyan Evans, Jörg Zinken (2007). The Cognitive Linguistics Reader. Equinox. pp. 3–5.CS1 maint: Multiple names: authors list (link)
  8. ^ a b Kristiansen, Gitte (2006). Cognitive Linguistics: Current Applications and Future Perspecitves. Mouton de Gruyter. pp. 119–123. ISBN 978-3-11-018951-3.
  9. ^ "Structures, Not Strings: Linguistics as Part of the Cognitive Sciences". Trends in Cognitive Sciences. 19 (12): 729–743. 2015-12-01. doi:10.1016/j.tics.2015.09.008. ISSN 1364-6613.
  10. ^ "Chomsky on Cognitive Linguistics: An Interview (pp. 1-8)". Retrieved 2017-12-17.

General references[edit]

  • Evans, Vyvyan & Melanie Green (2006). Cognitive Linguistics: An Introduction. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press.
  • Evans, Vyvyan (2007). A Glossary of Cognitive Linguistics. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press.
  • Gibbs (1996) in Casad ED. Cognitive Linguistics in the Redwoods: The Expansion of a New Paradigm in Linguistics (Cognitive Linguistic Research) Mouton De Gruyter (June 1996) ISBN 9783110143584.
  • Langlotz, Andreas. 2006. Idiomatic Creativity: A Cognitive-linguistic Model of Idiom-representation And Idiom Variation in English. Amsterdam: John Benjamins.

Further reading[edit]

  • Charteris-Black, J. (2004). Corpus Approaches to Critical Metaphor Analysis. Palgrave-MacMillan. ISBN 1403932921
  • Croft, W. & D. A. Cruse (2004) Cognitive Linguistics. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  • Evans, Vyvyan & Melanie Green (2006). Cognitive Linguistics: An Introduction. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press.
  • Evans, Vyvyan (2007). A Glossary of Cognitive Linguistics. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press.
  • Evans, Vyvyan, Benjamin K. Bergen and Jörg Zinken (Eds.) (2007). The Cognitive Linguistics Reader. London: Equinox Publishing Co.
  • Evans, Vyvyan, Benjamin Bergen and Jörg Zinken (2007). "The Cognitive Linguistics Enterprise: An Overview". In Vyvyan Evans, Benjamin Bergen and Jörg Zinken (Eds.). The Cognitive Linguistics Reader [listed above].
  • Fauconnier, G. (1997). Mappings in Thought and Language.
  • Fauconnier, Gilles has written a brief, manifesto-like introduction to Cognitive linguistics, which compares it to mainstream, Chomsky-inspired linguistics. See "Introduction to Methods and Generalizations" in T. Janssen and G. Redeker (Eds) (1999). Scope and Foundations of Cognitive Linguistics. The Hague: Mouton De Gruyter. Cognitive Linguistics Research Series. (on-line version)
  • Fauconnier, Gilles and Mark Turner (2003). The Way We Think. New York: Basic Books.
  • Geeraerts, D. & H. Cuyckens, eds. (2007). The Oxford Handbook of Cognitive Linguistics. New York: Oxford University Press. ISBN 978 0 19 514378 2.
  • Geeraerts, D., ed. (2006). Cognitive Linguistics: Basic Readings. Berlin / New York: Mouton de Gruyter.
  • Gibbs Jr., Raymond W. and Herbert L. Colston (1995). "The cognitive psychological reality of image schemas and their transformations". Cognitive Linguistics (includes Cognitive Linguistic Bibliography). Vol. 6, No. 4, pp. 347–378, ISSN (Online) 1613-3641, ISSN (Print) 0936-5907.
  • Goossens, Louis (Oct. 2009). Metaphtonymy: the interaction of metaphor and metonymy in expressions for linguistic action. Cognitive Linguistics (includes Cognitive Linguistic Bibliography). Volume 1, Issue 3, Pages 323–342, ISSN (Online) 1613-3641, ISSN (Print) 0936-5907, DOI: 10.1515/cogl.1990.1.3.323
  • Grady, Oakley, and Coulson (1999). "Blending and Metaphor". In Metaphor in Cognitive Linguistics, Steen and Gibbs (eds.). Philadelphia: John Benjamins. (online version)
  • Jackendoff, Ray (1996). "Conceptual semantics and Cognitive linguistics". In Cognitive Linguistics 7-1, pp. 93-129. Online Version.
  • Kristiansen et al., eds. (2006). Cognitive Linguistics: Current Applications and Future Perspectives. Berlin / New York: Mouton de Gruyter.
  • Lakoff, George (1987). Women, Fire, and Dangerous Things: What Categories Reveal About the Mind. University of Chicago Press. ISBN 0 226 46804 6.
  • Lakoff, George and Mark Johnson. (1980). Metaphors We Live By. University of Chicago Press.
  • Lee, D.A. (2001). Cognitive Linguistics: An Introduction (1st ed.). Melbourne: Oxford University Press.
  • Rohrer, T. (2007). "Embodiment and Experientialism". In The Oxford Handbook of Cognitive Linguistics [listed above].
  • Schmid, H. J. et al. (1996). An Introduction to Cognitive Linguistics. New York, Longman.
  • Silverman, Daniel (2011). "Usage-based Phonology", in Bert Botma, Nancy C. Kula, and Kuniya Nasukawa, eds., Continuum Companion to Phonology. Continuum.
  • Taylor, J. R. (2002). Cognitive Grammar. Oxford, Oxford University Press.
  • Tomasello, M. (2003). Constructing a Language: A Usage-Based Theory of Language Acquisition. Harvard University Press.
  • Wolf, et al. (2006), The Cognitive Linguistics Bibliography, Mouton De Gruyter, Berlin.

External links[edit]