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Language, usage and cognition (review)
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Reviewed by
Joan Bybee. 2010. Language, usage and cognition. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. Pp. 262. US$39.99 (softcover).

Bybee states in the acknowledgments that Language, usage and cognition is based on the findings of functional-typological and cognitive linguists of the past forty years. In this book, the influential factors in language change and structure are analyzed from a usage-based perspective. The fact that languages demonstrate a great deal of variation and gradience forces Bybee to see language as a complex adaptive system. The theory developed in this book mainly emphasizes dynamic processes which create languages and shape their structure and variation. To connect the processes which form language to outside forces, Bybee has tried to derive linguistic structure from the application of domain general processes, such as categorization, chunking, rich memory storage, analogy, and cross-modal association. To achieve this goal, she has used corpora, different experiments, and synchronic and diachronic data. The book is composed of eleven chapters.

The first chapter, “A usage-based perspective on language”, lays out the main concepts which are discussed in detail in later chapters. Among the domain-general processes, categorization is very widespread outside the domain of language, for example in perceptual categories. Categories are the basic building blocks of language, too. Chunking is the explanation behind the positive role of practice in cognitive and neuromotor tasks. It explains why repeated orders of words are packaged together in cognition and treated as single units. When chunking interacts with [End Page 477] categorization, conventional sequences get different degrees of analyzability and compositionality. Rich memory, which enables us to store the details of language experience, and analogy, by which new utterances are formed based on previous utterances, are two other important domain-general processes. Chapters 2 to 5 are devoted to these domain-general processes and their application in language.

Chapter 2, “Rich memory for language: Exemplar representation”, aims to find whether general properties of memory and its organization can be applied to language. The author reports some findings about phonetic categories, verbatim recall, and categorization as a domain-general process, and concludes that they demonstrate that the cognitive representation of language is influenced by specific tokens of language use and the considerable detail contained in these tokens (p. 19).

In Chapter 3, “Chunking and degrees of autonomy”, Bybee examines the processing mechanisms whose frequent application shapes the grammar, aiming to unpack the properties of these mechanisms. Processing refers to the activities involved in both production and the decoding of the message. Chunking, which is a property of both perception and production, is triggered by repetition. It is demonstrated that one effect of chunking in production is the overlap and reduction of articulatory gestures, and its important effect in perception and decoding is the ability to anticipate what is coming next. Chunking is the process triggering the formation and use of formulaic or prefabricated sequences of words such as take a break, break a habit, pick and choose and it is the basic mechanism responsible for the formation of constructions and constituent structure.

Chapter 4, “Analogy and similarity”, is devoted to the nature of analogy as a processing mechanism and its role in language change and child language acquisition. It is proposed that analogical processing is the basis of the human ability to create novel utterances. This proposal is supported by reporting on recent studies in child language acquisition. It is claimed that it can also be applied to adult production to account for novel constructions.

In Chapter 5, “Categorization and the distribution of constructions in corpora”, the distribution of particular tokens and types of constructions in language use is considered in more detail. Moreover, the nature of the categories that are created for the open slots in constructions and the way both type and token frequency interact with semantic categorization to determine the properties of these categories, their degrees of schematicity and their productivity is discussed. For example in a construction such as drive someone __, the empty part is an open slot which can be filled with different items, such as mad, crazy, insane, etc.

Chapters 6 and 7 deal more directly with diachrony. In Chapter 6...