Two guiding principles of cognitive approaches to grammar
Cognitive approaches to grammar assume a cognitive semantics, and build a model of linguistic knowledge (‘grammar’) which is consistent with the assumptions and findings of work in cognitive semantics. In addition to this, the two guiding principles of cognitive approaches to grammar are:
i) The symbolic thesis.
ii) The usage-based thesis.
The symbolic thesis holds that the fundamental unit of grammar is a form-meaning pairing, or linguistic unit (called a ‘symbolic assembly’ in Langacker’s Cognitive Grammar, or a ‘construction’ in construction grammar approaches). In Langacker’s terms, the symbolic unit has two poles: a semantic pole (its meaning) and a phonological pole (its sound). The idea that language has an essentially symbolic function, and that the fundamental unit of grammar is the symbolic unit, has its roots in Ferdinand de Saussure’s (1857–1913) theory of language. Central to Saussure’s theory was the view that language is a symbolic system in which the linguistic expression (sign) consists of a mapping between a concept (signified) and an acoustic signal (signifier), where both signified and signifier are psychological entities. While there are important differences between Saussure’s work and the approach taken in cognitive linguistics, the cognitive approach adopts the idea of the Saussurean symbol. In cognitive approaches the semantic pole corresponds to the ‘signified’, and the phonological pole to the ‘signifier’. These are both ‘psychological entities’ in the sense that they belong within the mental system of linguistic knowledge (the ‘grammar’) in the mind of the speaker.
It follows that cognitive approaches to grammar are not restricted to investigating aspects of grammatical structure, largely independently of meaning, as is often the case in formal traditions. Instead, cognitive approaches to grammar encompass the entire inventory of linguistic units defined as form-meaning pairings. These run the gamut from skeletal syntactic configurations such as the ditransitive construction (expressed in John baked Mary a cake) to idioms (like kick the bucket), to bound morphemes like the –er suffix, to words. This entails that the received view of clearly distinct ‘sub-modules’ of language cannot be meaningfully upheld within cognitive linguistics, where the boundary between cognitive semantics and cognitive approaches to grammar is less clearly defined. Instead, meaning and grammar are seen as mutually interdependent and complementary. To take a cognitive approach to grammar is to study the units of language, and hence the language system itself. To take a cognitive approach to semantics is to attempt to understand how this linguistic system relates to the conceptual system, which in turn relates to embodied experience.
The adoption of the symbolic thesis has an important consequence for cognitive approaches to grammar. Because the basic unit is the linguistic or symbolic unit, meaning achieves central status. That is, as the basic grammatical unit is a symbolic unit, then form cannot be studied independently of meaning. This entails that the study of grammar, from a cognitive perspective, is the study of the full range of units that make up a language, from the lexical to the grammatical. For example, cognitive linguists argue that the grammatical form of a sentence is paired with its own (schematic) meaning in the same way that words like cat represent pairings of form and (content) meaning.
The idea that grammatical units are inherently meaningful is an important theme in cognitive approaches to grammar, and gives rise to the idea of a lexicon-grammar continuum, in which content words like cat and grammatical constructions like the passive or the ditransitive both count as symbolic units, but differ in terms of the quality of the meaning potential associated with them.
The usage-based thesis holds that the mental grammar of the speaker (his or her knowledge of language) is formed by the abstraction of symbolic units from situated instances of language use. An important consequence of adopting the usage-based thesis is that there is no principled distinction between knowledge of language and use of language (competence and performance, in generative terms), since knowledge of language is knowledge of how language is used. The usage-based thesis is central not just to cognitive approaches to grammar but approaches to both language change and language acquisition which take a cognitive linguistic perspective, as represented by articles by Tomasello (2000/this volume) and by Croft (1996/this volume).
14. What is symbolic thesis of Leonard Talmy?
The model of grammar developed by Leonard Talmy (e.g., Talmy, 2000, Chapter 1/ this volume), assumes the symbolic thesis and, like other cognitive approaches to grammar, views grammatical units as inherently meaningful. However, Talmy’s model is distinguished by its emphasis on the qualitative distinction between grammatical (closed-class) and lexical (open-class) elements. Indeed, Talmy argues that these two forms of linguistic expression represent two distinct conceptual subsystems, which encode qualitatively distinct aspects of the human conceptual system. These are the grammatical subsystem and the lexical subsystem. For Talmy, while closed-class elements encode schematic or structural meaning, open-class elements encode meanings that are far richer in terms of content. In his research output Talmy is primarily interested in delineating the nature and organization of the grammatical subsystem. In particular, Talmy is concerned with establishing the nature and function of the conceptual structure subsystem, which is to say the conceptual structure encoded by closed class elements. For Talmy this issue is a particularly fascinating one as in principle, language could function with a lexical or conceptual content system alone. The fact that languages do not makes establishing the distinction in terms of the respective contributions of the two subsystems in encoding and externalizing our cognitive representation(s) a particularly fascinating one. Because Talmy assumes the bifurcation of the conceptual system into two distinct subsystems, his cognitive model of grammar focuses more on the closed-class system than it does on the open-class system.
15. Talmy’s closed subsystem
According to Talmy, the closed-class subsystem is semantically restricted and has a structuring function, while the open-class system is semantically unrestricted and has the function of providing conceptual content. To illustrate the restricted nature of the closed-class system, Talmy observes that while many languages have nominal inflections that indicate number, no language has nominal inflections that indicate colour. For example, many languages have a grammatical affix like plural -s in English, but no language has a grammatical affix designating, say, redness. Furthermore, the grammatical system reflects a restricted range of concepts within the relevant domain. For example, the grammatical number system can reflect concepts like singular, plural or paucal (meaning ‘a few’) but not concepts like millions or twenty-seven. Talmy accounts for such restrictions by means of the observation that grammatical categories display topological rather than Euclidean properties. In other words, the meaning encoded by closed-class elements remains constant despite contextual differences relating to size, shape and so on. For example, the demonstrative determiner that in the expressions that book in your hand and that city encodes distance from the speaker regardless of the expanse of that distance. As these examples illustrate, the function of the grammatical/ closed-class system is to provide a ‘pared-down’ or highly abstract conceptual structure. This structure provides a ‘scaffold’ or a ‘skeleton’ over which elements from the lexical/ open-class system are laid in order to provide rich and specific conceptual content.