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Review of  Cognitive Linguistics - Foundations of Language

Reviewer: Pia Sommerauer
Book Title: Cognitive Linguistics - Foundations of Language
Book Author: Ewa Dąbrowska Dagmar Divjak
Publisher: De Gruyter Mouton
Linguistic Field(s): Cognitive Science
Issue Number: 31.1021

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The book “Cognitive Linguistics: Foundations of Language” constitutes the first of a set of three volumes on Cognitive Linguistics edited by Ewa Dąbrowska and Dagmar Divijak. The subsequent volumes are entitled “A survey of Linguistic Subfields” and “Key Topics”. According to the editors, “[t]he aim of this three-volume set is to provide a state-of-the-art overview of the numerous subfields of cognitive linguistics written by leading international experts which will be useful for for established researchers and novices alike” (p. 3). The first volume consists of 11 chapters covering the areas foundational for and central to the field (e.g. embodiment, metaphor, construal). In their introduction, the editors look back on the development of the field from initial ideas to well-established empirical traditions. They reflect on criticism and envision further directions, which particularly stress the increasing importance of experimental and quantitative methods, interdisciplinary work and the consideration of social context (as opposed to speakers in isolation). All three topics are echoed in various chapters.

Chapter 1: Embodiment (Benjamin Bergen)

The initial chapter of the book is about the assumption of embodiment which is central to Cognitive Linguistics. The chapter introduces and examines the concept from a historic perspective before discussing various definitions. The author suggests that Lakoff's (1987: xiv) definition best captures what most Cognitive Linguists understand by embodiment. It characterizes human conceptualization as arising from and being influenced by the mediation of our experiences of the world through the body. Both the developmental and behavioral aspect of this definition are discussed. Furthermore, Bergen offers a reflection on research on embodiment, which he divides into three phases: the first, called ‘analytical phase’, was heavily influenced by cognitive psychology and is characterized by a search for evidence of embodiment in language through linguistic analysis. This phase gave rise to many influential ideas such as Image Schemas and a cognitive approach to metaphor. The second phase, called ‘process phase’ focuses on Lakoff and Johnson's (1999) idea that conception mirrors perception and its reformulation in terms of the ‘embodied simulation hypothesis’ (Bergen 2012), which can be tested by means of methods in experimental psychology as well as neuo-imaging. The third phase is concerned with the functional role of embodiment and is characterized by an as-of-now less well explored direction of research. The chapter closes with a reflection of the current state of embodiment and a sketch of new research directions.

Chapter 2: Attention and Salience (Russel S. Tomlin and Andriy Myachykov)

The second chapter reflects on the perception and conceptualization of events and processes, and their linguistic expression. The topic is introduced by a range of examples linguistic illustrating the means through which different aspects of events can be highlighted. The chapter then proceeds to a short outline of theoretical assumptions opening with the question at the heart of this research: “How are attentional processes implicated in the language faculty, including production and comprehension?” This question is further divided into the issues concerning conceptualization, communication and grammaticalization. The third section of the chapter reviews empirical studies with a main focus on a link between visual attention and syntactic choices. In the closing section of the chapter, the following conclusions are drawn: there is a systematic correlation between the syntactic choices speakers make and the visual attention they pay to aspects of a scene. Whereas there is solid evidence that the most prominent referent of a scene is realized as a subject in English, it is still an open question whether this tendency holds across languages. This question is difficult to answer as not all languages have the same structural distinctions as English.

Chapter 3: Frequency and entrenchment (Dagmar Divjak and Catherine L. Cladwell-Harris)

Divijak and Cladwell-Harris introduce the topic of frequency (relating occurrences of in linguistic utterances) and entrenchment (relating to representations in the mind) by highlighting the historical context of the field: the role of frequency received attention when cognitive linguists turned away from the idea of a language faculty and towards general, cognitive processes and abilities as central to language, in particular language learning. The goal of their chapter is to outline the way frequency-based learning mechanisms could lead to mental representations (a relation, they state, other researchers have been hesitant to claim). The authors present outlines of the most important aspects of frequency and entrenchment, which rely on insights from experimental psychology as well as cognitive linguistics. Frequency is discussed in terms of different frequency measures, divided into common ways of measuring frequency and frequency measures specifically designed to investigate neural frequency effects (less popular among cognitive linguists and largely drawn from computational linguistics). The section on entrenchment spans initial, theoretical accounts of entrenchment, accounts of the mental encoding of linguistic patterns as well as more recent approaches to learning. The final section presents an overview of ongoing controversies and open issues, such as what kinds of linguistic structures can be entrenched, whether frequency effects are evidence of storage or faster processing, what the role of context is, and finally, whether frequency is the main factor behind entrenchment.

Chapter 4: Categorization (without categories) (Michael Ramscar and Robert Port)

The fourth chapter focuses on the notion of categorization and the closely related notions of category and concept. It contains four main sections and concludes with a brief summary. First, the fundamental ideas about these central terms, approaches to concept learning and the structure of concepts are explained. The distinction between concept learning and concept structure is emphasized: while approaches to concept learning follow the question of how people learn, discriminate, and match stimuli with a correct label, the latter investigates “the knowledge associated with the words used in languages” (p. 93) and reflects on Rosch's notion of prototype, family resemblance and basic level categories. Both approaches, it is argued, stress the dynamic and contextualized nature of concepts. Second, the authors reflect on computational models of categorization which aim to to explain empirical results. Hierarchical models (such as Collins & Quillian 1969), prototype models, exemplar models and combinations of different approaches are introduced. Third, a rather brief and condensed outline of empirical observations about the neurological basis of categorization is provided; this focuses on the processes and architectures involved in categorization: perception, higher-level concept learning and the categorization-process itself. The final section reflects on and attempts to synthesize the findings discussed in the chapter, in particular with respect to learning and communication. The authors emphasize that “despite theorists' intuitions about concepts as abstract mental tokens suitable for binding to phrase, word or morpheme-sized phonetic patterns, this conception of concepts is not supported by research results” (p. 103).

Chapter 5: Abstraction, storage and naive discriminative learning (Harald Baayen and Michael Ramscar)

What are the fundamental processes underlying language understanding and production? What role do they play in language learning? These fundamental questions are discussed in Chapter 5 of the volume. The authors outline three main approaches to this problem: learning through abstraction, learning through analogy and learning through discrimination. Abstraction is introduced as the most traditional direction and criticized for the following shortcomings: the labor-intensity of implementing and testing models of abstraction (which are rule-based), the highly contested assumption of innate structures as a prerequisite for learning and the fact that they are ill-equipped for dealing with the context-dependent nature of language. Models of analogy assume a much more general learning principle which is purely based on examples, making them compatible with other exemplar-based theories. The authors list their dynamic and adaptive nature as an advantage, but criticize their demands on memory. Hybrid models, it is argued, inherit the problems of both approaches rather than solving them. The authors argue that a more fruitful approach is discriminative learning, which is introduced in the final section and most extensive of the chapter. At its core, such an approach assumes that language serves to discriminate between experiences of the world. The chapter presents a number of linguistic phenomena accounted for by models of discriminative learning. In the concluding remarks, the authors note that all models of linguistic processing yield similar results on well-established test sets and stress that other aspects (neurobiological foundations, knowledge of models, computational simplicity) should be considered to gain further insights.

Chapter 6: Construal (Ronald W. Langacker)

Langacker opens Chapter 6 on construal by characterizing the phenomenon as “our ability to conceive and portray the same situation in alternative ways” (p. 140). The chapter examines five factors involved in construal: perspective, selection, prominence, dynamicity and imagination. Under perspective, the fundamental asymmetry between subject and object is explained: a subject views and thus conceptualizes a situation in the world from a certain perspective, which determines their linguistic utterances. The aspect of selection refers to the filter interlocutors apply when describing a situation: only certain aspects are selected for communication while others are omitted. Langacker mentions various factors at play in this selection process, such as specificity, profile (the focus of attention) and the special mechanism of metonymy. Third, Langacker discusses prominence, which he describes in terms of conceptual aspects made salient through phenomena such as attention, well entrenched linguistic units or prototypes. The fourth factor, dynamicity, refers to the fact that language and conceptualization unfold in time and discusses how interlocutor express and deal with various levels of time. The final factor, imagination, refers to the notion that “the world as we experience it [...] is mentally constructed” (p. 157) rather than simply being depicted. In the final section, Langacker summarizes ways in which the assumptions of construal can be validated and examines possible empirical directions and observations supporting them.

Chapter 7: Metonymy (Antonio Barcelona)

Barcelona starts his chapter on metonymy by highlighting the fundamental nature of the phenomenon as it plays a role in other essential cognitive processes, such as construal. Beyond an introduction to the phenomenon itself, the chapter offers a typology of metonymy, a reflection on the different areas of cognition in which metonymy plays a role (entitled 'ubiquity of metonymy') and an outline of research methods used to study metonymy. In the first section, Barcelona discusses the difficulty of finding a universally accepted definition of the phenomenon and provides an analysis of the agreements and disagreements in terms of uncontested and contested properties. The definition known as “initial cognitive definition of metonymy” is discussed in more detail before Barcelona presents his own. The second section focuses on different typologies of metonymy, which categorize instances of metonymy either in terms of their pragmatic function, their level of abstraction (e.g. part-whole vs brain-intelligent person) or in terms of their degree of prototypicality (classic examples vs. less obvious examples of metonymic expressions). The third part of the chapter reflects on the role of metonymy on different levels of linguistic analysis ranging from morphology and lexical semantics to morphosyntactic structures and clausal grammar and discourse. In the final part of the chapter, Barcelona stresses the necessity of psychological experiments to complement the empirical insights gained from linguistic analysis and outlines further directions.

Chapter 8: Metaphor (Raymond W. Gibbs)

Chapter 8 on metaphor provides an overview of the state of the art in cognitive metaphor research as well as a reflection of ongoing controversies in the field. It opens with an illustration of the most fundamental properties of metaphor illustrated by means of an example. The summary of the most important developments in the field, particularly highlight blending theory as having lead to new insights (specifically on the level of discourse) and systematic corpus analysis for providing a more solid basis to a field which claims to be 'usage-based'. Furthermore, attempts to formulate primary metaphors are mentioned as having triggered an important discussion on whether the most fundamental mappings should be characterized in terms of metaphor or metonymy. The second component of the chapter on ongoing debates lists a number of concerns, such as the question of whether conventionalized metaphorical expressions are in fact understood metaphorically or literally. Systematic corpus annotation programs, such as MIP (Pragglejaz Group 2007) and MIPVU (Steen et al. 2010) are named as first steps towards gaining better insights. Other concerns relate to the deliberateness of metaphor and the process of inferring conceptual metaphors. The chapter closes with an outline of non-linguistic evidence for conceptual metaphors, which combat frequently voiced criticism. Evidence for metaphor from gesture studies and psycholinguistics are given as examples. The latter has for instance indicated that metaphors influence decision making (Thibodeau & Boroditsky 2011). In his concluding remarks, Gibbs urges the community to move away from purely language-centered approaches to metaphor and towards focusing on the mental process.

Chapter 9: Representing Meaning (Laura J. Speed, David P. Vinson, and Gabriella Vigliocco)

Chapter 9 on representing word meaning focuses on a well-established debate within Cognitive Linguistics about whether meaning arises from embodiment or statistical co-occurrence patterns (or, suggested more recently, both) (summarized in de Vega 2012). The chapter opens with two central aspects a theory of word meaning should address: First, do representations of words from different domains differ? Second, how does knowledge about the meaning of concepts relate to the meaning of words? In the subsequent review of theoretical assumptions, the two positions are contextualized historically and assessed in terms of how they address the two key questions. While embodied approaches developed from feature-based meaning representations and distributional representations have emerged from computational linguistics on the one hand and holistic models of meaning from psychology on the other hand (e.g. Collins and Quillian's semantic network model). The two positions are discussed in terms of empirical results in their favor and questions still left open. Finally, more recent integrated models (in particular the symbol-interdependency theory (Louwerese 2007) are presented and some computational implementations and evaluations are mentioned. A short reflection on the limitations of such approaches, such as the use of human-generated features of concepts as an approximation of embodied meaning representations is provided. In the conclusions, the authors highlight that both distributional and embodied (i.e. grounded) information are relevant for meaning representations, as the combination yields richer information than a single source.

Chapter 10: Blending in language and communication (Mark Turner)

Turner begins his chapter on blending by outlining the most important elements of blending theory, which have emerged from various areas in cognitive linguistics, such as ‘mental frame’ (introduced by Fillmore 1976, 1982) and ‘mental space’ (attributed to Fauconnier 1985). This is followed by a short characterization of the mechanisms of blending theory by means of a classic example introduced by Fauconnier & Turner (2002). The third part of the chapter consists of a reflection on seven challenges of blending theory, each of which is outlined briefly and defended. The list includes topics such as the observation that blending could be seen as merely a combination of other, well-known cognitive processes (refuted by the argument that blending still constitutes a mental process common to a range of situations and should therefore be modeled) and the methodological difficulty of presenting evidence for blending through psychological experiments. Turner closes the list with the observation that blending theory is as of now incomplete and stresses its openness for to new developments. The final part of the chapter consists of an overview of manifestations of blending on different levels of linguistic analysis and illustrates them with examples. Instances of blending are discussed on the level of morphemes and words, syntax, phrases, clauses and sentences and finally, discourse, which is considered in terms of ground and viewpoint. In his concluding remarks, Turner stresses the centrality of blending to human cognition and observes that linguistic expressions trigger blending processes rather than merely carrying meaning.

Chapter 11: Grammar and cooperative communication (Arie Verhagen)

The goal of Verhagen's chapter, which constitutes the final chapter of the volume, is to place linguistic meaning (such as expressed by deixis, categorization and frames, and negation) in the context of the cooperative nature of human communication. The chapter opens with a consideration of the different characteristics of animal and human communication and highlights that humans are able to share information while animals merely communicate to manage others. In the subsequent sections, Verhagen analyzes how the argumentative function of language calls this fundamental distinction into question. Verhagen examines this seeming paradox against the background joint knowledge and common ground, in particular with respect to the role of deictic expressions. It is argued that communication can be viewed in terms of joint projects or goals, which establish a hierarchy consisting of smaller subproject to which interlocutors commit themselves. Verhagen particularly highlights the group-centered nature of joint attention, rather than viewing it simply as a phenomenon which arises when individuals making assumptions about the other participants' ideas. In the concluding remarks, Verhagen argues that the argumentative function of language is a critical factor in human communication, as it plays a crucial role in the organization and coordination of communication in terms of joint projects.


The goal stated by the authors is two-fold: its purpose is to provide an overview of the state-of-the-art in fundamental topics of cognitive linguistics while catering to an audience both of seasoned researchers and less experienced new-comers to the field. For the first volume, this goal has largely been achieved despite the tension between providing complete and information-dense overviews while at the same time remaining accessible. Beyond this, the book can be considered a valuable resource for a number of other reasons. In the larger context of the development of Cognitive Linguistics as a discipline, the book can be seen as a step in the ongoing integration of a highly interdisciplinary field. This integration is by no means complete yet, which may be part of the reason for some minor shortcomings.

The primary aim of the book is to provide an overview of the state of the art, which to some extent implies completeness. Each chapter encompasses a little over 20 pages which in itself already poses a considerable challenge for such a goal. Most authors tackle this challenge by being very transparent about which aspects will be treated and which are left out (e.g. Barcelona in his chapter on metonymy). In addition, the chapters provide a plethora of relevant references which constitute a valuable resource for a reader striving for a complete picture. While I do not claim to have the expertise to assess the completeness of each chapter, I could not help but wonder why the chapter on metaphor did not include a reference to a debate about the mechanisms involved in metaphor comprehension (discussed in Bowdler & Genter 2005, Glucksberg & Haught 2006 and Utsumi 2007).

The volume also sets out to address a diverse audience of experienced researches and novices alike. While the first group will most likely appreciate the reviews of the latest state-of-the-art, the second group is much more difficult to satisfy. The challenge of writing a complete but accessible overview almost necessarily results in a trade-off. Nevertheless, the majority of chapters (in particular Chapters 8 on metaphor and 10 on blending) are characterized by a high degree of accessibility, brought about by a highly readable style and a range of well-chosen examples. A minority of chapters are characterized by highly abstract language and are most likely somewhat more difficult for beginners (in particular students), who will require some guidance. This, however, is at least in part due to the abstract nature of the topics (e.g. attention and salience, construal). Some sections run the risk of acquiring the character of enumerations (e.g. in the chapter of metonymy). A number of chapters go beyond mere accessibility and manage to convey an exceptionally good feeling for the fundamental problems and questions of the field (blending, metaphor, meaning representations, categorization).

While the style of the book is overall highly accessible, some aspects could be improved with respect to its structure. In particular, the sectioning in some chapters is not very transparent and could pose challenges for less experienced readers. For instance, the sections in Chapter 7 (metonymy) do not seem to follow the outline described in the introductory section of the book. When considering the structure and coherence of the entire volume, it is immediately apparent how closely connected many of its topics are. Some chapters can be read as a kind of dialogue: Turner's chapter on blending addresses many aspects mentioned by Langacker in his chapter on construal and vice-versa. Likewise, the chapters on embodiment (Chapter 1), frequency and entrenchment (Chapter 3) and meaning representations (Chapter 9) are highly complementary. For a less experienced reader though, it is not clear whether these connections can easily be recognized. It might have helped to use a somewhat more harmonized terminology and perhaps provide a glossary of terms. Another strategy could have been to divide the book in terms of themes, which group chapters about similar issues, perhaps introduced by a short paragraph highlighting connections. This limitation is most certainly due to the highly interdisciplinary nature of the field rather than being the fault of the authors.

In addition to its accessibility, the book is characterized by an exceptionally high degree of reflection. Many authors provide careful considerations of the state of evidence for fundamental questions, the methodology of a field and criticism voiced by other research directions. This reflective character will most certainly be appreciated by a range of researchers. Beyond this, it also makes this book a valuable resource for education.

In conclusion, this 11 chapter volume constitutes a highly valuable resource for beginners and experienced researchers in Cognitive Linguistics. Beyond offering overviews of various research subfields at the heart of the field, many of its chapters are inspirational while at the same time providing very careful reflections on the state of evidence and suitability of methods in a highly interdisciplinary field.


Bergen, B.K., 2012. Louder than words: The new science of how the mind makes meaning. Basic Books (AZ).

Bowdle, B.F. and Gentner, D., 2005. The career of metaphor. Psychological review, 112(1), p.193.

Collins, A.M. and Quillian, M.R., 1969. Retrieval time from semantic memory. Journal of verbal learning and verbal behavior, 8(2), pp.240-247.

Fauconnier, G., 1985. Mental spaces: Aspects of meaning construction in natural language. Cambridge University Press.

Fauconnier, G. and Turner, M., 2002. The way we think: Conceptual blending and the mind's hidden complexities. Basic Books.

Fillmore, C.J., 1976. Frame semantics and the nature of language. In Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences: Conference on the origin and development of language and speech (Vol. 280, No. 1, pp. 20-32).

Fillmore, C., 1982. Frame Semantics. Linguistic Society of Korea. Linguistics in the morning calm. Seoul: Hanshin Publishing Co, pp.111-137.

Glucksberg, S. and Haught, C., 2006. On the Relation Between Metaphor and Simile: When Comparison Fails. Mind & Language.

Lakoff, G., 1987. Women, Fire, and Dangerous Things. The University of Chicago Press, Chicago, USA.

Lakoff, G. and Johnson, M., 1999. Philosophy in the Flesh (Vol. 4). New york: Basic books.

Louwerse, M.M., 2007. Symbolic or embodied representations: A case for symbol interdependency. Handbook of latent semantic analysis, pp.107-120.

Pragglejaz Group., 2007. MIP: A method for identifying metaphorically used words in discourse. Metaphor and Symbol, 22(1), pp.1-39.

Steen, G.J., Dorst, A.G., Herrmann, J.B., Kaal, A.A., Krennmayr, T. and Pasma, T., A Method for Linguistic Metaphor Identification.

Thibodeau, P.H. and Boroditsky, L., 2011. Metaphors we think with: The role of metaphor in reasoning. PloS one, 6(2), p.e16782.

Utsumi, A., 2007. Interpretive diversity explains metaphor–simile distinction. Metaphor and Symbol, 22(4), pp.291-312.

De Vega, M., Glenberg, A. and Graesser, A., 2012. Symbols and embodiment: Debates on meaning and cognition. Oxford University Press.
Pia Sommerauer is a PhD candidate in the Computational Lexicology and Terminology Lab at the Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam under the supervision of Piek Vossen, Antske Fokkens, and Gerard Steen. Her research focuses on analyzing the semantics represented by distributional semantic models with respect to cognitive phenomena. She is also involved in research about the applicability of distributional models of word meaning for the investigation of conceptual change.

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