Cognitive Linguistics. Worth a Professorial Position

Term Paper (Advanced seminar) 2002 16 Pages

English Language and Literature Studies - Linguistics



1. Introduction

2. The traditional view

3. Categorization and Prototypes
3. 1. Categorization
3. 2. The Classical Approach
3. 3. Family Resemblance
3. 4. Colour Categorization
3. 5. Prototypes
3. 6. Basic Level Categories

4. Conceptual metaphors and Cognitive Models
4. 1. Conceptual metaphors
4. 2. Image schemas

5. Frames and Scripts

6. Conclusion

7. Summary


1. Introduction

The aim of this paper is to give a brief overview of the core ideas, approaches and the main representatives of Cognitive Linguistics and in which way this approach differs from the classical structuralistic view. The explanations will not be exhaustive at all, but should suffice to make clear how revolutionary the ideas of Cognitive Linguistics are and how it will hopefully influence linguistics in general in the future.

Cognitive Linguistics developed at the beginning of the 1980ies mainly in the United States as a completely new approach to the study of language and mind and how these two are related. According to cognitive linguist Gilles Fauconnier "perhaps for the first time a genuine science of meaning construction and its dynamics has been launched"[1]. The representatives see language as one of the most significant characteristics of cognitive activities and therefore the aim is to describe and explain mental structures and processes which are important to the processing of human language. According to Gilles Fauconnier, language is only the "tip of a cognitive iceberg"[2].

How does this view differ from the theories represented by structural linguistics?

2. The traditional view

Modern linguists have been unsatisfied with many traditional views, such as the classical approach to feature analysis, the postulate of language autonomy and compositionality and the arbitrainess of linguistic meaning. Fauconnier complains that in the traditional view linguists discover structure "for the sake of structure itself"[3]. He among other cognitive linguists critizises the sharply autonomous view of language structure as pointed out by the linguist Ferdinand de Saussure. According to the structuralistic view language consists of a system of relationsships between meanings and sounds. De Saussure also claimed that a signifier is arbitrarily attached to the signified concept:

"Le signifiant (...) et le signifié (...) sont les deux élements composant le signe. Nous dirons donc: (...) Dans la langue le lien unissant le

signifiant au signifié est un lien radicalement arbitraire."[4]

He holds the view that language is a self-contained, autonomous sytem that is to be studied and not the individual terms:

"On ne peut prendre les mots isolément. C’est ainsi que le systeme (...) est une des sources de la valeur. (...) ce qui est dans le mot n’est jamais déterminé que par le concours de ce qui existe autour de lui. (...)"[5]

The meaning of a word is defined as the value of the sign within the sign system. "Ce n’est que par le différence des signes qu’il sera possible de leur donner une fonction, une valeur."[6] In contrast to this theory, cognitive linguists have found out that the world outthere is not at all that independent from language as assumed by the structuralists. This has been proved by different representatives of cognitive linguistics and is going to be explained later on in this paper.

3. Categorization and Prototypes

3. 1. Categorization

Central to the concerns of Cognitive Linguistics is the idea of cognitive models, which are assumed to structure thought. The term is used to express the idea that cognitive representations are stored in the mind in form of knowledge bases.[7] Cognitive models are presumably used in reasoning and for the production of categories.

The classical structuralistic view has always been neglecting the complexity of categorization and is thus not any longer considered to be adequate for an explanation of word meanings. Categorization is assumed to be based on certain principles which will be explained later on. Furthermore, it is seen as the most basic mental process which plays a role when we think, perceive, act and speak. The thesis is that as human beings we are constantly confronted with a great variety of different objects which we have to convert into manageable word meanings in order to function in the physical and intellectual world. George Lakoff states:

"We categorize events, actions, emotions, spatial relationsships, social relationsships, and abstract entities of an enormous range: governments, illnesses, and entities in both scientific and folk theories, like electrons and colds. Any adequate account of human thought must provide an accurate theory for all our categories, both concrete and abstract."[8]

In the following I will give a condensed overview of the main investigations which have been made in the field of catgorization and which led to the theories and theses that are important in cognitive linguistics today.

3. 2. The Classical Approach

The first major observation which influenced further studies has been made by the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein (1953: 66-71). He was presumably the first one who noticed that the classical view of categorization might not be adequate in any case. Let me explain the traditional view first.

The classical approach involves the assumption that categories have clear boundaries and are defined by common properties which all members of a category share or not. In terms of the classical feature analysis members of a category are strictly defined by the existence or absence of certain features. According to the classical view, which goes back to Aristotele, these features are binary, which means that there are only two possibilities: an entity possesses a feature or it does not possess a certain feature. Taylor comments on this as follows: "Features are a matter of all or nothing."[9] Considering the classical approach in semantics this means that essential features of an animal, for example, are [+animate] and [-human]. According to Ungerer/ Schmid these two are conditions, which are necessary to form a category. "These conditions are conceived as clear-cut, 'discrete' features (…), which can be either present or absent."[10] John R. Taylor presents further assumptions concerning the characteristics of features, which are based on the study of the sound system and hence have been brought up by phonologists: features are primitive (they cannot be decomposed into more basic elements), universal (there is a universal feature inventory from where all human languages' phoneme categories can be drawn) and they are abstract[11]. Furthermore, features are assumed to be innate, which means they are genetically inherited knowledge. The way of classifying and categorizing phonemes in terms of the features they share (f. i. [+voice] or [-voice]) results, according to Taylor, from the attempt to make "economical statements about relations between categories within the language system".[12]


[1] Gilles Fauconnier in: Theo Janssen & Gisela Redeker (ed.): Cognitive Linguistics: Foundations, Scope, and Methodology (1999: 96). Translation: "(…) wahrscheinlich erstmalig ist eine echte Wissenschaft der Konstruktion von Bedeutungen und ihrer Dynamik in Gang gekommen (...)".

[2] Gilles Fauconnier in: Janssen/ Redeker (1999: 96). Translation: [Sprache ist nur] "die Spitze des kognitiven Eisbergs".

[3] Gilles Fauconnier in: Janssen/ Redeker (1999: 95). Translation: [in der traditionellen Sichtweise erforschen die Linguisten Struktur] "um der Struktur selbst willen".

[4] Ferdinand de Saussure: Troisieme cours de linguistique generale (1910-1911), d’après les cahiers d’Emile Constantin. Translated and edited by Roy Harris (1993: 93). Translation: „Das Bezeichnende und das Bezeichnete sind die beiden Elemente, die das Zeichen bilden. In der Sprache ist die Verbindung zwischen dem bezeichnenden und dem bezeichneten Element völlig arbiträr [=willkürlich].“

[5] Ferdinand de Saussure in: Harris (1993: 136). Translation: „Man kann das Wort nicht isoliert betrachten. Das System (...) bildet eine Quelle für den Wert. (...) was das Wort beinhaltet ist immer einzig und allein durch das bestimmt, was um es herum existiert.“

6 Ferdinand de Saussure (1910-1911) in: Harris (1993: 142). Translation: „Einzig und allein die Unterschiede zwischen den Zeichen ermöglichen es, ihnen eine Funktion, einen Wert zuzuschreiben.“

[7] Ungerer/ Schmid (1996: 47)

[8] George Lakoff: Women, Fire and Dangerous Things (1987: 6). Translation: „Wir kategorisieren Ereignisse, Tätigkeiten, Emotionen, räumliche Verhältnisse, soziale Verhältnisse und abstrakte Einheiten in einer enorm großen Vielzahl: Regierungen, Krankheiten und Einheiten in wissenschaftlichen sowie volkstümlichen Theorien, wie Elektronen oder Erkältungen. Jegliche adäquate Beschreibung des menschlichen Geistes muss eine exakte Theorie für alle Katgeorien enthalten, konkrete sowie abstrakte.“

[9] John R. Taylor: Linguistic Categorization. Prototypes in Linguistic Theory (1995: 23). Translation: "Merkmale existieren 'ganz oder gar nicht.'"

[10] Friedrich Ungerer & Hans-Jörg Schmid: An Introduction to Cognitive Linguistics (1996: 22). Translation: "Diese Bedingungen stellt man sich als klar abgetrennte, 'einzelne' Merkmale vor, die entweder vorhanden sein können oder nicht."

[11] John R. Taylor (1995: 23-29)

[12] John R. Taylor (1995: 27). Translation: [um] "(...) ökonomische Aussagen über die Beziehungen zwischen Kategorien im Sprachsystem zu machen".


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Dresden Technical University – Anglistics
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Cognitive Linguistics Worth Professorial Position



Title: Cognitive Linguistics. Worth a Professorial Position