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Investigations in cognitive grammar by Ronald W. Langacker (review)

From: Language
Volume 90, Number 1, March 2014
pp. 269-276 | 10.1353/lan.2014.0015

In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

Reviewed by
Investigations in cognitive grammar. By Ronald W. Langacker. (Cognitive linguistics research 42.) Berlin: Mouton de Gruyter, 2009. Pp. 396. ISBN 9783110214352. $70.

1. Introduction

My assignment is to review, however belatedly, an individual book, but also to comment more broadly on L’s recent work. The task would be easier for a full-time cognitive linguist who could guide us through the fine distinctions between L’s and related models, such as the more cognitive varieties of construction grammar. Your reviewer is a fieldwork linguist, a millipede burrowing through detritus on the forest floor, occasionally catching a ray of theoretical light breaking through the canopy above. After introductory comments and the review proper in §2, I briefly assess the relationship between L’s work and functionalism, typology/universals, and synchrony/diachrony in §3–5.

Cognitive grammar (CG) is a brand name (hence the small capitals) for L’s system. It occupies a central niche within cognitive linguistics (uncapitalized), a growing confederation of linguists, many of whom, like L, advocate Saussurean form/meaning pairings not mediated by an intervening syntactic computational system, recognize constructions as autonomous schemata that are entrenched based on frequent usage, are sympathetic to models of linguistic change based on gradual grammaticalization, draw no sharp line between criterial semantic features and encyclopedic knowledge or between semantics and pragmatics, deny the existence of semantically empty elements such as place-holding expletives and are skeptical of phonologically null morphemes and traces, argue that semantic composition is regularly accompanied by semantic skewings of input elements, reject truth-conditional (correspondence) semantics in favor of conceptual schemata and prototypes, and inject attentional and perspectival considerations along with temporal dynamicity into grammatical analysis wherever possible.

This is obviously a broadside challenge to the assumptions of syntax-centric generative theory. In L’s case the divergence is emphasized by his trademark cartoon-like diagrams with their geometrical shapes (circles, ellipses, and angled and rounded rectangles, plus shading and hatching fills of these shapes) and their solid, dashed, and dotted (single or double) lines and arrows.1 As L explains elsewhere, his diagrams are heuristic rather than definitive, displaying whatever specific aspects of meaning or form are under discussion (2008:10–11).

2. Book review

Investigations is a collection of slightly retouched articles published from 2003 onward, plus one original article. It is nearly contemporary with Langacker 2008, a 562-page two-semester graduate textbook that systematically expounds the overall theory, and that substantially replaces L’s original monumental two-volume manifesto (1987, 1991). The distilled gist of the earlier pieces in Investigations was integrated into the 2008 textbook, but the later ones are more independent. The pieces are called chapters, implying a book-like thematic progression that is partially achieved. [End Page 269]

‘Constructions in cognitive grammar’ (1–39) is a mini-introduction to CG, covering basic concepts like symbolic assemblies (complex meaning-form pairings), the content requirement (no elements with neither phonological nor semantic content), constructional schema, landmark and trajector (primary and secondary foci), elaboration (fleshing out a schema) versus extension (modifying or transforming a schema), profile determinant (essentially an upwardly projected syntactic head), and dominion (an extended mental space centered on a conceptual element).

‘A constructional approach to grammaticization’ (60–80) begins with the observation that constructions rather than words are the units that undergo grammaticalization. CG assigns meanings to the components as well as a meaning (not always straightforwardly compositional) to the overall construction. Since component meanings can be fluid (e.g. due to metonymic shifts), and since even constituency (bracketing) is emergent rather than fixed, close synchronic analysis allows historical linguists to track the progress of ongoing grammaticalizations. The example here is quantificational a lot of and related forms; for discussion see §5 below.

‘Metonymy in grammar’ (40–59) presents L’s alternative to compositional semantics. His diagrams can accommodate mechanical compositionality, as when a schematic entity such as the trajector (subject) of a verb is elaborated (filled in) by a nominal with no skewing. But phrases frequently do coerce tweaking of the prototypical meaning of one or more inputs. The issue is widely known in cases of scale resetting (big mosquito versus big elephant), but...