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  • Essentials of cognitive grammar by Ronald W. Langacker
  • Laura A. Janda
Essentials of cognitive grammar. By Ronald W. Langacker. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013. Pp. 269. ISBN 9780199937356. $26.95.

Ronald W. Langacker and his cognitive grammar (CG) have earned a privileged position within cognitive linguistics. L’s books (Langacker 1987, 1991a,b, 2000) have given us the core concepts that define the framework of cognitive linguistics and continue to steer the research of most scholars in the field. In a sense, the current book is one that L has been writing all through his career. A distillation of his previous books, and a foreshortened version of Langacker 2008, Essentials of cognitive grammar is the first resource I would send a student or colleague to for a definitive, concise introduction both to L’s work and to the entire field of cognitive linguistics.

The book is divided into two parts devoted to meaning (Part I, Chs. 1–3) and grammar (Part II, Chs. 4–8). The first part explores the essential role of meaning in language, motivating the ‘content [End Page 738] requirement’, which states that ‘the only elements ascribable to a linguistic system are (i) semantic, phonological, and symbolic structures that actually occur as parts of expressions; (ii) schematizations of permitted structures; and (iii) categorizing relationships between permitted structures’ (Ch. 1, p. 25). The content requirement keeps all linguistic analysis in CG close to the language itself, avoiding purely theoretical constructs that lack grounding in language use. What the content requirement does permit is the identification of symbolic structures that link a semantic pole with a phonological pole, complexes of such structures (called ‘symbolic assemblies’), and schematic abstractions based on these structures. Symbolic structures, both simple and complex, are the relevant units of analysis for CG.

Chs. 2 and 3 present the way in which meaning is grounded in human minds and experience and then extended and manipulated by means of metaphor, blending, and construal. The semantic poles of most symbolic structures are as a result polysemous, yielding networks of meanings in which some are prototypical and others more peripheral. The concatenation of symbolic structures into assemblies does not involve a mere accretion of meanings, but rather an interaction. Compositionality fails as a means for interpreting compounds such as lipstick or redcoat, which require reference to cultural practices and meanings that are quite peripheral to those of the components (lip, stick, red, coat). L here foreshadows the conclusion he draws in Ch. 8 that the meaning of a complex expression ‘cannot be computed from lexical meanings and compositional patterns … but is more accurately seen as being prompted by them’ (245). Construal gives the language user the ‘opportunity to vary the way in which content is portrayed along various scales such as specificity, focusing (figure vs. ground), prominence (profiling a trajector against a landmark), and perspective (with variations in the degree to which the focus is on the subjective viewer). The viewing arrangement for the construal of a given scene makes it possible to scan mentally along the temporal dimension, and summary scanning progressively builds up a detailed conception. A particular type of scanning that is relevant to grammar is the ‘reference point relationship’, which ‘directs attention to a perceptually salient entity as a point of reference to help find some other entity’ (83), as, for example, in possessive constructions (where the possessor is the reference point and the possession is the target) and perfect constructions (which involve a reference point in time).

Part II bridges the gap between the conceptual semantics in Part I and the structure of languages. Ch. 4 opens with the claim that grammatical classes (categories), such as ‘noun’ and ‘verb’, are definable in terms of meaning. The meaning that is most relevant for these classes is, however, the profiling that is facilitated by construal. L makes it clear that CG does not adhere to the narrow definitions of the traditional parts of speech (since these are subject to a certain amount of crosslinguistic variation), and that ‘what determines an expression’s grammatical category is not its overall conceptual content, but the nature of its profile in particular’ (98). L’s example...


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