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Review of  Essentials of Cognitive Grammar

Reviewer: Kim Ebensgaard Jensen
Book Title: Essentials of Cognitive Grammar
Book Author: Ronald W. Langacker
Publisher: Oxford University Press
Linguistic Field(s): General Linguistics
Linguistic Theories
Issue Number: 24.2533

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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 structure.

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.

Format: Paperback
ISBN-13: 9780199937356
Pages: 280
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