LINGUIST List 24.2533

Fri Jun 21 2013

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

Editor for this issue: Joseph Salmons <>

Date: 23-Apr-2013
From: Kim Jensen <>
Subject: Essentials of Cognitive Grammar
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Book announced at

AUTHOR: Ronald W. LangackerTITLE: Essentials of Cognitive GrammarPUBLISHER: Oxford University PressYEAR: 2013

REVIEWER: Kim Ebensgaard Jensen, Aalborg University

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

ECG includes parts I and II (eight chapters in all) of Langacker (2008) withminimal edits and adjustments, leaving out parts III and IV. Part I includesthe three first chapters, and part II the remaining five. The former addressesthe basic tenets of Cognitive Grammar (primarily the symbolic nature ofgrammar and the conceptual grounding of semantics), while the latter goes intomore detail with word classes and constructions. In addition to these eightchapters, the book contains a very brief introduction, explaining therelationship between ECG and Langacker (2008), and a bibliography followed bya 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 adiscussion of Cognitive Grammar and its place in cognitive linguistics -- and,more broadly, functional linguistics -- towards an initial sketch ofsymbolization in grammar. This sketch is fleshed out in the remainder of thebook, and, despite its brevity, it must be read to really appreciate the restof the volume. This chapter introduces central notions in Cognitive Grammarsuch as conceptualization, construal, and symbol, as well as the semiologicaland interactive functions of grammar. The gradable relation between thelexicon and syntax, in which both lexical units and grammatical structures aredefined as symbolic structures which differ in terms of internal symboliccomplexity, is also introduced in this chapter, as is the central workinghypothesis of the content requirement which is intended to, as Langacker (p.24) puts it, constrain “any flights of fancy cognitive grammarians might beprone to”. Langacker devotes a section to explaining the diagrams for whichCognitive Grammar is notorious, justifying their role as heuristic descriptivedevices. Throughout this chapter, particularly in its first two subsections,Langacker presents rejections of formalist principles and of critiques of andmisconceptions about Cognitive Grammar.

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

Chapter three discusses construal in more detail, dividing it into four broadclasses: specificity, focusing, prominence, and perspective. Specificity andits converse, schematicity, have to do with our ability to instantiateschematic configurations with various more specific and elaborate ones.Focusing covers the cognitive ability to arrange conceptual content, andvisual perception, into foreground and background (or figure and ground), alsosubsuming 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) andtrajector/landmark alignment. Perspective covers construals of viewingarrangement and temporal dynamicity. The chapter concludes with a sectionadvocating empirical observation and detailed linguistic analysis of phenomenaover introspection and reliance on intuition as the basis of semanticdescriptions, reminding the reader that Cognitive Grammar is ultimately anempirical linguistic endeavor.

The first chapter of part II, chapter four characterizes word classes, and itsstarting point is a rejection of the traditional view that word classes canonly be defined structurally and not semantically, in which Langacker alsotouches upon the important notions of semantic prototypes and conceptualreification. Focusing on nouns versus verbs, Langacker presents word classesas conceptually based on different configurations of construal. Importantly,Langacker concludes the chapter by acknowledging that structural featuresindeed do play a role in determining word class membership in that structuralconfigurations serve symbolic purposes, such that units in linguisticstructures designate various conceptual relation-based phenomena.

Chapter five investigates, in more detail, verbal and nominal subclasses andprovides a conceptually based overview of count nouns and mass nouns anddistinguishes between the two classes on the basis of differences in construalof bounding, allowing for variable construals. Moving on to verb subclasses,Langacker treats what he calls perfective verbs and imperfective verbs. Aswith mass and count nouns, imperfective and perfective verbs are largely basedon differences in bounding construals, and, indeed, Langacker sets up ananalogy such that imperfective verbs are the verbal counterpart of mass nouns,and perfective verbs are the verbal counterpart of count nouns. The chapteralso touches upon tense and aspect and suggests that tense and aspect, as wellas imperfective and perfective verbs, involve profiling.

In chapters six and seven, Langacker addresses grammatical constructions.Chapter six generally characterizes constructions as symbolic assembliesinvolving relations of composition, integration, and symbolization. Focusingon nominal compounds, Langacker explores how constructions can havecategorizing functions; bipolarity and unipolarity in structural organizationare also covered in this chapter. Chapter seven is devoted to four essentialsemantic descriptive factors relating to constructions -- namelycorrespondences, profiling determinants, elaboration, and constituency.Langacker also offers critiques of traditional formalist linguistics, arguingthat, although a sentence may be grammatically acceptable and semanticallyanomalous, this is actually not a valid argument for the autonomy of syntax. Aquite serious critique, from the perspective of a cognitive linguist, is thattree structures, as used in formalist grammar, fail to capture many importantsemantic and communicative aspects of linguistic structure, such asbipolarity, multi-constituent fixed expressions, and aspects of informationstructure.

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

EVALUATIONAcquiring an overview of Cognitive Grammar is somewhat of a daunting task,given that Langacker's insights have been presented in so many monographs andarticles. The quantity of output presenting the framework of Cognitive Grammaris bewildering to any novice. Langacker (2008) was published to address thisissue, providing an in-depth overview of Cognitive Linguistics, addressing thesymbolic, cognitive, and discursive foundations of grammar and showing howCognitive 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 intotechnical detail and progresses to a very advanced level; moreover, it coversnumerous topics and offers many suggestions that are bound to be totally aliento novices at linguistics whose horizons do not expand beyond the teachings oftraditional linguistics. While an extremely valuable contribution to theliterature on cognitive linguistics, Langacker (2008) is not well suited as anintroduction to Cognitive Grammar aimed at beginners such as undergraduate andeven some postgraduate students of linguistics. A common strategy insituations like this is to produce a ‘lite’ or ‘essentials of’ version of theoriginal volume, containing the information that students need in order tograsp the basics of whatever the original volume deals with, leaving outmatters that are deemed to technical, advanced, difficult, or non-essential.ECG is the product of such a strategy. And thus, while Langacker (2008) filleda real gap in the literature on cognitive linguistics, ECG finds itself, notin a void, but in a space populated by chapters and sections from othervolumes -- typically introductions to cognitive linguistics -- which alsopresent 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 advantageover its competitors that it is written by Langacker himself; not that thisshould disqualify other introductions to Cognitive Grammar, but the fact thatit is an introduction to a theoretical framework written by the developer ofthe framework will undoubtedly be a strong attraction.

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

A general problem with ‘essentials of’ volumes is that by selecting some partsas essential, the excluded parts from the original volume are automaticallydemoted to non-essential status. To some extent, Langacker avoids this pitfallby stating in the introduction (p. vi) that parts III and IV of Langacker(2008) are “necessary for a full understanding of Cognitive Grammar”. Therationale behind leaving out parts III and IV is that the content of part Iand 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 secondaryposition, as Langacker's other reason for leaving them out is that theypresuppose the information given in the two first parts. Given the structureof Langacker (2008), using parts I and II for a ECG certainly is apedagogically sound way to go about it. Still, I think that some of thecontent in the excluded parts is interesting and, indeed, essential enough tohave been included in some shape or form. What is more, ECG seems incompletedespite the fact that its two parts successfully present the nature andessential descriptive notions of Cognitive Grammar. One reason is that noconclusion has been added to the volume, leaving the reader with the finalparagraph of chapter eight as the last words of the volume. ECG -- especiallygiven its purpose -- could have benefited from the addition of a conclusionreviewing the most important aspects of its content. I would also like to haveseen some elements from chapter nineteen of Langacker (2008), which coversCognitive Grammar's treatment of discourse, included in ECG. Had this beenincluded as a ninth chapter, the volume would have covered the structuralgamut from lexical over constructional to discursive structures, which mighthave generated more of a sense of completion. A glossary of terms would alsohave been useful, given that the descriptive apparatus of Cognitive Grammarundeniably includes a plethora of very essential terms.

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

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

Bybee, Joan & Paul Hopper (eds.). 2003. Frequency and the emergence oflinguistic 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 innatural 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 revealabout 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 oflanguage acquisition. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

ABOUT THE REVIEWERAn associate professor of English linguistics at Aalborg University, KimEbensgaard 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 includegrammatical constructions, construal operations, and usage-based descriptionsof linguistic phenomena.

Page Updated: 21-Jun-2013