Cognitive grammar

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Cognitive grammar, or the more general domain of cognitive linguistics, is a general approach to linguistics that is based on (1) cognitive psychology, particularly schema theory and related studies of how humans perceive and categorize the world; and (2) the role of metaphorical meaning in language.


The main theoretical approaches to linguistics are generative (derivational and non-derivational), functionalist, and cognitive. They can be characterized as follows.

Generative linguistics
This paradigm was founded by Noam Chomsky, attempts to find the basic underlying rules that underlie any given language, and all languages. The term "generative" is a mathematical term that means to fully describe, account for, and explain a system (it has nothing to do with generating in a mechanical or mechanistic sense, like a machine cranking out grammar patterns or sentences). Chomsky's theories began with a complex set of transformations in the original Transformational Grammar framework, which have been simplified in later theories - Principles & Parameters, Government & Binding Theory, and the current Minimalist paradigm. These have been reduced to a smaller set of so-called movements, but to make this simplification possible, the syntactic structure has been made more complex by adding abstract categories in the syntactic trees or syntactic structure.
Constraint-based generative linguistics
Some generativists do not favor the use of transformations, derivations or movements, and in response, non-derivational constrain-based theories have emerged, particularly Optimality Theory in phonology. Instead of movements or derivations, universal constraints are proposed, which are present in all languages, but work differently in various languages. This has also been applied to syntax, e.g., Optimality Syntax.
This approach is an attempt to ground language on pragmatic or usage-based and communication-based principles and categories. It focuses on surface forms rather than abstract structure. It has advantages in application to language pedagogy and the study of pragmatics.
Cognitive linguistics
This paradigm began with the insights of Gestalt psychology, and later, schema theory in cognitive psychology. It assumes that language is a cognitive domain that is grounded in cognitive psychology and other mental faculties, and that language must have arisen from cognitive faculties rather than just on its own, and hence, language is crucially connected with cognition - be it natural semantic categories in our world, or human social cognition. It combines these psychological insights with the key insights from the study of metaphor - that metaphor is a key element of meaning in language, and hence, a whole field of cognitive semantics exists for exploring this.

The role of metaphor in language use was demonstrated by George Lakoff and others, and metaphor turns out to play an extensive role in language. Oftentimes, words are applied metaphorically in ways that we are not aware of. For example, the word "up" indicates upward position, but in human life it is connected with other concepts, so the word is metaphorically extended to communicate such concepts. We associate "up" with filled containers, and thus, increase in amount, even for non-physical entities like prices (fill up the container, the prices went up), completion of events (let's finish up), degree of completion or degree of action (I'm fed up with this). Linguistic studies have found that metaphorical extension is a highly productive and regular feature of language - not only lexical meaning, but grammatical categories like noun classes and other grammatical categories in different languages.

Different flavors or varieties of cognitive linguistics exist. Some focus more on metaphor, interpretation, and pragmatics, and some of these approaches tend to overlap with functionalist linguistics. Others focus more on categorization, schemas, and grammatical structures in language, and offer a more structured approach to linguistics. Some cognitivists like Ray Jackendoff combine cognitive linguistics with some worthwhile insights and methodology from constraint-based generative grammar, for a more formal theoretical approach.

Construction Grammar, in particular, takes a principled, structured theoretical approach (but not so formalized as Jackendoffian linguistics), focusing on the meanings associated with various types of sentence structures. These structure-meaning relationships are grounded in schema theory and the metaphorical extension of meaning. For example, "give me the ball" is a standard dative sentence (focusing on the recipient or the one benefiting from the action), while "give the ball to me" is has a transfer-of-possession meaning. These structures are then applied to other motion verbs like "throw / toss me the ball" or "throw/toss the ball to me" or "hurl the ball to me" (but not *"hurl me the ball," where a dative/benefactive meaning would be awkward with this verb).

Because it is grounded in a practical understanding of metaphor and practical insights from cognitive psychology, cognitive grammar lends itself to classroom language pedagogy, particularly in informing teachers of linguistic principles that can be readily conveyed to students. This includes the metaphorical meanings of phrasal verbs, metaphor in much of the vocabulary of a second language, and the fact that grammatical forms and structures are not just structures to be learned, but these structures themselves have an inherent meaning that should be conveyed to students. Examples include many structures and forms that students may struggle with - verb tenses, especially the perfect tense; definite / indefinite articles; phrasal verbs; prepositions; various sentence structures such as passives, different types of intransitives, transitive sentences, and others. These in turn could be readily adapted to forming more intuitive explanations for students, which could be combined with inductive learning exercises and communicative language activities.