Classical vs. Modern theory in cognitive linguistics

Term Paper 2004 12 Pages

English Language and Literature Studies - Linguistics


Table of contents

1. Introduction

2. Linguistic categorisation

3. Classical theory (objectivism)

4. Modern theory (experiental realism)
4.1. Labov´s experiments
4.2. Rosch´s discoveries

5. Conclusion

6. Bibliography

1. Introduction

Language, in general, has always been an intricate matter for research. In the course of development of the linguistics as a field of studies particularly dedicated to the task of exploring the language faculty and its features a lot of breakthrough discoveries have been made. With respect to the particular point of research, there are several subcategories of linguistics that are the direct result of the interactive research on a particular phenomenon. The cognitive linguistics is, doubtlessly, one of the few such linguistic branches, that is composed of the research fields of sciences such as: psychology, anthropology, philosophy and computer science. However, cognitive linguistics does not focus on particular features of language or particular parts of the grammar, but attempts to discover its interplay with perception of the world, that is, the reality that surrounds the human beings. In its characterisation of the language as part of the cognitive system and not an independent feature, the cognitive linguistics is in opposition to the generative linguistics and the Chomskyan postulation that language faculty is inborn. Moreover, Chomsky claims that language is “modular”, that is, it exists individually from the other cognitive faculties.

The main aim of the cognitive linguistics is to discover the laws of structure of natural language categorisation as well as the intricate connection between language and thought. Terry Regier defines its function in the following manner: “In the domain of semantics in particular, cognitive linguistics seeks to ground meaning not directly in the world, but in mental and perceptual representations of the world“. (1996: 27) As the methodology and historical development of this field of studies are quite extensive, this paper will rather focus on the analysis of the main division of classical, also known as Aristotelian and modern theory. In the analysis of these two juxtaposed theories the pioneer work of the linguist William Labov and the psychologist Elisabeth Rosch would be taken into consideration. An emphasis would be put on Eleanor Rosch´s findings with respect to the extent of her contribution to the new ways of understanding categorisation of entities and clarification of certain aspects. Furthermore, some critical approaches of her findings would be regarded.

2.Linguistic categorisation

Cognitive linguistics is, above all, concerned with the phenomenon of categorisation and the ways in which humans categorise the entities in the real world. The process of selecting and combining certain entities into groups is a process of perceiving the real world and by organising the impressions in groups, a clear overview of the experiences is established. Furthermore, this concept of categorisation allows room for classification of new entities that may occur in a language in the course of time and thus, understanding them without any additional coaching. Even the field of study, that is analyzed in this paper, is a part of a particular categorisation. Although this process of perception of the real world has been accepted by many philosophers and other scientists involved with its analysis, the conception of the way in which the categories of entities are created is not always identical. Ray Jackendoff discusses the essence of categorization for the cognitive linguistics:

An essential (perhaps the essential) aspect of cognition is the ability to categorize: to judge that a particular thing is or is not an instance of a particular category.[...] The ability to categorize is what makes it possible to use previous experience to guide the interpretation of new experience, for without categorization, memory is virtually useless. Thus, an account of the organism´s capacity for categorization is not just a matter of the semantics of predicative sentences; it is central to all of cognitive psychology.

(1989: 135)

Numerous studies have been conducted on the topic of the elements that constitute the term of categorisation. Jackendoff states further in his book Consciousness and the Computational Mind what is understood under primary distinction within the frames of categorisation:

The primary distinction that must appear in conceptual structure in order to be able to encode categorization is between the individual things (tokens) being categorized and the categories (types) to which the tokens do or do not belong.

(1989: 136)

The later definition is in the light of the classical theory about categorisation, which would be considered in more details in the following chapter.

3. Classical theory (objectivism)

The idea of categorisation of entities in the real world has been in the centre of the interest of many scientists and philosophers since antique times. Doubtlessly, the viewpoints on the world have altered throughout the centuries and many of the theories defined in the antique times are nowadays considered to be restricted to some extent. Such an example is the existence of two viewpoints in the cognitive linguistics, which are referred to respectively as objectivism and experiential realism by Lakoff in the preface of his book Women, Fire, and Dangerous things (1987). He elaborates on the limitation of the traditional view by stating the following:



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Institution / College
University of Cologne – English Seminar
2+ (B)
Classical Modern



Title: Classical vs. Modern theory in cognitive linguistics