"cognitive linguistics"

Wolfgang Schulze W.Schulze at lrz.uni-muenchen.de
Thu Jun 12 14:11:42 UTC 2008

Dear Funknetters,
hitherto, I had been a silent reader of the current debate, but Martin's 
last posting drives me to a brief comment: Martin writes:
> (...) (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.
Starting from the (rather obvious) hypothesis that language 
production/comprehension is a cognitive 'event' embodied in individual 
cognitions leads us to the assumption that the 'mechanisms' for language 
production and comprehension are cognitive, too. What else should they 
be? Sure, this claim needs a more detailed definition of what 
'cognition' is. To make it brief: In my eyes, the answer is quite 
'simple': 'Cognition' is the functional behavior (or, functionality, if 
you want) of  the neural substrate as such (related to the 'brain' in 
its broadest sense). In this broader perspective, the term 'Cognitive 
linguistics' becomes a tautology. Language IS cognitive, and hence 
Linguistics must be based on or described in terms of some sort of 
cognitivsm. I think this is rather trivial. But what is not trivial is 
the question of methodology:
> (...) 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).
Before we can come to description-comparison-generalization, we have to 
make another step, namely that from phenomenology to (horribile dictu) 
'objectivism'. The history of linguistics and the great diversity of 
theoretical and methodological approaches illustrate that linguistic 
'data' are not 'objects' as such which can be 'described/compared' etc., 
but 'phenomena' the 'gestalt' of which heavily depends from the 
'observer'. In this sense, linguistics is not a 'science of objects' (if 
ever such a science does exist at all), but a 'science of phenomena'. 
Sure, there are certain aspects of language that can be described in 
terms near to what one may call an 'object', e.g. articulatory processes 
in phonetics. However, this is not yet 'linguistics', but the analysis 
of language-related human articulation. The 'object' turns into a 
phenomenon as soon as we introduce the layer of function/semantics etc. 
And it is eher, where phenomenolgy because crucial. Thus we have to 
develop a sound methodology that a) accounts for the phenomenology of 
linguistics (and, as a consequence, for the relation between 'observer' 
and language phenomena); and b) that allows to heuristically (!) 
establish 'language objects'. This is by far not trivial, because we 
know that redefining phenomena as 'objects' always depends from the 
scientific paradigm we live by. An example for this is the Saussurian 
early 20th century understanding (and celebration) of 'systems', ending 
in the famous quote 'un système où tout se tient' (probably coined by 
Meillet perhaps taking up a wording by Hans Georg von der Gabelentz). 
Today, we may want to turn this phrase around: 'Un système où tout dépend'.

On the other hand, no description/comparison etc. can be done without 
prior deductions, be they overt of covert. We have to know what we want 
to describe - and this knowledge stems from deductions and/or 
abductions. Now, if we start from the hypothesis that everything is 
language is cognition-based or cognition-driven, we logically come to 
the conclusion that the cognitive domain and its modeling should be the 
immediate source for relevant deductions. So, a proper way of augmenting 
Martin's methodological path would be to  to start from what we 
currently know about cognition and to relate its architecture to the 
(observed!) architecture of language.

All I want to say is that descriptivism itself is part of the 
phenomenology of language. There does not exist - in my humble mind - a 
kind of descriptivism 'as such' provoked by the very 'nature' of its 
'objects'. This not not mean that descriptivism would play a minor role 
in the methodology of linguistics. I fully agree with Martin when he 
says that 'description' has priority. But I have difficulties to see 
that there is only one way of describing these 'objects'. And just 
because there are many such ways, we need some kind of theory that 
explains to us the heuristics of the descriptive approach chosen in a 
given treatment of  our 'descriptive units' (once they have been 
isolated). This method naturally again depends from the type of model we 
chose for 'cognition': A modular hypothesis yields different results for 
the descriptive level than a gestalt-based, holistic one. In a 
gestalt-based approach, for instance, building blocks do not play a 
decisive role. Accordingly, one would not start from 'phonemes' as the 
basic descriptive units, being arranged in terms of 'words' -> phrases > 
sentences etc. Rather, one would claim that the syllable is the basic 
unit of language being 'gestaltet' (configurated) by articulatory 
variation. The same would hold for the descriptive hierarchy of other 
linguistic 'units'.

Concerning the second point Martin made:
> 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.
Personally, I cannot see a dichotomy between 'cognitive' and 'social' 
aspects of language.  An adequate cognitivism would easily integrate the 
social dimension, be it in the tradition of Mead, Vygostkij, Durkheim, 
Mauss, or whosoever, or in the tradition of (e.g.) Radical 
Constructivism. Again, we have to start from the hypothesis that 
'social' parameters are produced and processed by the cognition of 
individuals. The social dimension (embodied in cognition by adaption, 
imitation etc.) is a subfunction of the functionality of cognition, or - 
as one might call it - a cognitive construction established by cognition 
in order to 'make sense' of its imitation/adaptation processes. 
Logically, social parameters of language would be immediately related to 
this cognitive construction. Just one linguistic example: The personal 
pronouns 'I' and 'you' (EGO/TU) are conventionally related to and 
grounded in a social parameter, namely that of interaction 
(speaker/hearer etc.). However, from a cognitive point of view (and we 
can corroborate this with the help of linguistic data), EGO plays a role 
different from TU: EGO is strongly referential, whereas TU is deictic in 
nature. This means that the two concept originally do not share a common 
paradigm.  The integration of EGO and TU into a common paradigm stems 
from just this cognitive construction that helps a cognition out of its 
isolation. In other words: The social dimension of language is - in my 
eyes - an integral part of cognition, just as a 'language system' is....

P.S: I have outlined some of the ideas mentioned in this posting in a 
paper that still is print. A pre-final version can be downloaded from 
http://www.lrz-muenchen.de/~wschulze/fsjmz.pdf (in German!).

Best wishes,



*Prof. Dr. Wolfgang 


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<mailto:Schulze at fhv.umb.sk>                                                                             

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