"cognitive linguistics"

Martin Haspelmath haspelmath at eva.mpg.de
Thu Jun 12 10:46:12 UTC 2008

Thanks, Tom, for elaborating on my point:
> If the "cognitive" categories you propose are 100% isomorphic to your 
> linguistic analysis done beforehand through purely linguistic methods, 
> that was done with purely linguistic methods and without reference to 
> the methodologically-independent neuro-cognitive literature, then 
> chances are you are one of those people Martin frowns upon.
Yes, and what most linguists (who work on language structure) do most of 
the time is to provide descriptions, or "analyses", of language 
patterns, with purely linguistic methods. This keeps them busy enough, 
but because of the rule/list indeterminacy explained by Brian 
MacWhinney, it's often too rash to jump to "cognitive" conclusions. This 
concerns mostly generative linguistics (where the equation of linguist's 
analysis with cognitive pattern is part of the underlying ideology), but 
to some extent also non-generative linguistics.
> So for people who have slightly more ambitious goals than just 
> describing, I think trying to understand the neuro-cognition of 
> language is a legitimate pursuit. 
Yes, but explanation comes after description/analysis, and we need quite 
a bit of the latter before we can go on to venture explanations. In 
particular, we generally need to identify universal patterns before we 
can propose cognitive explanations. This is also the point of Lazard 
(2007), the great French typologist who declares that "la linguistique 
cognitive n'existe pas", meaning that cognitive explanation comes only 
at the very end of a description-comparison-generalization process (and 
somewhat arbitrarily, he places cognitive explanation just outside 
linguistics proper).

This was also the point of my 2004 paper: When I say that explanation 
does not presuppose description, I mean cognitive description and 
cognitive/functional explanation. We can formulate generalizations over 
non-cognitive ("phenomenological") descriptions and these have to be 
explained in cognitive/functional terms. It's not necessary to have 
cognitive descriptions before we can come up with universals and 
explanations for them (pace Newmeyer 1998).

One other thing that I find lacking in much of current practice is the 
social aspect of language. The cognitive perspective is crucial, but 
without its social side, one wouldn't understand why languages are so 
uniform and why they can change. And without changing, languages 
wouldn't be able to adapt. As Aya Katz reminded us, it's quite possible 
that different speakers make different choices with respect to rules and 
lista. But they still produce remarkably similar outputs: While they may 
use different cognitive routes, they all want to fit into the same 
social structure. Without a social perspective, we wouldn't understand 
why there are languages, not just idolects. The only cognitive linguist 
I know who has really thought this through is Bill Croft ("Explaining 
language change", 2000). My sense is that the general overemphasis on 
cognitive over social patterns is another part of the heritage from 
Chomsky's obsession with the philosophy of mind.


References and abstracts

Haspelmath, Martin. 2004. "Does linguistic explanation presuppose 
linguistic description?" /Studies in Language/ 28.3: 554-579 (cf. 

I argue that the following two assumptions are incorrect: (i) The 
properties of the innate Universal Grammar can be discovered by 
comparing language systems, and (ii) functional explanation of language 
structure presupposes a "correct", i.e. cognitively realistic, 
description. Thus, there are two ways in which linguistic explanation 
does not presuppose linguistic description.
The generative program of building cross-linguistic generalizations into 
the hypothesized Universal Grammar cannot succeed because the actually 
observed generalizations are typically one-way implications or 
implicational scales, and because they typically have exceptions. The 
cross-linguistic generalizations are much more plausibly due to 
functional factors.
I distinguish sharply between "phenomenological description" (which 
makes no claims about mental reality) and "cognitively realistic 
description", and I show that for functional explanation, 
phenomenological description is sufficient.

Lazard, Gilbert. 2007. "La linguistique cognitive n'existe pas." 
(=Cognitive linguitics does not exist.) /Bulletin de la Société de 
Linguistique de Paris/ 102(1). 3–16. 

L’expression «linguistique cognitive» n’a de sens que dans le contexte 
de la linguistique américaine, où elle signifie l’opposition à la 
grammaire générative et à la conception du langage comme un module 
autonome. Hors de ce contexte, elle ne désigne en fait que le retour à 
une conception traditionnelle du langage, de la langue et de la 
linguistique. Elle risque cependant de faire perdre de vue la 
spécificité de l’analyse des structures des langues.

The notion of cognitive linguistics is only meaningful in connection 
with American linguistics, where it means opposition to Generative 
Grammar and to the conception of language as an autonomous module. Out 
of that context, it merely means a return to the traditional conception 
of language and linguistics. However, it involves the risk of 
downplaying the specificity of the analysis of language structures.

Newmeyer, Frederick J. 1998. Language form and language function. 
Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Martin Haspelmath (haspelmath at eva.mpg.de)
Max-Planck-Institut fuer evolutionaere Anthropologie, Deutscher Platz 6	
D-04103 Leipzig      
Tel. (MPI) +49-341-3550 307, (priv.) +49-341-980 1616

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