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Review of  Language and Conceptualization

Reviewer: Stephanie S. Pourcel
Book Title: Language and Conceptualization
Book Author: Jan Nuyts Eric Pederson
Publisher: Cambridge University Press
Linguistic Field(s): Psycholinguistics
Cognitive Science
Issue Number: 12.2920

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Nuyts, Jan, and Eric Pederson, ed. (1999) Language and
Conceptualization. Cambridge University Press, viii+281pp,
paperback ISBN: 0-521-77481-0, Language, Culture and
Cognition 1 (hardback ed., 1997).

St�phanie Pourcel, School of Linguistics & Language,
University of Durham, England.

This book comes as the first publication in the Cambridge
"Language, Culture & Cognition" series. It broadly aims at
understanding human cognition. More specifically, it
addresses the relationship between language and thought --
'the relationship question'. Numerous studies have recently
been published on the theme of cognition and language; yet,
most tend to avoid characterising this difficult relationship.
Yet, the 'relationship question' is crucial to understanding
human cognition; and the articles in this volume set out to
investigate this question directly. By doing so, they revive
the old controversial question of linguistic relativity --
also known as the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis -- according to which
language is believed to exert an influence on the thinking of
its speakers. Research on the 'relationship question' has been
actively revived in the 1990s (e.g. Lucy 1992a & b, Gumperz &
Levinson 1996, Niemeier & Dirven 2000, Putz & Verspoor 2000,
Danziger 2000).

Chapter 1 offers an overview of the volume by the editors. It
introduces the theme of the 'relationship question', and
clarifies what is meant by 'conceptualisation', i.e. the broad
internal knowledge that we have of our environment (including
our own psychological and socio-cultural human condition).
This knowledge is internalised, and as a result, the only way
to study conceptualisation is to look at overt behaviour (such
as speech) in which conceptual knowledge is used (such as the
knowledge of linguistic rules). Language indeed is an ideal
type of behaviour to study in order to peep into the workings
of the human mind, for it is explicit and reflexive in a way
that other types of human behaviour aren't. This introduction
also reviews the different schools of thought that have
pondered the 'relationship question', and notes that despite
its seemingly perennial interest, the issue is far from
settled scientifically speaking. The editors encourage special
attention to methodological considerations, and they call for
more inter-disciplinarity. The present volume reflects just
this encouragement and presents empirical as well as
theoretical papers, written by notable cognitive scientists of
varied backgrounds.

In chapter 2 (by S. Levinson) follows a discussion on the
basic nature of semantic representations (henceforth SRs) and
of conceptual representations (henceforth CRs), and of the
extent to which they are dissimilar. Levinson argues - clearly
and convincingly I believe - that SRs and CRs cannot possibly
be isomorphic (i.e. they don't have the same inner structure),
let alone be equatable by any means, for CRs constitute a
psychic given, and are hence universal across all members of
the species, whereas SRs are language-specific and hence not
universal. An obvious example here is that one cannot
necessarily translate a CR into an SR in any one language, and
also that a CR may be readily expressible in one language but
not in another. Nonetheless, SRs and CRs must somehow be
closely related, for the encoding and decoding from one mode
of representation into the other is highly systematic; and
this suggests that their structures present similarities.
Levinson's general idea is that SRs and CRs are dissimilar yet
not completely autonomous. He sets out to investigate the
relationship between SRs and CRs and eventually discusses
linguistic relativity. Drawing from a strong body of
empirical evidence (e.g. Lucy 1992b, Brown & Levinson 1993)
and arguing that SRs encode concepts differing from CRs,
Levinson ultimately supports relativity and concludes that
language induces mental representations by influencing

Chapter 3 by B. Bickel is an in-depth study of the grammatical
system for expressing location and direction in Belhare (a
Nepali language). It is a monolingual and hence non-
comparative study, specifically examining the system of
spatial deixis - labelled here 'environmental space'. First,
Bickel outlines a theory explaining the complexity of the
spatial deixis system in Belhare. Based on native data, Bickel
works out that the cognitive system needs 5 types of mapping
operations to function in the Belhare linguistic system.
Ultimately, one of Bickel's theoretical points is that the
'environmental space' in Belhare is such a complex (i.e. in
terms of being rule-governed) and semantically rich system
that it constitutes a grammatical category per se. Implied
here is that in other languages (e.g. English) linguistic
means for expressing spatial meanings do not form a
grammatical category.

The author might have exploited this major difference to
test for CRs potentially differing as a result; at least a
comparative approach may have illuminated the 'relationship
question' here. The present argument evolves into a
discussion of cognitive matrices, and of how linguistic
systems are justified by basic human cognition, i.e. based
upon perception of the environment through sensory
experience and via our anatomic condition (following
Langacker 1987). Though this point is informative to the
relationship question, this paper still does not answer the
central question here, namely 'is conceptualisation
based on linguistic representation?', and the very question
the author asks at the outset, i.e. whether spatial deixis
has any effect on cognition.

In chapter 4, Paul Werth starts by supporting Levinson's
ideas. His aim however is to demonstrate that there IS
isomorphism between SRs and CRs, i.e. they may be distinct,
yet they have a similar inner structure. The data Werth
looks at is English, and the study is monolingual. More
specifically, Werth intends on drawing evidence from the CR
justifying the SR 'would'. He situates his analysis in a
'text-world model', which he defines more or less as
conceptually relevant context. A text-world may comprise
'sub-worlds', of which there are 3 types, e.g. belief, and
probability types, and a type involving ad hoc changes to
the text-world. For example, 'would' is a probability type
sub-world, i.e. the CR for 'would' is one of probability.
Werth develops an in-depth cognitive approach to text
analysis, which is a worthy contribution in itself. However,
the focus on the relationship question suffers slightly as a
result, and the original proposal of proving isomorphism
between SRs and CRs is not clearly addressed.

In chapter 5, Eve Sweetser assumes, like Bickel, that
cognition maps itself onto grammar, and that therefore SRs are
valuable clues about CRs. The SRs Sweetser examines are
change-of-state predicates in English. Unlike Werth's, her
study is situated at the sentence-level. Sweetser explains
that one may obtain either role or individual readings of
lexical subjects, depending on whether the role or the role-
filler is referred to, and also depending on whether the
predicate is monolexemic or periphrastic. The basic
generalisation is that periphrastic predicates may have their
sense extended, so that a role and an individual reading are
possible. She suggests that the contrast between the two types
of predicates shows (i) "a single well-integrated event"
(monolexemic predicates) and (ii) "a less tightly knit
sequence of events" (for periphrastic predicates).
Consequently, monolexemic predicates allow little scope for
semantic extension, whereas periphrastic predicates allow for
looser semantic boundaries and hence for semantic flexibility.

In her conclusion, Sweetser also points to studies in Japanese
showing that the same pattern obtains in other languages.
Overall, the present data seems to support a theory of
language whereby grammar is based on non-linguistic
cognition, i.e. claiming that language is not an independent
cognitive faculty. Indeed, linguistic form seems to behave
iconically accordingly with what it is encoding. This iconic
correspondence has to spring from basic cognitive processing
of the concept that is later linguistically encoded, else we
would obtain what would appear to be a nonsensical

In chapter 6, Mary Carroll offers a cross-linguistic empirical
study, drawing on Slobin's 'thinking for speaking' work (e.g.
Slobin 1991). She looks at the linguistic encoding and the
conceptualisation of spatial relations, in German and in
English. An initial assumption is that in language production,
speakers generate a temporary conceptual structure, consisting
of conceptual domains (e.g. time, space, objects, etc.) that
are mapped into linguistic form. Furthermore, one conceptual
domain is typically given preference over others when
expressed in language, depending on the speech function (e.g.
narrative, description, etc.), and depending on language-
specific preferences. Ultimately, selected conceptual elements
create a schema, allowing a 'perspective'. In other words,
linguistic production is never objective and true to the
concepts it expresses; rather, it is always subjective as it
expresses partial perspectives.

The question here is whether the organising of perspectives in
language production comes to influence the conceptualisation
of the domains expressed. In the conceptual domain of space,
the author notes that English favours an object-based
perspective, so that when expressing the place of an object,
concepts used refer to and are controlled by the features of
the object. Whilst German favours an observer-based
perspective, therefore when expressing spatial relations,
intrinsic features of objects are NOT a selected element;
instead, speakers use themselves typically as reference points
from which to describe the location of objects. In her
methodology, Carroll gives her test-subjects a language
elicitation task, so that her data is essentially linguistic.
Unfortunately, linguistic data does not establish cognitive
implications, i.e. the circularity issue (see Lucy 1992a & b,
Pourcel forthcoming). In the conclusion, we have nonetheless a
formulation of cognitive implications for speakers of English
and German following the elicited linguistic patterns, which
hence comes as a slightly sweeping claim.

In chapter 7, R. Tomlin proposes a process model of language
production, hypothesising that the subject of a sentence
corresponds to the referent of an intended CR. These
referents are posited as focuses of attention. What this
position claims is that grammars are processing, rather than
generative, models. The idea is that CR referents are
composed of parameters, and when formulating utterances, our
attention searches the best lexical fits corresponding to
the selected referential parameters of a given CR. In this
model, linguistic categories need no longer be explained in
terms of theme or topic.

Tomlin's study is particularly interesting in terms of
methodology. It starts with CRs - rather than with language
data. It then controls for cognitive parameters, e.g.
attention, and only then observes linguistic production
resulting from the experimental set-up. Finally, having
observed how attention and CRs seem to function, it infers a
model of language based on how cognition works, rather than
inferring how cognition works based on linguistic facts.

In chapter 8, D. McNeill discusses the relevance of studying
gestures that accompany speech to understanding cognitive
processes. A basic idea is that gestures represent meanings
holistically and synthetically, rather than segmentally and
combinatorily - like language. Combined with language,
gestures create one integrated system of meaning-making.
McNeill discusses 'growth points', which correspond to the
stage just before speech production, when speech is being
'built up'. The growth point is like the idea of what is to
be said. It comprises both the 'imagistic' concept in our
mind and the linguistic item representing that concept --
i.e. it combines SR and CR.

Ultimately, it is argued that through gestures, one has a
real-time window onto the genesis of psychological states.
Relying on past research (McNeill 1992), McNeill shows that
cross-linguistically, iconic gestures are typically similar
- despite linguistic divergence - suggesting that gestures
reflect a universal level of cognition. This study has the
advantage of addressing the link between language and
thought directly, and whether linguistic categories impact
on thinking. The author also suggests methodological
possibilities, in order to answer his questions and
potentially validate his hypothesis on growth points (see
McNeill 2000 for experimental details). In his final
sections, the author makes strong relativist claims, which
would ideally require empirical support. One question with
McNeill's work is the possibility that the observed gestures
may partly be cultural.

In chapter 9, J. Atlas deals with the language of thought and
modularity in a philosophical discussion, and generally
emphasises the autonomy of the language faculty from the pool
of thoughts available or manifest to the mind. His argument
rests on the idea that thoughts are not representational.
Atlas thus supports Levinson's claim that CRs and SRs are
dissimilar. Atlas claims that speech is both hermeneutic and
modular. It is modular in the first stage of speech
processing, i.e. the algorithmic translation of sounds into
semantic information; but it is hermeneutic at the next stage,
namely the interpretation of speaker intentionality behind the
propositional content of speech.

In chapter 10, R. Langacker makes interesting points on the
'contextual basis of cognitive semantics'. He claims (1) that
language is partly mental and partly emergent from outer
context; (2) that CRs follow from human bodily and psychic
universals, thus imposing constraints on potential
experiences; and (3) that the conceptualisation of context
constitutes the basis for linguistic structure. (4) He then
defines the nature of representations, stating that
conceptualisation is a cognitive process; whereas linguistic
meaning is context- dependent and is thus not purely cognitive
- hence CRs and SRs differ. (5) He re-iterates the cognitive
linguistics idea that lexicon and grammar are unified on a
continuum, and that grammatical rules aren't generative;
rather, they are constructional schemas, i.e. internalised
patterns of idiosyncratic structure. (6) He turns to the
relationship between language and culture, mainly saying that
language is cultural to the extent that what speakers talk
about largely relates to culture. In other words, SRs are
largely cultural. (7) Discussing speaker-hearers, he assigns
to them an active role in the construal of meaning; further
claiming that those construals emerge from social

Given his other statement that grammar resides in those
construals, Langacker's ultimate point amounts to claiming
that grammar is a social emergence. Langacker then moves on to
claiming that language is essentially egocentric, i.e. it is
manifested meaningfully through the speaker-hearer's
perspective - who is the speech apprehender, interpreter, and
conceptualiser. His final point concerns semantic
compositionality. Given his basic claim that meaning = context
+ basic semantics of linguistic elements, Langacker advocates
partial semantic compositionality only - in that linguistic
meaning is unpredictable to the extent that context is in
flux. The overall idea is that meaning and understanding are
created 'on-line', and that language cannot be studied as an
autonomous mental module functioning by and of itself.

The last chapter by E. Robinson is a partial critique of
objective/ descriptive models of language and cognition,
which assume that overt phenomena equate with underlying
reality - i.e. the SR = CR problem. Among other things, he
argues that language and cognition are distributed systems.
This is an ecologically-focused approach to cognitive
behaviour, in which experience is given prominence in
explaining the construal of representations - thus making
representations probabilistic (cf. prototype theory). He
thus claims that concepts are probabilistically defined
associative abstractions learned through interaction with
the environment. In other words, concepts are prototypical
at base, and are further refined by contextual cues.
Ultimately, Robinson is saying that behaviour is
probabilistic at base.

Overall, this volume offers a good contribution in terms of
the multiple exploratory ways it suggests in order to study
cognition. It does not always provide answers to the
questions it has set itself, yet it suggests methodologies,
theoretical directions, and various potentialities, which
are worthy in a research-minded framework. As mentioned
before, this field is a terribly complex one to explore, let
alone understand, and we have here the illustration of this
very complexity. By its very nature, the study of the
human mind is doomed not to be able to provide answers to
the questions it asks.. Still, we have here a useful
addition to the ongoing debate. One of the best things about
this volume is the eclectic variety of angles it takes to
look at the one topic; this is a genuine and successful
effort at multi-disciplinarity.

P. Brown & S. Levinson (1993) Linguistic and non-linguistic
coding of spatial arrays: Explorations in Mayan cognition.
Working Paper 24, Cognitive Anthropology Group. Nijmegen.

E. Danziger (2001) Relatively Speaking: Language, Thought,
and Kinship Among the Mopan Maya. Oxford: Oxford University

J. J. Gumperz & S. C. Levinson (1996) Rethinking Linguistic
Relativity. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

R. Langacker (1987) Foundations of Cognitive Grammar, vol.
1: Theoretical Perspectives. Stanford: Stanford University

J. Lucy (1992a) Language Diversity and Thought. Cambridge:
Cambridge University Press.

J. Lucy (1992b) Grammatical Categories and Cognition.
Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

D. McNeill (1992) Hand & Mind: What Gestures Reveal About
Thought. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

D. McNeill (2000) Analogic/Analytic representations & cross-
linguistic differences in thinking for speaking. Cognitive
Linguistics, 11 (1/2): 43-60.

S. Niemeier & R. Dirven (2000) Evidence for Linguistic
Relativity. Amsterdam: John Benjamins.

S. Pourcel (forthcoming) Investigating linguistic
relativity: a research methodology. Durham Working Papers,
vol. 8.

M. Putz & M. Verspoor (2000) explorations into linguistic
relativity. Amsterdam: John Benjamins.

D. Slobin (1991) Learning to think for speaking. Pragmatics,
1 (1): 7-25.

The reviewer is a PhD student at the University of Durham.
Her Studies focus on testing linguistic relativity. Other
interests are in translation and in anthropological


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