LINGUIST List 15.1235

Sat Apr 17 2004

Review: Psycholinguistics: Tomasello (2003)

Editor for this issue: Naomi Ogasawara <>

What follows is a review or discussion note contributed to our Book Discussion Forum. We expect discussions to be informal and interactive; and the author of the book discussed is cordially invited to join in. If you are interested in leading a book discussion, look for books announced on LINGUIST as "available for review." Then contact Sheila Dooley Collberg at


  1. Eva Belke, The New Psychology of Language, Volume 2

Message 1: The New Psychology of Language, Volume 2

Date: Sat, 17 Apr 2004 00:30:18 -0400 (EDT)
From: Eva Belke <>
Subject: The New Psychology of Language, Volume 2

EDITOR: Tomasello, Michael 
TITLE: The New Psychology of Language, Volume 2
SUBTITLE: Cognitive and Functional Approaches to Language Structure 
PUBLISHER: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates 
YEAR: 2003
Announced at

Eva Belke, Behavioural Brain Sciences Centre, 
Department of Psychology, University of Birmingham


In ''The New Psychology of Language, Volume 2'', nine of the leading
cognitive linguists present current research topics and methods in
their field. This edited book follows and extends ''The New Psychology
of Language, Volume I'', edited by Michael Tomasello in 1998. The aim
of the editor and the authors is to present their research to
psycholinguists and psychologists who are interested in studying
language. Many researchers who have had a general education in
linguistics are aware of the classical structuralist approaches to
language, as well as later generative theories on language in the
Chomskyan tradition.

Cognitive linguistics has evolved from these research traditions but
differs markedly from each of them. Cognitive linguists focus on
spontaneous spoken speech (SSS), i.e. on speaker performance. By
contrast, structuralist and generative approaches sought to study
linguistic competence. Ideally, the new focus on cognitive and
functional aspects of linguistic performance should yield new insights
to the psychological underpinnings of language production and
perception. One of the declared goals of the present volume (and
volume I) is to present theoretical and methodical aspects of
cognitive linguistics to psycholinguists and psychologists in order to
establish a new interdisciplinary discourse between linguistics and
psychology that incorporates results from cognitive linguistic
research. I will review the papers presented in Volume II as a
psycholinguist who has a well-founded education in linguistics but
whose research topics and methods are clearly based in experimental
psychology and psycholinguistics.


In his introduction, Tomasello gives an overview of the two most
influential theoretical frameworks in linguistics, structuralism and
generative linguistics. He presents the major shortcomings of these
two approaches and outlines how these limitations have stimulated and
motivated cognitive linguists in developing a new approach to studying
language. Most importantly, cognitive linguists do not seek to study
the 'Ideal Speaker' or the 'Universal Grammar' any more. Instead, they
study corpora of utterances in everyday interactions to find out about
the universal (cognitive) foundations of language. Specifically,
cognitive linguists view language as a cognitive process which is
connected and in parts even determined by the features of other
cognitive domains, such as vision or motor planning. One of the
objectives of the book is therefore to inform other cognitive
scientists, specifically psycholinguists, about Cognitive Linguistics.
For this particular audience (as well as for all other readers) the
introduction provides a well-written access to Cognitive Linguistics
by linking this 'new' research area to former empirical and
theoretical research directions in linguistics that will be familiar
to many readers.

Talmy (I: Concept Structuring Systems in Language) identifies four
concept structuring systems that, as he proposes, underlie conceptual
processing in general and language processing in particular. He
outlines how general conceptualization principles, e.g. the
organization of events/objects in space and time, are mirrored in
function words of a language (here: English). Function words or closed
class words transport information about how entities in the real word
(as expressed in content words) are structured and relate to each
other. Talmy argues that in English as well as in other languages,
function words will reflect structural properties of the concept
structuring domains. Eventually, this presents an attempt to
(universally) establish the structural properties of the events,
rather than the linguistic means to express these. A logical next step
therefore entails the comparison of ''the structuring system found in
language with those found in other cognitive domains, such as
perception, reasoning, affect, and motor control'' (p. 46). This paper
presents an excellent introduction to some of the key ideas in
cognitive semantics. By providing carefully chosen examples and
illustrations, Talmy has geared the complex subject matter well
towards the target audience of the book.

DuBois (II: Discourse and Grammar) outlines regularities in argument
structure, as they can be derived from quantitative analyses of
spontaneous discourses He points out the similarities between the
rules of the grammar of a language and the constraints that govern
discourse structure and links the established regularities and
constraints convincingly to aspects of information management in
discourse. While he backs his arguments with quantitative data from
corpus-analysis throughout the initial sections of the paper, later
sections on ''Constraint and Strategy'' (p. 75f.) include some claims
that many psychologists might consider as being too speculative. For
instance, when the author claims that the constraints on discourse
pragmatics ''are soft, to the extent that the discourse preferences
are cognitively based. It would be risky to operate always at the
outer limits of cognitive capacity. Better set a routine limit [of
processing load] lower than the maximum [of cognitive capacity]; under
special circumstances one may then momentarily exceed this flexible
limitation''. Here, the author should clearly draw on the work of
experimental psychologists to back his claims. There are relatively
few experimental studies on discourse pragmatics, mainly because
pragmatics constitutes a domain that is difficult to control and study
experimentally. As DuBois points out ''grammar is general; discourse
varies at the will of its speakers and their topics'' (p.47). This
will not necessarily alienate experimental psychologists, as long as
linguists are willing to re-assess the extent to which their theories
can be narrowed down to a size that is manageable for (experimental)
psychologists (e.g. Bock, 1996). Ideally, linguists and psychologists
should jointly try to formulate hypotheses on discourse pragmatics
that can be tested experimentally, working in a piecemeal fashion from
the very small to the bigger picture. It is only via such a procedure
of small steps that a reliable basis of empirical data can be
established. In view of the potential readers of this paper, I am
afraid that the author may potentially ask too much of linguistically
less proficient readers. His writing style is very complex, and he
includes many allusions and references to existing theories and their
historic value that the less proficient reader may not be familiar

Kemmer (III: Human Cognition and the Elaboration of Events: Some
Universal Conceptual Categories) presents a cognitive-typological
approach to the conceptual and linguistic elaboration of events. She
exemplifies the approach with the conceptual spectrum of transitive
and intransitive verbs, specifically focusing on the status of
reflexive constructions and their realization in different linguistic
and conceptual systems. She illustrates how, cross-linguistically,
universal conceptual foundations of linguistic phenomena can be
established. In many aspects, this chapter ties in with the concept
structuring systems presented by Talmy (I). With her contribution,
Kemmer provides the audience with a very clear presentation of the
cognitive-typological approach, carefully discussing its merits as
well as its potential limitations (e.g. p. 96).

Ford, Fox, and Thompson (IV: Social Interaction and Grammar) study
grammar in interactional settings, investigating grammaticization or
''grammar 'at work''' (p. 119). They represent a view of grammar as a
set of local regularities and linguistic routines rather than as a set
of rules. The authors argue that the routines found in the language
domain may be similar to routines in other cognitive domains that also
involve a certain degree of procedural learning. To illustrate the
role of social interaction on the (grammatical) form of utterances,
they present examples from five different conversational domains, such
as turn constructions and utterance repairs. While the authors
convincingly present their argument, their empirical basis is
necessarily bound to a very casuistic analysis of conversational
corpora. As pointed out previously, this may not meet the demands that
many psychologists would ask for in empirical research. A theoretical
and empirical complement to the paper by Ford et al. is presented in
Chapter V.

Bybee (V: Cognitive Processes in Grammaticalization) presents an
approach to investigating the regularities and principles of
grammaticalization as a universal aspect of language and language use.
She links the principles of grammaticalization to fundamental
cognitive phenomena (automatization, categorization, inferencing, and
habituation to repeated stimulation), which can be observed in various
domains of information processing. She argues that the
cross-linguistic applicability of principles of grammaticalization and
observations on grammaticalization in diachronic changes and in creole
formation suggest that ''the true language universals are universals
of change'' (p. 151). Bybee's theory is closely linked to the analyses
of grammaticization in discourse analysed in Ford et
al. (IV). Compared to Ford et al.'s approach, Bybee's
cross-linguistic, diachronic research method seems to provide a more
systematic approach to language change that allows the formulation of
a clear-cut theory of grammaticalization in language change.

Van Hoek (VI: Pronouns and Point of View: Cognitive Principles of
Coreference) investigates pronoun anaphora in discourse. She presents
the shortcomings of syntax-only approaches to pronoun resolution (as
put forward in the C-command analysis) and outlines an approach that
is based on general principles and ideas of cognitive linguistics. She
argues that the cognitive-pragmatic foundations of pronoun use can be
outlined in terms of accessibility (new vs. old) and distance
(e.g. on- stage vs. off-stage in a stage model). In this framework,
however, the points of view (POV) of speaker and hearer play a central
role in pronoun resolution. Van Hoek develops a reference-point model
of pronoun resolution that allows for an abstract analysis of pronoun
anaphora and for the identification of a number of basic underlying
principles (connectivity, prominence, linear order). Specifically, the
model incorporates the observations on the role of the POV in pronoun
anaphora. Within this framework, many of the central notions of
cognitive linguistics play a crucial role (see also chapter I), which,
in turn, provides potential extensions to other areas of anaphora and
cross-reference. Van Hoek guides the reader very smoothly through the
different theoretical viewpoints on pronoun resolution, tying in the
reference-point model with earlier stages of analysis and alternative
(formalist) views on pronoun resolution. In view of the overall
purpose of the book, however, I had difficulties in allocating this
model within the big picture of cognitive linguistics. This may not
necessarily be a shortcoming of the paper. Instead, I would like to
think that the papers presented in this volume should have been
interlinked by some explanatory texts that bridge the passage from one
paper to the next and allow the reader to allocate each paper within
the bigger picture of the cognitive linguistic approach. I will come
back to this issue in the General Evaluation below.

Comrie (VII: On Explaining Language Universals) reviews why language
universals might exist in the first place. He refutes the generative
view of the language-faculty as being separate of other cognitive
systems and as being unique. He argues that instead, language can be
understood as a special case, if not even as a result of cognitive
processing (and its limitations). In this framework, language
universals emerge as a result of the structural limitations of the
cognitive and physiological capacities of its speakers as human
beings. Apart from this structural dependence, there is a (universal)
functional requirement for language to convey messages unambiguously
and economically. Comrie exemplifies this point in cross-linguistic
data on reflexive markers that are specifically relevant for third
person reflexive pronouns (e.g. himSELF) to unambiguously signal co-
reference. To linguists and psychologists alike, this paper provides a
well-written and concise review of explanations for the existence of
language universals that ties in nicely with other chapters of the
book, such as Talmy (I).

Haspelmath (VIII: The Geometry of Grammatical Meaning: Semantic Maps
and Cross-Linguistic Comparison) presents the semantic-map method
(also referred to as cognitive-map method) for the cross-linguistic
analysis of the meaning of grammatical morphemes. Semantic maps
provide a tool to describe semantic-syntactic structures within and
across languages and across time. They may thus be used in studying
universal semantic structures and diachronic changes, e.g. in
grammaticalization (see V). Haspelmath illustrates the method of
semantic maps and its applicability in a number of examples. In his
conclusion, he presents a critical review of the semantic-map method,
pointing out potential pitfalls of the method, such as the generality
fallacy. Interestingly, he is the only author who directly addresses
psychologists and makes an explicit attempt to link his work to their
work. Being foremost a method paper, chapter eight ties in well with
many of the papers presented in the previous chapters.

Chapter IX is a reprint (with slight modifications) of the classic
paper by Fillmore, Kay, and Connor (1988): ''Regularity and
Idiomaticity in Grammatical Constructions: The Case of Let Alone''. In
this paper, Fillmore et al. laid the foundations of a view of grammar
as consisting of constructions as central grammatical
units. Constructions can differ markedly in size, as Fillmore et al.'s
typological classification of complex idiomatic constructions
exemplifies. In their paper, Fillmore et al. provide a structural,
semantic and pragmatic analysis of one of the typological classes of
formal idioms, using the example of the 'let alone' construction. They
outline a new conception of grammar that covers the structural
properties of formal idioms and complex phraseological constructions
as well as, as a corollary, the rules for combining smaller
grammatical constructions, e.g. nouns. As Tomasello points out in the
introduction, the paper by Fillmore et al. marked an important step in
the emancipation of cognitive linguistics from generative
linguistics. It would have been helpful for the reader if Tomasello's
annotations on this paper had appeared in direct vicinity of the paper
rather than at the other end of the book. With the present arrangement
of single chapters without bridging comments the local value of each
paper is difficult to assess for less proficient readers.


As Tomasello (1998, p. viii) points out, virtually all of ''the
empirical studies of syntactic structure [in psycholinguistics and
developmental psycholinguistics] have been concerned with narrow-range
phenomena, or else they have relied on very generic descriptions that
seemingly do not depend on any particular theory of syntax''. In
addition, most of the studies concerned everything BUT syntax (i.e.
lexical retrieval, pragmatics, or else). With the two edited volumes
on ''The New Psychology of Language'', Tomasello and all contributors
aim to make recent developments in linguistic theories (of syntax)
available to psycholinguists in order to enhance cross-disciplinary
research into language and cognition. While this is a noble aim and
the contributors to both volumes of ''The New Psychology of Language''
clearly do their best to make their research and theories
understandable for less proficient linguists, many psycholinguists
will have trouble to get the 'big picture' of cognitive-functional
linguistics from the present assembly of papers. The introduction
helps considerably in allocating cognitive-functional linguistics
within the framework of previous linguistic schools (see also
Tomasello, 1998); however, the assembly of individual papers seems to
be too eclectic to integrate the papers into this picture. For
instance, some papers can be classified as methodological papers
(e.g. chapters III and VIII) whereas other papers aim at giving
theoretical reviews (e.g. chapters I and VII). To alleviate the
eclectic character of the book, it would have been helpful to include
connecting passages that link the individual contributions to each
other and to the introduction. Generally, for less proficient
linguists, it may be helpful to start out with a general introduction
to cognitive-functional linguistics, and to read Volume I of ''The New
Psychology of Language'' before turning to the present volume.

Tomasello (1998) suggested that many psychologists may have trouble
following current directions in linguistics because, among other
obstacles, ''linguistic descriptions and explanations require
specialized linguistic terminology that discourages outsiders''. This
clearly is one of the problems underlying the lack of cross-
disciplinary exchange but might be accommodated by adapting the
writing style and scope to less proficient audiences, as is done in
the present volume. However, while reading the book I could not help
but realize that the difficulties of communication between
psychologists and cognitive linguists may root in a deeper,
methodological rift between these two research areas. Linguistics in
general and cognitive- functional linguistics in particular are
largely based on a casuistic research logic; cognitive linguists study
language in situ, as it is actually produced. This implies that
cognitive linguists can make only limited generalizations of their
observations to other speakers/languages/situations. While being aware
of this limitation, linguists nevertheless often make generalizations
and formulate hypotheses that they entertain until proven
wrong. Psychologists may consider many of these hypotheses as very
bold, given the scale and range of the underlying empirical
evidence. Contrary to linguists, psychologists try to narrow down the
scope of their investigations to situations under laboratory control,
which allow them to study samples of speakers in well-controlled
situations and to make certain, statistically founded, generalizations
to other samples. To linguists, however, psychologists may often seem
to be too scrupulous for their own good. Given this large gap between
linguists and psychologists, my impression is that it needs much more
than a communication of ideas across disciplines to enhance new
fruitful lines of research. What it needs is a more detailed
assessment of which research questions posed in the framework of
cognitive grammar can be operationalized appropriately for
psychological testing.

Language acquisition is one of the domains that has proved to be
accessible for psycholinguistic investigations into cognitive grammar.
Further areas should clearly be opened up but seem to be too difficult
to assess experimentally at present. Crucially, in order for
psychologists and linguists to jointly investigate the cognitive
foundations of language a fundamental mutual understanding must be
established between the disciplines. Specifically, this implies that
linguists need to acquire an understanding of
psychological/experimental research methods (and their limitations).
Psychologists might feel that their work is misrepresented if it is
presented, for instance, as having ''spent decades on studying on how
subjects in the narrow confines of laboratory cubby-holes parse and
interpreted isolated sentences that bear little relation to either the
type of clauses used in natural communication, the communicative
context in which such clauses are used or the linguistic context in
which clauses in natural communication are produced and interpreted''
(Givon, 1998, p. 63f.). Ironical statements like these do suggest that
linguists need to put more effort into understanding why psychological
testing exerts so many restrictions and how, within this framework,
cognitive linguistic theories can be tested. Having said all this, the
present volume together with volume I clearly is a step into this
direction that will hopefully be followed by further
cross-disciplinary exchange.


Bock, K. (1996). Language production: Methods and methodologies.
Psychonomic Bulletin and Review, 3, 395-421.

Givon, T. (1998). The functional approach to grammar. In: M. Tomasello
(Ed.), The New Psychology of Language, Vol.1 (pp. 41-66).Mahwah, NJ:
Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

Tomasello, M. (1998). Introduction: A cognitive-functional perspective
on language structure. In: M. Tomasello (Ed.), The New Psychology of
Language, Vol.1 (pp. vii - xxiii).Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum


Dr Eva Belke is a research fellow at the Department of Psychology,
University of Birmingham. Having originally studied Clinical
Linguistics and Psycholinguistics for therapeutic purposes, she is now
doing experimental psycholinguistic research, focussing in particular
on language production processes. Further research interests include
aphasic and neuropsychological disorders, specifically reading
disorders, and models of healthy and impaired language processing.
Mail to author|Respond to list|Read more issues|LINGUIST home page|Top of issue