Talmy, Leonard (2000) Toward a Cognitive Semantics, 2 vols. MIT Press,
Vol. 1: 549pp, Vol. 2: 482pp, $110.00 for each volume, $60.00 for each
Kathleen Therese O'Connor, Assoc. Prof. of Spanish, Houghton College;
Lecturer in Spanish, Princeton University
In this two-volume set, Leonard Talmy circumscribes the field of
cognitive semantics by examining how languages reveal the organization
of conceptual structure, noting specifically the interactions between
the basic concepts of space and time, motion and location, causation
and force interaction, and attention and viewpoint. Employing a
vocabulary developed for his own interdisciplinary work, Talmy defines
the field and establishes the ground-rules for further researching the
nature of cognition and meaning in language. Volume I surveys the
conceptual system in terms of the interaction of units of thought and
language. Volume 2 proposes typologies of concepts and discusses the
processes by means of which cognition interacts with them. Talmy's
intention in both volumes is to address the issue of the linguistic
representation of conceptual structure. Volume 1 is organized into an
introduction and 4 parts. Part 1, Foundation of Conceptual Structuring
in Language, consists of Chapter I which discusses the relation of
grammar to cognition. Part 2, Configurational Structure, contains
Chapter 2, on fictive motion in language and "ception"; and Chapter 3,
on the question of how language structures space. Part 3, Attention,
contains Chapters 4-6, on the topics of the windowing of attention in
language, figure and ground, and structures that relate events
respectively. Part 4, Force and Causation, contains Chapters 7, on the
topic of force dynamics in language and cognition; and 8, on the
semantics of causation.
Volume 2 gives the introduction to the book modified for the present
volume, and presents 3 parts broken down into 8 chapters. Part 1,
Typological Patterns in the Representation of Event Structure, contains
Chapter 1-4; Chapter 1 deals with lexicalization patterns; Chapter 2
surveys the lexicalization patterns; Chapter 3 presents a typology of
event integration; and Chapter 4 discusses borrowing semantic space in
terms of "diachronic hybridization". Part 2, Semantic Interaction
contains Chapters 5 and 6. Chapter 5 is concerned with semantic
conflict and resolution; and Chapter 6, with communication goals and
means and their cognitive interaction. Part 3, Other Cognitive Systems,
contains Chapter 7, on the cognitive culture system and Chapter 8, on a
cognitive framework for narrative structure.
Synopses The scope of Volume 1, being that of defining the boundaries
of conceptual systems, is a foundational work approaching a general
theory of cognitive semantics. The 8 chapters distributed among 4
sections are revised versions or amplifications of earlier pioneering
papers Talmy published in the field, together with additional
unpublished materials which support the current work. Part I is a
foundational overview of conceptual structuring in which the
establishment of the relation of grammar to cognition is provided.
Here, Talmy establishes as a fundamental design feature of language the
need to recognize two complementary and indispensable subsystems: the
grammatical and the lexical. Attributing influence to the works of
SLOBIN & AKSU (1982), DIXON (1972) and ULTAN (1978) along with the
broader issues of grammatical meaning as developed by SAPIR (1921),
BOAS (1938), Whorf (1956) and JAKOBSON (1971), he talks about the need
for grammar to provide linguistic structure and lexical representations
to specify conceptual material. Talmy describes the sentence as the
basic schematic framework of conceptual organization. He refers to it
as a cognitive representative, CR, which, he says draws upon both
subsystems to specify its meaning to the listener. Chapter I goes on to
show constraints on grammatical meaning in terms of their superordinate
categories and member notions: the first being closed-class forms on
nouns which, for example give information on some categories, such as
number, but not on color for example; and the second being the need for
open-class forms where the category will not indicate a morphological
definer-- such as the case of number in the sense of dozen, even, odd,
Part 2 is devoted to what Talmy calls configurational structure. It is
in this section that his well known work on fictive motion is
developed. He begins by introducing the concept of fictivity in
language as referring to cases where two discrepant representations are
of a physical complex in space-time. He discusses fictive motion in
terms of constructual and experienced fictive motion and provides
abundant examples. In Chapter 3, Talmy draws upon the work of GRUBER
(1965), Fillmore (1968), Leech (1969), Clark (1973), Bennett (1975),
Herskovits (1982), Jackendoff (1983), and Talmy (1972, 1975a, 1975b),
to discuss how language structures space by means of schematization--
or a referent scheme to represent the whole; he applies the notions of
figure and ground taken from Gestalt psychology to the distinct roles
played by primary and secondary objects being described, providing
Part 3, titled "Attention" discusses the capacity of languages to
foreground and background information. This happens as explicit mention
of a situation is cited and as other mention is omitted. Talmy refers
to this phenomenon as "windowing attention". He introduces the notions
of figure and ground and goes on in Chapter 5 to discuss in depth
various interrelationships of windowing of the figure-ground
interrelationship, and develops the idea of affective states associated
with factuality states where the perspective of the speaker (regret,
desire, etc) is compared with an event. In this section, Talmy also
provides a tree diagram of role derivations in which the figure causes
the event as an instrument of the causative situation (p. 337). In
Chapter 6, Talmy provides several examples of structures that relate
events applied to both simple and complex sentences. It is here that
Talmy's work is best accessible to readers trained in the generative
approach to the semantic-syntactic interface.
Part 4, titled "Force and Causation" further elaborates on the
cognitive interactions in semantic patterns, which were first developed
in Talmy (I 976a). In Chapter 7, titled "Force Dynamics in Language and
Cognition", he cites works by other scholars were the present model of
force dynamics has been adopted including those done by GEE & KEGL
(1982:348-350), Sweetser (1982, 1984), and some theoretical models by
Pinker (1989, 1997), Jackendoff (1990) and Brandt (1992). Talmy's
examples illustrate the categories of physical, psychological, intra-
psychological, lexicalized and socio-psychological providing minimal
pairs of each. One example from the physical category is as follows:
example: be VPing/keep VPing i. The ball was rolling along the green.
ii. The ball kept (on) rolling along the green.
Part 4, Chapter 8 "The Semantics of Causation" discerns a number of
distinct types of causative situations of varying complexity resolving
the types into which these basic semantic elements combine. Diagrams of
sentences are provided which account for S (basic causative situation),
S (caused event). A distinction between author and agent is established
when the subordinating form by expresses the distinction between
grammatical subject-head active versus passive sentences.
Volume 2 develops the properties of typologies and processes in concept
structuring. The work in this volume is intended to apply a rigorous
methodology to the phenomenology and interpretation involved in the
process of cognitive semantics. It is noted here, that the author
himself recognizes some difficulty with the qualification of semantics
as cognitive-- since, he says, semantics by definition requires the
processes of cognition to determine meaning in languages. Still, he
uses the term since it denotes the field in its current state as
drawing upon some of the contributions of psychology and other
disciplines that seek to measure consciousness.
Of the 3 part subdivisions of this volume, Part I is by far the largest
and most significant. In this part, typological patterns in the
representation of the event structure are detailed. Chapter 1,
described by Talmy as a "much revised and expanded version of TALMY
(1985b)", discusses patterns of lexicalization. This is defined as "the
systematic relations in language between meaning and surface
expression" (p. 2 1). The semantic elements such as 'motion, 'path',
'figure, 'ground', 'manner', and 'cause'; and the surface elements of
verb, adposition, subordinate clause, and what Talmy characterizes as
'satellite' are shown as integral to the lexicalization process. In
this Chapter, many of the concepts introduced in Volume I are
designated and analyzed according to a rigorous methodology which are
summarized by Talmy according to the following approach, where
"entities" = elements, relations, structures; both particular cases and
a. Determine various semantic entities in a language;
b. Determine various surface entities in a language;
c. Observe which (a) entities are expressed by which (b) entities-- in
what combinations and with what relationships-- noting any patterns.
d. Compare (c)-type patterns across different languages, noting any
e. Compare (c)-type patterns across different stages of a single
language, noting any shifts or nonshifts that accord with a (d)-type
f. Consider the cognitive processes and structures that might give rise
to the phenomena observed in (a) through (e). (Vol. 2, p. 22).
Chapter 2, subdivided into 3 sections, "Surveying Lexicalization
Patterns", surveys the material presented in 11-1; with the first two
sections employing a crosslinguistic scope and the last surveying the
material within a single language. Chapter 3, "A Typology of Event
Integration", discusses three basic findings relevant to event
structure. The first is the idea of the "macro-event" as relating to
the event complex consisting of a pair of cross-related Figure-Ground
events, such as that which pertains to "motion" as described in 1-6.
The second amplifies the expression of motion into broader categories
of "temporal contouring", "action correlation", and "realization". The
third finding Talmy cites is the notion of languages falling into two
typological categories based upon how the schematic core is expressed:
whether in the verb or in a satellite to the verb. (Originally in Talmy
(1985b)). Examples are provided from several languages. Chapter 4,
"Borrowing Semantic Space: Diachronic Hybridization", is concerned with
the influence of one language upon the semantic system of another,
where there is no direct borrowing of morphemic shapes. He accounts for
instances of polysemy and other lexical semantic extensions under the
category of diachronic hybridization, as the result of languages in
contact. For much of the work in this chapter, Talmy attributes credit
to U. Weinreich (1953) and M. Weinreich (1980) giving examples from the
former's work on Slavic influences on Yiddish.
Part 2, Chapter 5 "Semantic Conflict and Resolution, is concerned with
the regular linguistic situation the author calls "multiple
specification", in which two or more specifications are provided by the
same referent. The author examines the nature of the "conflict' and
shows how the language is equipped with the apparatus for the semantic
"resolution" which can occur in both closed-class and open-class
schema. In this chapter, he also discusses the concept of basicness, or
the status of one form being "privileged" as to its expected meaning.
Chapter 6, is titled "Communicative Goals and Means: Their Cognitive
Interaction". In this chapter, the perspective of the psychological
situation is taken into account in the communication process. Such
aspects which affect communications as: the communicative core, the
larger context, the modificational process, and the associated factors
of child development, individual differences and language comparison,
language change and observational adequacy must be taken into account
in the process of the communication goals and means.
Part 3, Chapter 7 discusses the cognitive culture system applying the
term 'cognitivism' to designate the cognitive organization in each of
the individuals collectively making up a society. This discussion
addresses the questions of what is universal across cultures and what
varies; of what is innate and what is learned, and of how the
individual and the group are related. Chapter 8 establishes a cognitive
framework for the analysis of narrative. His framework treats the
narrative as contextualized into three divisions. These are the
"domains", the "strata" and the "parameters". The author's conclusions
declare the intention of this chapter to lay out the structural
delineations of narrative and the larger narrative context with the
hopes that it will be used both to guide the analysis of particular
narratives and to link up with endeavors from across the cognitive
sciences and humanities to contribute to an understanding of conceptual
structure in human cognition. (p. 481)
Critical Comments: This 2-volume set is a rigorous and thorough work in
cognitive semantics, from which I learned a great deal and which
prompted me to think through aspects of the field for myself from a
different perspective than the (largely Lakovian) one I hold. In his
approach, applying the scientific method throughout, Talmy
painstakingly supports his intuitions with both arguments and examples.
And the scope of the work is as broad as it is deep. Volumes I and 2
neither compete with one another, nor do they appear disjointed. The
work as a whole is both original and accessible to a general educated
readership as well as to trained linguists. I used some of the chapters
as resource material for an undergraduate course I taught in Romance
Syntax last semester. Particularly useful to me were the chapters from
Volume 1, I-1 on the relation of grammar to cognition; and I-2 on
Nevertheless, perhaps due to its very originality, I found that reading
the book could be tedious. The author's ground-breaking work results in
the need to introduce multiple new terms, forcing the reader to search
for connections to scholarship produced by other theorists in the field
whose vocabulary is more widely used today. I speak, for example, of
the conspicuous absence of any discussion of metaphor as developed by
George Lakoff and his followers, despite the fact that much of what
Talmy discusses in Volume I (and develops in Vol. 2) can be easily
fitted to perspectives on metaphor and cognition. This is particularly
the case with his work on fictive motion, for which Talmy's work is
best known among researchers in metaphor. What Talmy discusses in terms
of fictivity, other cognitive semanticists might classify as extending
the meaning of a basic experience to another more abstract one (or as
it is often put: mapping the meaning from a source to a target domain)
- the process by which the mind manufactures metaphor.
As a result of omissions in this area, some difficulties can arise in
integrating the present work with other aspects of cognitive semantics,
such as is the case in Vol. 2, in his discussion of what he calls the
"diachronic hybridization" of semantic space. Here, Talmy's new
vocabulary seems to be on the brink of a discovery similar to Lakoff &
Johnson's (1980) classification of various types of metonymy as falling
under the category of metaphor in the broadest sense. (Such as "the
event for the place", "the function for the object", etc.). On another
level, from the same discussion in (II-4), we might be lead to believe
that lexical extensions come about solely as the result of cross-
linguistic influences, rather than from the experiential consciousness
of a member of a society who compares basic experiences with other
ones, in a cognitive interaction nascent within the intuitional
faculties shaped by the individual's own cultural conceptual framework.
Other topics introduced by Talmy bear a strong resemblance to
linguistic phenomena known by other labels. The idea of foregrounding
and backgrounding of information, for example, lends itself easily to
the discussion of topic and comment, given and known, or hiding and
highlighting. Also conspicuously absent is reference to the work in
generative semantics, or the semantic-syntactic interface, which is
called for in the section on grammar and cognition. For example, in his
discussion of the agent-author distinction (I-8), the classification of
this type of function as a passive movement, as developed in the
generative syntax literature, is not given significant attention,
something that would be helpful to those trained in the generative
While it is true that the cognitive approach does not share many of the
premises of Chomskyan-type formalisms, I think that a comprehensive
foundational work, such as the one Talmy offers should show more of
what he believes if any are the contributions from generative
semantics; or, wanting for any � to show why the generative approaches
are to be excluded from the present research. This, I think, will
enable a better dialog among those who take semantics seriously despite
differing perspectives; and it will make for better science.
On the level of a theoretical perspective, Talmy is clearly influenced
by Whorfian thought. However, he avoids the issue as to whether he sees
language in terms of representing thought, or whether he thinks that
language shapes thought in the Whorfian sense. He seems to use
terminology from both approaches almost interchangeably, which it seems
to me leaves the question unanswered as to which if either he believes
about language and cognition, or if he acknowledges this as an
important problem at all. For example, he begins his introduction by
talking about the need to address the "linguistic representation of
concepts" (indicating that the concepts are first structured) while
later, he talks in terms of language as a concept structuring system by
which, he says, "language shapes concepts". Talmy also avoids
philosophical discussion of objectivism and subjectivism as a duality,
by acknowledging the need to establish the factuality of an event
together with the perspective of the speaker who associates it with a
I would be remiss however, if I failed to point out that despite what
appears to be the lack on the author's part of noting key references,
many of Talmy's papers which have been incorporated into the current
collection predate several significant contributions to the field. In
some cases, while he does not revise the discussion within the body of
the text to accommodate more recent scholarship, his chapter endnotes
make reference to some of these subsequent works. In this sense, his
own originality should be acknowledged, as well as the rigor which, in
the eyes of some, vindicate the social science method applied to
As a more practical comment, I mention the usefulness this book as a
resource text for an undergraduate course I taught on Romance Syntax,
in which I wanted to take into account the work of cognitive semantics
into the semantics-syntax interface. For this work, I found the
chapters on grammar and cognition and fictive motion very helpful for
my course preparations and accessible to students.
Bennett, David C. (1975) Spatial and temporal uses of English
prepositions: An essay in stratificational semantics. London: Longman
Boas, Franz (1938) Language. In General anthology, ed. by Franz Boas,
et al. Boston: Heath
Brandt, Per Aage (1992) La charpente modale du sens: Pour une
simio-linguistique morphogenitique et dynamique. Amsterdam: Benjamins.
Clark, Herb (1973) Space, time semantics, and the child. In Cognitive
development and the acquisition of language, ed. by Timothy E. Moore.
New York: Academic Press.
Dixon, Robert M. W (1972) The Dyirbal language of North Queensland.
London: Cambridge University Press.
Fillmore, Charles (1968) The case for case. In Universals in linguistic
theory, ed. by Emmon Bach and Robert T. Harms. New York: Holt,
Rinehart and Winston.
Gee, James, and Judy Kegl (1982) Semantic perspicuity and the locative
hypotheses. In Proceedings of the Eighth Annual Meeting of the Berkeley
Linguistics Society. Berkeley, CA: Berkeley Linguistics Society.
Gruber, Jeffrey (1965) Studies in lexical relations. Doctoral
dissertation. MIT, Cambridge, MA. Reprinted as part of Lexical
structures in syntax and semantics, 1976. Amsterdam: North-Holland
Herskovits, Annette (1982) Space and the prepositions in English:
Regularities and irregularities in a complex domain. Doctoral
dissertation, Stanford University, Stanford, CA.
Jackendoff, Ray (1983) Semantics and cognition. Cambridge, MA: MIT
Jackendoff, Ray (1990) Semantic structures. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
Jakobson, Roman (1971) Boas' view of grammatical meaning. In Selected
works of Roman Jakobson. (vol. 2) The Hague: Mouton.
Lakoff, George, and Mark Johnson (1980) Metaphors we live by.
Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Leech, Geoffrey (1969) Towards a semantic description of English. New
Pinker, Steven (1989) Learnability and cognition. Cambridge, MA: MIT
Pinker, Steven (1997) How the mind works. New York: Norton
Sapir, Edward (1921) Language. New York: Harcourt, Brace, Jovanovich.
Slobin, Dan I., and Ayhan A. Aksu (1982) Tense, aspect, and modality in
the use of the Turkish evidential. In Tense-Aspect: Between semantics
and pragmatics, ed. by P.J. Hopper. Amsterdam: Benjamins.
Sweetser, Eve (1982) A proposal for uniting deontic and epistemic modals.
In Proceedings of the Eighth Annual Meeting of the Berkeley Linguistics
Society. Berkeley, CA: Berkeley Linguistics Society
Sweetser, Eve (1984) Semantic structure and semantic change: A cognitive
linguistic study of modality, perception, speech acts, and logical
relations. Doctoral dissertation, University of California, Berkeley.
Talmy, Leonard (1972) Semantic structures in English and Atsugewi.
Doctoral dissertation, University of California, Berkeley.
Talmy, Leonard (1975a) Figure and ground in complex sentences. In
Proceedings of the First Annual Meeting of the Berkeley Linguistics
Society. Berkeley, CA: Berkeley Linguistics Society
Talmy, Leonard (1975b) Semantics and syntax of motion. In Syntax and
semantics (vol. 4), ed. by John P. Kimball. New York: Academic Press.
Talmy, Leonard (1985b) Lexicalization patterns: Semantic structures in
lexical forms. In Language typology and syntactic description (vol. 3);
Grammatical categories and the lexicon, edited by Timothy Shopen.
Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press.
Ultan, Russell (1978) Some general characteristics of interrogative
systems. In Universals of human language (vol. 4), ed. by Joseph
Greenberg et al. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.
Weinreich, Max (1980) History of the Yiddish language. Chicago:
University of Chicago Press.
Weinreich, Uriel (1953) Languages in contact. New York: Linguistic
Circle of New York.
Whorf, Benjamin Lee (1956) Language, thought and reality. Cambridge,
MA. MIT Press.
About the reviewer:
Kathleen Therese O'Connor has a Ph.D. in Spanish Linguistics from
Columbia University and has been Associate Professor of Spanish at
Houghton College since 1995. She has several papers in the area of
cognitive metaphor and literary semantics. In the Fall, she will begin
lecturing in Spanish at Princeton University.