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LINGUIST List 24.2533

Fri Jun 21 2013

Review: General Linguistics; Linguistic Theories: Langacker (2013)

Editor for this issue: Joseph Salmons <jsalmonslinguistlist.org>

Date: 23-Apr-2013
From: Kim Jensen <kimcgs.aau.dk>
Subject: Essentials of Cognitive Grammar
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Book announced at http://linguistlist.org/issues/24/24-515.html

AUTHOR: Ronald W. Langacker
TITLE: Essentials of Cognitive Grammar
PUBLISHER: Oxford University Press
YEAR: 2013

REVIEWER: Kim Ebensgaard Jensen, Aalborg University

Ronald W. Langacker's Essentials of Cognitive Grammar (henceforth ECG) is, by
Langacker's own admission, a ‘lite’ version of Langacker (2008). Langacker
(2008) was written to address the need for a comprehensive introduction to
Cognitive Grammar, unifying in one volume insights otherwise presented across
several monographs and papers. Detailed, comprehensive, and near-exhaustive,
the 2008 volume is deemed, by Langacker himself, too long and too technical
for a broad audience, and ECG was published as a more accessible introduction
to Cognitive Grammar.

ECG includes parts I and II (eight chapters in all) of Langacker (2008) with
minimal edits and adjustments, leaving out parts III and IV. Part I includes
the three first chapters, and part II the remaining five. The former addresses
the basic tenets of Cognitive Grammar (primarily the symbolic nature of
grammar and the conceptual grounding of semantics), while the latter goes into
more detail with word classes and constructions. In addition to these eight
chapters, the book contains a very brief introduction, explaining the
relationship between ECG and Langacker (2008), and a bibliography followed by
a combined index of topics, names, and languages.

The first chapter introduces the fundamental assumptions of Cognitive Grammar,
progressing from the basic claim that grammar is meaningful, through a
discussion of Cognitive Grammar and its place in cognitive linguistics -- and,
more broadly, functional linguistics -- towards an initial sketch of
symbolization in grammar. This sketch is fleshed out in the remainder of the
book, and, despite its brevity, it must be read to really appreciate the rest
of the volume. This chapter introduces central notions in Cognitive Grammar
such as conceptualization, construal, and symbol, as well as the semiological
and interactive functions of grammar. The gradable relation between the
lexicon and syntax, in which both lexical units and grammatical structures are
defined as symbolic structures which differ in terms of internal symbolic
complexity, is also introduced in this chapter, as is the central working
hypothesis of the content requirement which is intended to, as Langacker (p.
24) puts it, constrain “any flights of fancy cognitive grammarians might be
prone to”. Langacker devotes a section to explaining the diagrams for which
Cognitive Grammar is notorious, justifying their role as heuristic descriptive
devices. Throughout this chapter, particularly in its first two subsections,
Langacker presents rejections of formalist principles and of critiques of and
misconceptions about Cognitive Grammar.

Taking its starting point in a discussion of Platonic, objectivist, and
interactive views of meaning, chapter two introduces the cognitive/conceptual
view of meaning (while contrasting the cognitive/conceptual view with the
Platonic and objectivist ones, Langacker concludes that it is compatible with
the interactive one). The chapter defines a number of theoretical notions
pertaining to conceptual meaning, such as image schemas, prototypes, mental
spaces, metaphors, blends, encyclopedic semantics, and idealized cognitive
models, specifying their roles in the view of semantics adopted in the
framework of Cognitive Grammar. Meaning is described as ultimately a
combination of conceptual content and construal of that content, construal
referring to the cognitive ability to perceive and present the same situation
in different ways. This chapter also provides an introduction to the notions
of domains and domain matrices -- which are central to Cognitive Grammar --
and also briefly compares these notions to frames (Fillmore 1982), idealized
cognitive models (Lakoff 1987), and mental spaces (Fauconnier 1985).

Chapter three discusses construal in more detail, dividing it into four broad
classes: specificity, focusing, prominence, and perspective. Specificity and
its converse, schematicity, have to do with our ability to instantiate
schematic configurations with various more specific and elaborate ones.
Focusing covers the cognitive ability to arrange conceptual content, and
visual perception, into foreground and background (or figure and ground), also
subsuming composition and scope. Prominence covers construals of salience.
Langacker limits his discussion of prominence to two types -- namely,
profiling (the selection of components of a base of conceptual content) and
trajector/landmark alignment. Perspective covers construals of viewing
arrangement and temporal dynamicity. The chapter concludes with a section
advocating empirical observation and detailed linguistic analysis of phenomena
over introspection and reliance on intuition as the basis of semantic
descriptions, reminding the reader that Cognitive Grammar is ultimately an
empirical linguistic endeavor.

The first chapter of part II, chapter four characterizes word classes, and its
starting point is a rejection of the traditional view that word classes can
only be defined structurally and not semantically, in which Langacker also
touches upon the important notions of semantic prototypes and conceptual
reification. Focusing on nouns versus verbs, Langacker presents word classes
as conceptually based on different configurations of construal. Importantly,
Langacker concludes the chapter by acknowledging that structural features
indeed do play a role in determining word class membership in that structural
configurations serve symbolic purposes, such that units in linguistic
structures designate various conceptual relation-based phenomena.

Chapter five investigates, in more detail, verbal and nominal subclasses and
provides a conceptually based overview of count nouns and mass nouns and
distinguishes between the two classes on the basis of differences in construal
of bounding, allowing for variable construals. Moving on to verb subclasses,
Langacker treats what he calls perfective verbs and imperfective verbs. As
with mass and count nouns, imperfective and perfective verbs are largely based
on differences in bounding construals, and, indeed, Langacker sets up an
analogy such that imperfective verbs are the verbal counterpart of mass nouns,
and perfective verbs are the verbal counterpart of count nouns. The chapter
also touches upon tense and aspect and suggests that tense and aspect, as well
as imperfective and perfective verbs, involve profiling.

In chapters six and seven, Langacker addresses grammatical constructions.
Chapter six generally characterizes constructions as symbolic assemblies
involving relations of composition, integration, and symbolization. Focusing
on nominal compounds, Langacker explores how constructions can have
categorizing functions; bipolarity and unipolarity in structural organization
are also covered in this chapter. Chapter seven is devoted to four essential
semantic descriptive factors relating to constructions -- namely
correspondences, profiling determinants, elaboration, and constituency.
Langacker also offers critiques of traditional formalist linguistics, arguing
that, although a sentence may be grammatically acceptable and semantically
anomalous, this is actually not a valid argument for the autonomy of syntax. A
quite serious critique, from the perspective of a cognitive linguist, is that
tree structures, as used in formalist grammar, fail to capture many important
semantic and communicative aspects of linguistic structure, such as
bipolarity, multi-constituent fixed expressions, and aspects of information

The final chapter covers grammaticality and, more broadly, grammar as a
cognitive system. Grammar, and language as a whole, is organized in networks
of schematic structures, and grammatically acceptable structures in language
use are licensed by these schemas. This amounts to Cognitive Grammar
essentially being a usage-based theory of language (e.g. Barlow & Kemmer 2000,
Bybee & Hopper 2003, Tomasello 2003, and Croft & Cruse 2004: 291-327) in which
language is acquired through use and exposure to use, such that similar
usage-events serve as catalysts of schematization processes. Covering several
notions from usage-based linguistics and explicating how they figure in
Cognitive Grammar, the main premise of this chapter, and of Cognitive Grammar
in general, is that talking, or communicating, is a complex cognitive and
sociocultural activity in which language is instrumental. This is important in
the sense that it shows that Cognitive Grammar in particular, and cognitive
linguistics in general, views language as, not only a cognitive phenomenon,
but indeed also a sociocultural one.

Acquiring an overview of Cognitive Grammar is somewhat of a daunting task,
given that Langacker's insights have been presented in so many monographs and
articles. The quantity of output presenting the framework of Cognitive Grammar
is bewildering to any novice. Langacker (2008) was published to address this
issue, providing an in-depth overview of Cognitive Linguistics, addressing the
symbolic, cognitive, and discursive foundations of grammar and showing how
Cognitive Grammar can be applied in the analysis of morphemes, lexemes,
constructions and discourse. As a comprehensive overview of Cognitive Grammar,
Langacker (2008) is a success. It is a mammoth volume, which goes into
technical detail and progresses to a very advanced level; moreover, it covers
numerous topics and offers many suggestions that are bound to be totally alien
to novices at linguistics whose horizons do not expand beyond the teachings of
traditional linguistics. While an extremely valuable contribution to the
literature on cognitive linguistics, Langacker (2008) is not well suited as an
introduction to Cognitive Grammar aimed at beginners such as undergraduate and
even some postgraduate students of linguistics. A common strategy in
situations like this is to produce a ‘lite’ or ‘essentials of’ version of the
original volume, containing the information that students need in order to
grasp the basics of whatever the original volume deals with, leaving out
matters that are deemed to technical, advanced, difficult, or non-essential.
ECG is the product of such a strategy. And thus, while Langacker (2008) filled
a real gap in the literature on cognitive linguistics, ECG finds itself, not
in a void, but in a space populated by chapters and sections from other
volumes -- typically introductions to cognitive linguistics -- which also
present the basics of Cognitive Grammar, such as Evans & Green (2006: §§16-18)
and Croft & Cruse (2004: §§2.2-2.4, 10.2.3, 11.2.1), and, notably, Taylor
(2002). So, ECG definitely has competition. Of course, ECG has the advantage
over its competitors that it is written by Langacker himself; not that this
should disqualify other introductions to Cognitive Grammar, but the fact that
it is an introduction to a theoretical framework written by the developer of
the framework will undoubtedly be a strong attraction.

In the introduction to ECG, Langacker himself suggests that the book be used
as course material in a one-semester course at graduate and advanced
undergraduate level. I would agree. The level of abstraction in ECG is still
high enough to challenge and stimulate postgraduate and advanced undergraduate
students, but the ground it covers is not too comprehensive for such students
to handle. ECG should also be of value to linguists and other professionals
who know general linguistics but are not familiar with cognitive linguistics.
However, since ECG presupposes a certain knowledge of linguistics, it is
probably not suited for an audience who are totally new to linguistics, such
as freshmen and advanced undergraduate students in programs that do not
feature introductory general linguistics courses. With its many references to
traditional and formalist grammar, which often serve as points of contrast to
Cognitive Grammar notions, and the many counter-critiques and debunking of
misconceptions about Cognitive Grammar, ECG requires some insights into the
general scientific discourse of linguistics. Readers who have not been exposed
to formalist linguistics (including, in a Northern European context at least,
many undergraduate students and even advanced undergraduate students) might
not gain that much from the comparisons to formalist linguistics.

A general problem with ‘essentials of’ volumes is that by selecting some parts
as essential, the excluded parts from the original volume are automatically
demoted to non-essential status. To some extent, Langacker avoids this pitfall
by stating in the introduction (p. vi) that parts III and IV of Langacker
(2008) are “necessary for a full understanding of Cognitive Grammar”. The
rationale behind leaving out parts III and IV is that the content of part I
and II “is more readily apprehended when first presented independently” (p.
v). While deemed necessary for the full understanding of Cognitive Grammar,
parts III and IV of Langacker (2008) are nonetheless assigned a secondary
position, as Langacker's other reason for leaving them out is that they
presuppose the information given in the two first parts. Given the structure
of Langacker (2008), using parts I and II for a ECG certainly is a
pedagogically sound way to go about it. Still, I think that some of the
content in the excluded parts is interesting and, indeed, essential enough to
have been included in some shape or form. What is more, ECG seems incomplete
despite the fact that its two parts successfully present the nature and
essential descriptive notions of Cognitive Grammar. One reason is that no
conclusion has been added to the volume, leaving the reader with the final
paragraph of chapter eight as the last words of the volume. ECG -- especially
given its purpose -- could have benefited from the addition of a conclusion
reviewing the most important aspects of its content. I would also like to have
seen some elements from chapter nineteen of Langacker (2008), which covers
Cognitive Grammar's treatment of discourse, included in ECG. Had this been
included as a ninth chapter, the volume would have covered the structural
gamut from lexical over constructional to discursive structures, which might
have generated more of a sense of completion. A glossary of terms would also
have been useful, given that the descriptive apparatus of Cognitive Grammar
undeniably includes a plethora of very essential terms.

These issues aside, ECG is definitely an attractive and successful
introduction to the fundamentals of Cognitive Grammar. While cognitive
linguists and other seasoned linguists would benefit more from reading
Langacker (2008), ECG would be a good textbook for a postgraduate introductory
course in Cognitive Grammar whose participants are familiar with the basics of
general linguistics; likewise readers who are not new to linguistics, but not
familiar with Cognitive Grammar, are likely to benefit from reading it.

Barlow, Michael & Suzanne Kemmer (eds.). 2000. Usage-based models of language.
Stanford: CSLI.

Bybee, Joan & Paul Hopper (eds.). 2003. Frequency and the emergence of
linguistic structure. Amsterdam: John Benjamins.

Croft, William A. & D.A. Cruse. 2004. Cognitive linguistics. Cambridge:
Cambridge University Press.

Evans, Vyvyan & Melanie Green. 2006. Cognitive linguistics: An introduction.
Mawhaw, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.

Fauconnier, Gilles. 1985. Mental spaces: Aspects of meaning construction in
natural language. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Fillmore, Charles J. 1982. Frame Semantics. In Linguistic Society of Korea
(eds.), Linguistics in the morning calm. Seoul: Hanshin. 111-137.

Lakoff, George 1987. Women, fire, and dangerous things: What categories reveal
about the mind. Chicago: Chicago University Press.

Langacker, Ronald W. 2008. Cognitive grammar: A basic introduction. Oxford:
Oxford University Press.

Taylor, John R. 2002. Cognitive grammar. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Tomasello, Michael. 2003. Constructing a language: A usage-based theory of
language acquisition. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

An associate professor of English linguistics at Aalborg University, Kim
Ebensgaard Jensen is interested in the intersection of language, cognition,
and discourse. He operates within the frameworks of cognitive linguistics,
construction grammar, and corpus linguistics. His research interests include
grammatical constructions, construal operations, and usage-based descriptions
of linguistic phenomena.
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