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Review of  Handbook of Cognitive Linguistics

Reviewer: Heli Tissari
Book Title: Handbook of Cognitive Linguistics
Book Author: Ewa Dabrowska Dagmar Divjak
Publisher: De Gruyter Mouton
Linguistic Field(s): General Linguistics
Linguistic Theories
Cognitive Science
Issue Number: 27.1509

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Reviews Editor: Helen Aristar-Dry


The structure of the “Handbook of Cognitive Linguistics”, edited by Dąbrowska and Divjak, is of interest because it conveys an idea of how the editors view cognitive linguistics. They have chosen to divide the book into three sections, which they have termed “The cognitive foundations of language”, “Overviews” and “Central topics”. These sections are preceded by an introduction where the editors briefly answer the question “What is cognitive linguistics?” and consider the history and future of the field. They define cognitive linguistics as follows (p. 1): “Cognitive Linguistics is an approach to language study based on the assumptions that our linguistic abilities are firmly rooted in our general cognitive abilities, that meaning is essentially conceptualization, and that grammar is shaped by usage.” They suggest that the future for cognitive linguistics holds behavioural and statistical methods, interdisciplinarity and what they have decided to term “the social turn”, suggesting that such a turn is already visible in research published in the field (p. 6).

The chapters in the section “The cognitive foundations of language” reflect the definition of cognitive linguistics given in the introductory chapter. They deal with our general cognitive abilities and with conceptualization, and they also cover the idea that grammar is shaped by usage. These chapters deal with the topics of embodiment (Benjamin Bergen), attention and salience (Russell S. Tomlin and Andriy Myachykov), frequency and entrenchment (Dagmar Divjak and Catherine L. Caldwell-Harris), categorization (Michael Ramscar and Robert Port), abstraction, storage and naïve discriminative learning (R. Harald Baayen and Michael Ramscar), construal (Ronald W. Langacker), metonymy (Antonio Barcelona), metaphor (Raymond W. Gibbs), representing meaning (Laura J. Speed, David P. Vinson and Gabriella Vigliocco), blending (Mark Turner) and grammar and cooperative communication (Arie Verhagen). The chapters in the rest of the book frequently return to the central concepts introduced in this section, in particular to embodiment, salience, frequency, entrenchment, categorization, construal, metonymy, metaphor and conceptual spaces (blending). Given the original emphasis on metaphor in cognitive linguistic theory (Lakoff and Johnson 1980, Lakoff 1987), it is noteworthy that the editors of this handbook have given metonymy a more prominent status by having it discussed prior to metaphor.
In the introduction, the editors emphasize the cognitive commitment first stated by Lakoff (1990: 40), according to which “all cognitive linguists are, or should be, committed to providing a characterization of the general principles of language that is informed by and accords with what is known about the mind and brain from other disciplines” (in the words of the editors, p. 1). It is in agreement with this commitment that several of the authors in the first section of the book represent experts in psycholinguistics, psychology, artificial intelligence and/or statistical computing. This is also in line with the editors’ prediction that the future of cognitive linguistics lies in interdisciplinarity and behavioural and statistical methods.

The “Overviews” section comprises overviews of phonology (Geoffrey S. Nathan), lexical semantics (Dirk Geeraerts), usage-based construction grammar (Holger Diessel), discourse (Christopher Hart), historical linguistics (Martin Hilpert), variationist linguistics (Dirk Geeraerts and Gitte Christiansen), first language acquisition (Danielle Matthews and Grzegorz Krajewski), second language acquisition (Nick C. Ellis and Stefanie Wulff) and poetics (Peter Stockwell). Having laid the cognitive foundations of language, the book is able to treat major areas of linguistics, each in turn. In other words, the authors in this section approach their topics according to the cognitive commitment mentioned above, ensuring that anything said about major topics in linguistics agrees with what we know about the cognitive foundations of language. For example, Nathan adopts a “usage-based, frequency-oriented view” to phonology (p. 268), and Geeraerts and Kristiansen refer to prototypes, metaphor and metonymy, among other things, in their discussion of variationist linguistics.

The third section, “Central topics”, differs from the second in that it focuses on more specific topics than the “Overviews” section, and comprises chapters dedicated to some recent findings in cognitive linguistics. It is the longest section in the book, including chapters on semantic typology (Maria Koptjevskaja-Tamm), polysemy (Stefan Th. Gries), space (Kenny R. Coventry), time (Vyvyan Evans), motion (Luna Filipović and Iraide Ibarretxe-Antuñano), fictive motion (Teenie Matlock and Till Bergmann), prototype effects in grammar (John R. Taylor), argument structure constructions (Devin M. Casenhiser and Giulia M. L. Bencini), default nonliteral interpretations (Rachel Giora), tense, aspect and mood (Laura A. Janda), grammaticalization (Johan van der Auwera, Daniël Van Olmen and Denies Du Mon), individual differences in grammatical knowledge (Ewa Dąbrowska), signed languages (Sherman Wilcox) and emergentism (Brian MacWhinney).

All of the chapters in the book have several things in common. They comprise an overview of past research and some prediction(s) concerning the future. Sometimes the overview is very thorough (e.g. Barcelona on metonymy, Geeraerts and Kristiansen on variationist linguistics, Ellis and Wulff on second language acquisition), while sometimes a few central studies have been chosen as representative examples (e.g. Coventry on space, Giora on default nonliteral interpretations, Dąbrowska on individual differences in grammatical knowledge). Often the chapter is an introduction to key issues in the field (e.g. Evans on time), and sometimes the creator of a theory explains its central concepts (e.g. Langacker on construal, Turner on blending). The emphasis can also be on research methods (e.g. Baayen and Ramscar on naïve discriminative learning, Stockwell on poetics). These various approaches do not exclude each other, but rather overlap. For example, Taylor’s chapter on prototype effects in grammar begins by discussing the concepts of prototypes, prototype categories and prototype effects, and then discusses a few relevant grammatical issues in the light of key studies. At times one feels that the author of a chapter is attempting to cover too much within a limited space. For example, Janda discusses many languages in her chapter on tense, aspect and mood, and one would have liked to know more about them. To give another example, MacWhinney lists twelve mechanisms, six methods and ten core issues of emergentism, using only a few lines to discuss each of them (pp. 696-699).

MacWhinney presents a long list of theoretical frameworks which he subsumes under emergentism, among them cognitive grammar, construction grammar, usage-based linguistics, blending theory and conceptual metaphor theory. He thus seems to include most if not all of cognitive linguistics under the umbrella term ‘emergentism’. Because of this, MacWhinney’s chapter on emergentism can also be read as an introduction to cognitive linguistics. Indeed, he seems to summarize many of its basic assumptions, such as the idea that the proper object of linguistic study is not a language internalized by an ideal speaker-hearer but the dynamic output which reveals the conceptual consensus among a community of speakers (pp. 698-699). It is possible that MacWhinney’s chapter was placed last to give it a special status.

Although there are several chapters in the handbook which only deal with the English language, there appears to be an effort to include research on other languages as well. For example, Koptjevskaja-Tamm’s chapter on semantic typology covers many languages by default. To give a couple of more examples, Tomlin and Myachykov report on studies dealing with Russian, Finnish and Korean in their chapter on attention and salience, and Filipović and Ibarretxe-Antuñano report on studies dealing with English, German, Hebrew, Spanish, Turkish and Japanese in their chapter on motion. Giora says that she has used Hebrew stimuli in her experiments on default nonliteral interpretations, but her examples are in English, so that we do not get to read the original stimuli. Almost all the references given in the chapters are books and articles published in English.


The first handbook of cognitive linguistics was published in 2007 (Geeraerts & Cuyckens 2007a). One may ask whether the field is moving at such a pace that a new handbook is called for, or whether Dąbrowska and Divjak’s handbook represents a different kind of cognitive linguistics than Geeraerts and Cuyckens’s handbook (2007a). Unfortunately, I was not able to read Geeraerts and Cuyckens (2007a) from cover to cover (1294 pages plus index), but I will nevertheless treat these questions here.

The references in Dąbrowska and Divjak’s handbook are, of course, more up-to-date, including even references to research published in 2015, such as “The linguistics of temperature” edited by Koptjevskaja-Tamm (pp. 459, 469). In addition, Dąbrowska and Divjak’s section on the cognitive foundations of language diverges somewhat from “traditional” cognitive linguistics by emphasizing such computational and psycholinguistic phenomena as frequency, storage, naïve discriminative learning and the representation of meaning. Even the concepts of attention and salience are treated differently from Schmid (2007) and Talmy (2007), with a special emphasis on psychological and neurological research. This difference between the two handbooks reflects Dąbrowska and Divjak’s view that the future for cognitive linguistics includes interdisciplinarity and behavioural and statistical methods.

Geeraerts and Cuyckens’s introduction to cognitive linguistics (2007b) is more thorough than Dąbrowska and Divjak’s introduction, containing more information on the history of the field, its (original) theoretical underpinnings and prominent researchers in cognitive linguistics. Geeraerts and Cuyckens (2007b: 5) list three fundamental characteristics of cognitive linguistics: the primacy of semantics, the encyclopaedic nature of linguistic meaning and the perspectival nature of linguistic meaning, the last characteristic meaning that “the categorization function of the language imposes a structure on the world rather than just mirroring objective reality”. These three traits also characterize cognitive linguistics as presented by the new handbook, but in the new handbook frequency and entrenchment are emphasized.

Geeraerts and Cuyckens (2007b: 15-18) also predict that cognitive linguists will turn their attention to the social aspects of language, employ empirical methods more often than previously, and attempt a theoretical unification of cognitive linguistics. Note that they characterize cognitive linguistics as a “cluster of many partially overlapping approaches rather than a single well-defined theory” (Geeraerts & Cuyckens 2007b: 4).

Geeraerts and Cuyckens’s prediction (2007b: 15-16) that the social aspects of language will receive more attention seems to have been realized, since Dąbrowska and Divjak pay attention to the social turn in cognitive linguistics in their very introduction (p. 6). This turn is reflected even in chapter names in Dąbrowska and Divjak’s book. While Turner’s chapter (2007) in Geeraerts and Cuyckens’s handbook is simply called “Conceptual integration”, in the new book his chapter is titled “Blending in language and communication”. A similar emphasis on language as a social medium is visible in the name of Verhagen’s chapter “Grammar and cooperative communication”.

Geeraerts and Cuyckens’s prediction (2007b: 16-18) that cognitive linguists will begin to use empirical methods more often also seems to have been fulfilled, because most of the chapters in Dąbrowska and Divjak’s book are based on empirical research. Dąbrowska and Divjak predict that this trend will strengthen even more in the future, and they have apparently encouraged their authors to consider this issue. For example, Langacker ends his chapter on construal by pondering how the theoretical notions presented by him could become “subject to validation and refinement by independent empirical means” (p. 139).

It is more difficult to say whether Geeraerts and Cuyckens’s prediction (2007b: 18) of a theoretical unification of cognitive linguistics has come true. Dąbrowska and Divjak’s handbook is unified with respect to the idea that cognitive linguists should use behavioural and statistical methods and with respect to the cognitive foundations of language, which are mentioned in chapter after chapter in the book. However, interestingly, Dąbrowska and Divjak do not explicitly comment on the issue of theoretical unification, and the unity of their book rests on methodology at least as much as theory. We might perhaps say that a methodological unification has taken place between the publication of the two handbooks.

I will continue with a note on changes in the authors in the two handbooks. Geeraerts and Cuyckens (2007b: 8-9) state explicitly concerning the chapters in their book that “the contributions come predominantly from first-generation cognitive linguists, together with some members of the second generation, and a number of fellow travelers”. Dąbrowska and Divjak simply characterize their authors as “leading international experts” (p. 2). In contrast to Geeraerts and Cuyckens’s book (2007a: xi-xxviii), they do not include any biographical notes on the authors in their book. In other words, Dąbrowska and Divjak’s handbook pays less explicit attention to the status of the authors in the field of cognitive linguistics.

Geeraerts and Cuyckens’s (2007a) handbook includes some chapters on issues which are not treated in such detail in Dąbrowska and Divjak’s handbook, for example, chapters on mental spaces (Fauconnier 2007), iconicity (Van Langendonck 2007) and the relationship between cognitive linguistics and philosophy (Harder 2007). One may therefore wish to turn to the first book despite the fact that the second book is more up-to-date as regards methods and references. The index section of Geeraerts and Cuyckens’s book (2007a: 1295-1334) is also longer and more comprehensive than the one in Dąbrowska and Divjak’s book (pp. 707-716). However, the latter, unlike the former, is divided into an authors index (pp. 707-710) and a subject index (pp. 711-716).

To conclude, the handbook under review can be recommended to anyone who wants to become familiar with the state-of-the-art of cognitive linguistics and to know where cognitive linguistics is going in the future. It is cohesive, compact and quite readable. It can also be used to acquire an up-to-date list of references on many issues treated in cognitive linguistic research. I can also see it being used selectively as a course-book, potentially together with some other readings. As regards the training of future cognitive linguists, although it is not explicitly commented on, this handbook strongly conveys the idea that it should be interdisciplinary.


Fauconnier, Gilles. 2007. Mental spaces. In Geeraerts & Cuyckens (eds.), 351-376.

Geeraerts, Dirk & Hubert Cuyckens (eds.) 2007a. The Oxford handbook of Cognitive Linguistics. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Geeraerts, Dirk & Hubert Cuyckens. 2007b. Introducing cognitive linguistics. In Geeraerts & Cuyckens (eds.), 3-21.

Harder, Peter. 2007. Cognitive Linguistics and philosophy. In Geeraerts & Cuyckens (eds.), 1241-1265.

Koptjevskaja-Tamm, Maria (ed.) 2015. The linguistics of temperature. Amsterdam: John Benjamins.

Lakoff, George. 1987. Women, fire and dangerous things: What categories reveal about the mind. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.

Lakoff, George. 1990. Is abstract reason based on image-schemas? Cognitive Linguistics 1(1), 39-74.

Lakoff, George & Mark Johnson. 1980. Metaphors we live by. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.

Nathan, Geoff. 2007. Phonology. In Geeraerts & Cuyckens (eds.), 611-631.

Schmid, Hans-Jörg. 2007. Entrenchment, salience, and basic levels. In Geeraerts & Cuyckens (eds.), 117-138.

Talmy, Leonard. 2007. Attention phenomena. In Geeraerts & Cuyckens (eds.), 264-293.

Turner, Mark. 2007. Conceptual integration. In Geeraerts & Cuyckens (eds.), 377-393.

Van Langendonck, Willy. 2007. Iconicity. In Geeraerts & Cuyckens (eds.), 394-418.

Wilcox, Sherman. 2007. Signed languages. In Geeraerts & Cuyckens (eds.), 1113-1136.
Dr. Heli Tissari has worked at the universities of Helsinki and Eastern Finland and currently teaches at Stockholm University. She has specialized in historical cognitive linguistics. Her empirical, corpus-based research has focused on English words for emotions and their conceptual metaphors. She has also published on words for politeness together with Terttu Nevalainen and edited several volumes, among them Historical Cognitive Linguistics together with Margaret E. Winters and Kathryn Allan in 2010. Recently, she has also collaborated with Ulla Vanhatalo and Anna Idström in order to translate the Natural Semantic Metalanguage developed by Anna Wierzbicka and her collaborators into Finnish.