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Review of  Motivation in Grammar and the Lexicon

Reviewer: Daogen Cao
Book Title: Motivation in Grammar and the Lexicon
Book Author: Klaus-Uwe Panther Günter Radden
Publisher: John Benjamins
Linguistic Field(s): Semantics
Cognitive Science
Subject Language(s): English
Issue Number: 24.379

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The present volume is a sequel to the volume “Studies in Linguistic Motivation,” edited by the two editors in 2004, and so serves as a continued discussion on linguistic motivation. It is demonstrated by the contributors how language-independent factors such as bodily experience, emotion, perception, action, social/communicative interaction, and culture, when mediated through cognition, motivate grammar and the lexicon in a variety of languages such as English, German, French, Italian, Hungarian, Russian, Croatian, Japanese, and Korean.

The volume is divided into two parts plus an introduction. The first part contains nine articles addressing issues of motivation pertaining to grammar, and the second part comprises five articles that reveal and demonstrate motivating factors in the lexicon.


The Introduction authored by the two editors presents a sketch of the overall framework of the interaction among human systems as well as a summary of the contributions to the volume.

In Part One, various aspects of grammar are explicated in terms of language-independent motivational factors. According to Ronald Langacker, the English auxiliaries are motivated by their crucial role as existential verbs. They schematically predicate the existence of a relationship to be negotiated by the interactive system. The default existential predicate is ‘do’; it indicates the unqualified existence of a process for negotiating purposes. ‘Do’ is, therefore, needed with e.g. yes-no questions (‘Did she wait?’), negative statements (‘She didn’t wait’), and affirmative statements (‘She DID wait’), in which the grounded process is negotiated between the interlocutors. In questions, for example, the hearer’s position is elicited. By contrast, in positive statements the speaker takes the validity of the proposition for granted, i.e. assumes that it is not to be negotiated. Therefore, the existential ‘do’ is not needed and hence not expressed. As a result the sentences ‘*She does will wait’ and ‘*She did wait’ with the unstressed form of ‘did’ are ungrammatical.

Working within the cognitive linguistics theoretical framework, Rong Chen puts forward a Ground-before-Figure (GbF) model that is instantiated by the inversion of subject and lexical verb in sentences like ‘In the room was a unicorn’, as well as the existential construction (e.g. ‘There is a unicorn in the room’). Both the constructions are rooted in the gestalt-perceptual principle of figure and ground. It is argued, however, that the existential construction is more versatile (cf. ‘*In the room was no sign of life’ but ‘There was no sign of life in the room’), and is therefore a more typical instance of the GbF model because the word there in the existential construction designates mind as a default ground where virtually anything can or cannot exist. The perceptual principles of figure-ground gestalt thus motivate the GbF model and its linguistic manifestations.

Within Langacker’s Cognitive Grammar framework, Cristiano Broccias discusses participant-oriented uses of adverbs, which exhibit cognitive and perceptual motivations. Two types of participant-oriented adverbs are identified, viz. “manner” and “transparent” adverbs. The former is exemplified by ‘Fred ate the sausages ravenously’, in which the adverb not only indicates manner but also assigns a property to the subject referent; the latter is exemplified by ‘Sally painted the house beautifully’, in which the adverb only indicates the property of the object noun. It is claimed that the difference between the two types of adverbs results from a difference in viewing arrangement, in particular, the vantage point of the conceptualizer.

Dangling participles are considered poor expressions in written Standard English, but their use cannot be eradicated in speech, as testified by the data from the British National Corpus. Naoko Hayase argues that this is because the construction is ecologically well motivated by its specific communicative function within the grammatical system of English. Hayase shows that constructions with a dangling participle describe a coherent “cognizance scenario”, a scenario that is based on our common experience of noticing something while engaged in some activity. The dangling participial construction evokes a conceptualizer who conceives the situation described in the main clause. The conceptualizer is typically the speaker or a virtual or generic person. The dangling participial construction is thus highly subjective.

It is observed by Mitsuko Narita Izutsu and Katsunobu Izutsu that lexical items such as English ‘while’, ‘where(as)’, German ‘während’, Japanese ‘-nagara’, ‘tokoroga’, and Korean ‘-myeonseo’ have all undergone a semantic shift from the meaning of TEMPORAL/SPATIAL OVERLAP to the meaning of CONTRAST/CONCESSIVE. Underlying the semantic change are motivational factors that are both cognitive (metonymic inference) and perceptual. Experiments show that metonymic inference is motivated by temporal/spatial overlap, which largely corresponds to perceptual overlap in Langacker’s viewing arrangement of two situations.

Through carefully designed experiments, Teenie Matlock shows that imperfective descriptions of past events trigger more inferences than their perfective counterparts. This result conforms with the semantics of the imperfective and perfective aspect: the imperfective aspect provides an internal perspective of a situation and focuses on its ongoingness, while the perfective aspect provides an external perspective of a situation and focuses on its completion. The “more action” effect of the imperfective is motivated by our ability to mentally simulate events: in taking an internal view of an ongoing situation, our subjective experience of the action increases and engages us in “moment to moment processing”.

Certain types of the caused-motion construction involve non-motion verbs, e.g. ‘He gazed me out of the club’. When such non-motion verbs are inserted into the caused-motion construction, they are coerced into expressing a change of location by virtue of metaphors like EXPERIENTIAL ACTION IS EFFECTUAL ACTION. Using a decompositional approach, Annalisa Baicchi is able to account for the change in valency of non-motion intransitive verbs and their construction-coerced change in meaning.

The subject (doer) of clauses containing English ‘must’ is invariably marked with nominative case but the subject of clauses containing Hungarian ‘kell’ has either nominative or dative case marking. The grammatical nominative/dative alternation of the doer in Hungarian is accounted for by Péter Pelyvás with the dual role attributed to the doer participant in the conceptual structure: the agent-like role in performing the imposed act and a passive role in the non-autonomous obligation portion of the event model involving deontic modality.

The highly developed honorific systems in Korean and Japanese are functionally similar but differ with respect to non-subject referent honorifics, which indicate the speaker’s deference toward a non-subject referent participant in the event described. Satoshi Uehara argues that the relatively higher productivity of non-subject referent honorifics in Japanese is motivated by two socio-cultural factors: the egocentric viewing arrangement which is based on the Japanese self-humbling nature of deference, and the distinction between ‘uchi’ (‘inside’) and ‘soto’ (‘outside’) which refers to the omnipresent boundary between the in-group and the out-group.

Part Two of the volume is devoted to motivational accounts of certain aspects of the lexicon. Elena Tribushinina argues that the conceptual motivation in adjectival semantics lies in cognitive reference points. The reference-point reasoning is actually a pervasive cognitive phenomenon intrinsic to the interpretation of dimensional adjectives. It is argued that a multitude of reference points may be used to anchor conceptual specifications of adjectives, prototypes being only a special case of the reference-point mechanism. For example, dimensional adjectives may be interpreted vis-à-vis an average value of the property (norm), endpoints of the scale (as with the measure phrase ‘five feet seven inches tall’) and dimensions of the human body (EGO) (as in the sentence ‘Giraffes are tall’).

The socio-cultural motivation of the use of the metonymy CAPITAL FOR GOVERNMENT is investigated by Mario Brdar and Rita Brdar-Szabó, who find that the metonymy is used more frequently in English and German than in Hungarian and Croatian newspapers. For the latter two languages, they find that the metonymy is more frequent in weekend editions than in workday editions. This receives a motivational explanation given a cultural model which contrasts a weekend frame of mind with an ordinary workday frame of mind.

The final three chapters in Part Two focus on motivational processes with linguistic sources, i.e. motivational links among lexical items. Daniela Marzo’s article investigates Italian native speaker judgments about motivational relations in the lexicon, and develops Peter Koch’s conception of motivation by regarding a lexical unit as motivated if it is both formally and conceptually related to another lexical unit. Potential motivational relations in the lexicon are also the subject of Birgit Umbreit’s article. In contrast to traditional studies, which view motivation as a unidirectional process from a “motivational base” to a more complex unit, Umbreit proposes a multidirectional network of motivated relations.

The issue of motivatability is central to Christina Sanchez-Stockhammer’s article, in which degrees of a lexeme’s motivatability are distinguished. For example, English ‘football’ is “fully motivatable”, ‘income’ is “partially motivatable”, ‘understand’ is “unmotivatable but transparent” and ‘leaf’ is “unmotivatable”. The analysis of the motivatability of the 2,500 most frequent words of English and German conducted in the article confirms that German vocabulary is indeed more motivatable than English vocabulary. However, the assumption that this is due to the larger stock of Romance words in English could not be confirmed.


As is demonstrated by this volume, motivation in grammar and the lexicon can be established as a central theoretical construct in the study of natural language. The collection of papers brought together in this volume points unmistakably to the fact that much that is done in the fields of cognitive and functional linguistics contributes to the study of motivation in language. In fact, an overriding task for linguistics is to address the issues of how much language is motivated and how it is motivated. This is consistent with the fact that motivation is in a large part a principle of language.

Although Radden & Panther (2004:42) once modestly claimed that “it is impossible to provide conclusive evidence for or against the hypothesis that all of language is motivated by language-independent factors”, as Ronald W. Langacker remarks in his contribution to this volume (p. 30), “virtually everything [in language] is motivated”, and motivation affords some middle ground which is an alternative to the two extreme positions, namely, full predictability of language structure and complete arbitrariness of language structure. In a similar vein, Heine (1997:3) argues that since “human behaviour is not arbitrary but […] driven by motivation”, language structure, which is a product of human behaviour, “must also be motivated”. It is therefore not implausible to see motivation in language as being normative, which is divergent from de Saussure’s (1916/1959) notion of relative motivation in the sense that motivation is but a limiting case of arbitrariness (Radden & Panther 2004). And if motivation in language is the norm that reduces arbitrariness to the status of being the last resort in language (Lakoff 1987), then explanatory adequacy as a standard laid down for the formulation of linguistic theories is translatable as revealing the motivated correlation between language and language-independent factors, of which cognition plays a central role (Introduction to this volume by Panther & Radden, p. 2). Linguistic inquiry should adopt a motivational approach to most, if not all, linguistic phenomena.

At this junction, we would like to do some justice to generative grammar, in particular, Chomsky’s Transformational Generative Grammar, which also has, among others, the theoretical aim of attaining explanatory adequacy but which receives much criticism from cognitive linguists for the thesis of the autonomy of grammar. For example, in his contribution to the present volume (p. 30), Langacker attacks the thesis once again by saying that generative grammar as an autonomous or self-contained system (module) would imply full predictability internally (serving to predict/generate all and only the grammatical sentences of a language) and essential arbitrariness externally (without being constrained by other factors such as cognition, communication and social interaction).

We would like to point out, however, that the syntactic component in the hypothesized faculty of language now referred to as narrow syntax (Chomsky 2000; 2001) is autonomous in that the computation of and through syntactic objects or syntactic features that takes place in narrow syntax is encapsulated from other components or modules like morphology, phonology and semantics. In other words, the narrow syntax computation does not see the components external to the syntactic component, and the syntactic derivation occurs without reference to meaning, discourse or language use. Once the narrow syntax embarks upon a computation with the feature matrices retrieved from the lexicon, it will do the computing with the given features only, being precluded from either backtracking to morphology or looking ahead to phonology or semantics until the Spell-Out operation that submits the product of syntactic computation to interpretational mechanics (the inclusiveness condition). For all this, however, what the ultimate output of the syntactic computation is like is still shaped by what has been furnished by the lexicon or morphological component. For one thing, lexicon or morphology feeds syntactic computation; for another thing, it is the uninterpretable formal features within the narrow syntax that trigger and drive certain syntactic operations. Furthermore, what is yielded by the syntax will eventually be subject to evaluation by the sensori-motor system (phonological component) and the conceptual-intentional system (semantic component) that both interface with narrow syntax. The evaluation is made with respect to the legibility condition and the principle of full interpretation.

The above account, sketchy as it is, suffices to indicate that Chomsky’s modular model of grammar is only in part or relatively autonomous. It is only when feature assemblies are being processed that syntax can be said to be autonomous. Autonomy of syntax is conditional and principled to the extent that syntax is susceptible to morphology prior to syntactic computation and evaluable posterior to syntactic computation in terms of semantics and language use. In linguistic performances, there is likely to be insufficient or excessive morphological information or wrongly chosen morphological information entering narrow syntax, and in this case, just because of the restriction imposed by the stringent inclusiveness condition which is a reflex of narrow syntax autonomy, the narrow syntax would have no chance whatsoever of mending the information (replenishing what is lacking or removing the superfluous or replacing the mistaken) so that the computation could be saved and the resultant structure would become possibly convergent. This constitutes a case of autonomy of syntax causing its own crash, indicating that the current model of grammar envisaged by Chomsky in his Minimalist Program does not claim full predictability, thus escaping Langacker’s criticism. The escape is possible because we have a different line of thinking over autonomy of grammar or syntax, given Chomsky’s idea of grammar.

On the other hand, though the very narrow syntax computation does not lend itself to influence from language-external factors such as cognition, communication or social interaction, the general computational principles posited in Chomsky’s model of grammar for computational efficiency are still motivated by interpretational considerations such as economy or interpretability/legibility or biological considerations, viz. the consideration of perfection or optimality in language as a design solution to the problem of how to make language both learnable and usable. This refutes Langacker’s view that autonomy of grammar rules out the predictability of grammatical rules on language-external grounds and consequently the rules take arbitrary forms.

As a final remark, it is worth noting that Chomsky has never been so ambitious as to assert that syntax could lay claim to everything in language. In fact, he acknowledges that grammars are shaped in part by function: “Surely there are significant connections between structure and function; this is not and has never been in doubt. […] Searle argues that it is reasonable to suppose that the needs of communication influenced [language] structure” (Chomsky 1975:56-58).


Chomsky, Noam. 1975. Reflections on Language. New York: Pantheon.

Chomsky, Noam. 2000. Minimalist inquiries: The framework. In R. Martin et al. (eds.), Step by step: Essays on minimalist syntax in honor of Howard Lasnik, pp. 89-155. Cambridge, Mass: MIT Press.

Chomsky, Noam. 2001. Derivation by phase. In M. Kenstowicz (ed.), Ken Hale: A Life in. Language, pp. 1-52. Cambridge, Mass: MIT Press

de Saussure, Ferdinand. 1916/1959. Course in General Linguistics. New York, Toronto, London: McGraw-Hill.

Heine, Bernd. 1997. Cognitive Foundations of Grammar. New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Lakoff, George. 1987. Women, Fire, and Dangerous Things: What Categories Reveal about the Mind. Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press.

Radden, Günter & Klaus-Uwe Panther. 2004. Introduction: Reflections on Motivation. In Radden, Günter & Klaus-Uwe Panther (eds.). Studies in Linguistic Motivation (Cognitive Linguistics Research 28), pp. 3-46. Berlin: Mouton de Gruyter.
Cao Daogen is a teacher teaching and studying linguistics in Zhejiang University of Finance and Economics, English Department. He holds a Ph.D. in Linguistics (Fudan University, 2005). His research interests include syntax, semantics and cognitive linguistics.