Category Archives: Categorization

Language, Feelings, and the Construal of Insects: Differences between French and English


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Since childhood I have thought that butterflies were good insects and that moths were bad insects.  After all, popular thought is that moths are creatures of destruction (hence the need for mothballs), even though this is not exactly the case.  Nevertheless, the frame for conceptualizing moths is a negative frame in English.

Contrast the English perspective with the French construal: butterfly is papillon, moth is papillon de nuit, or, night’s butterfly.  The negative construal is minimized by the fact that they are construed as being of a similar type.  In French, moth can be seen as a lexical subcategory of butterfly.

This is interesting because it shows how a folk-classification system affects the construal; from a cladistic standpoint Lepidoptera cannot be broken into a subgroup that distinguishes between moth and butterfly because moths and butterflies belong to the same monophyletic group with butterflies belonging to moths, and not the other way around as English speakers might hope.  By using a similar form for both creatures French is closer to the phylogenetic reality in its classification schema, but it would be closer if moth was papillon and butterfly were papillon de jour since the basic level papillon would then reflect the moth as the basic level creature.

The way we talk about something governs how we think about it.  French children probably have less disgust for moths than I did, simply because poetically a moth is a butterfly of the night, and not a creature of destruction.

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Perpetual Epicentral Density Sphere

Dandelion seeds (achenes) can be carried long ...

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The Perpetual Epicentral Density Sphere is a unpublished model of cognition that I began developing in the late ninety’s and early years of 2000 as a result of my training in linguistics and anthropology.  I worked on it before I knew what Cognitive Linguistics actually was and, in fact, it was part of my conversion to CogLing.  With a nod to remix culture and assemblage theory, this model tried to blend together several validated models of discourse and culture in a super feeble attempt to bridge the epistemological gulf between realism and relativism and explain the complete communication picture in a systematic and procedurally elegant way (read: quasi-arbitrary).  This was the early days of my interest in systems theory, but I was really naive about the complexity of complexity.  Basically, the more that I worked on the model the more I came to see that Cognitive Linguistics already had working solutions to a lot of the questions I was addressing.  In fact, when I read back through my notes now, I see that it is actually a model of attention and dynamic construal.  I won’t tell you anything more about the mechanics right now, but I expect that one day I will pull it back off the shelf and show it to the world; in the mean time, here is an analogy from my original manuscript (part of which is in this book) for you to chew on:

“Pick the white puff of seeds on a dandelion clock, pick the stem and hold it in your hand, and meticulously and decidedly, remove every single floating seed, one-by-one until there is only one remaining.  This is what the first thought does when it moves to the second thought.  You have deselected every seed, ignored them all but one, the one you highlighted, the one you lit up – the one you selected.  This, the lone seed on the stem, a sphere at the base, the rod line of the seed body, and the end of the seed a circle of tiny white hairs that extend radially from the stem in many many directions, this seed is a snapshot. You are holding in your hand the most natural visible representation of how your thoughts live and travel.  Now put that last seed up to your mouth and do the wind’s job and send that seed floating.  Where it lands it either develops or dies, just like your thought.”

“If you can take a line of thought and follow it to every dead-end, out every open door and window, to every destination – and catch it resting – you will see simply and plain how lawless and unruly even simple thoughts are in their brief lives.”

You can view images from my portfolio that were inspired through this process at:

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Why I Care About Ontology

Staircase perspective.

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In a broad sense of the term, any particular ontology serves as a framework against which we interpret information; think of it like an organized perspective that we use as a lens to view and understand the world.

When you study a culture you are concerned with figuring out how they understand the world and how they make sense of the world.  This study of sense-making follows the concept that people do what seems logical and rational to their perspective.  I am interested in mapping these sense-making resources and translating them into a format that reveals the internal consistency and relationships between the rationale and the external context and stimuli.

If you look back through the histories of science & philosophy you will see the pendulum swing between two extremes in regard to ontology, one extreme believes that there is a unified and complete ontological structure to the world, the other extreme believes that there are many unified and complete ontological structures.  This is the debate between whether we can know truth objectively, or whether it is known as a perspective.

In my work I explore how we construct global formal ontologies as well as how we generate idiosyncratic folk-ontologies; this is the both/and response – I want to know how we engage in thinking when it is shaped by public beliefs and private beliefs and what it takes to reconcile the disjunctions.

One of the ideas that has kept my attention the longest is that the structure of a thought represents the choices that have been made to arrive at that thought, and that structure also shows us what has been ignored as the thought is being formed.  I want to know how the external world interacts with the internal world.  I want to know how it directs our thinking.  This is the foundational riddle that makes me want to do linguistics.

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Schematic Construals in Favor of Ecological Transportation

If you say the admittedly odd sentence “The baby feeds on mother’s milk.” it accesses a parasitic construal for the act of eating.  Pardon any offense this might cause you; I promise to redeem myself.  I am not saying that babies are parasites, but that the transfer involved could be construed as parasitic at this stage (depending on your nature/nurture views).  Please hang on for a few more sentences.

If you replace the lexical items with items from the same grammatical categories you could arrive at this sentence: “The car runs on gasoline”; this construal is merely consumptive.  All that has been done is replace a subject noun (baby) for another subject noun (car), a verb phrase (feeds on) for another similar verb phrase (runs on), and finally, a noun (mother’s milk) for an another noun (gasoline).

The innocent and non-parasitic behavior of the car in the second example sentence results from the fact that the source of the consumed material is absent from the semantics of the sentence.  Some would argue that it is implied.

So far we have a baby that acts parasitically toward its mother in order to consume a substance in order to operate, and a car that acts consumptively toward a substance in order to operate.

I want to argue that the car is actually parasitic depending on how your worldview construes the relationship between gasoline and its originating source: fossil fuel that comes from within the earth.  A reading of the earth as a mother (which many mythological systems do) would render the car’s unidirectional consumption of fuel a parasitic consumption of a resource from the earth.  If you construe the concept CAR in this parasitic way and realize that it is markedly different from a relationship between a child and a mother (the child later benefits the mother, they have a loving bond, they provide things for each other – exculpating the child from the parasitic framing), it seems reasonable to begin to look for ways to mitigate the parasitic nature of the car.  While some of the emissions from a car may provide positive feedback into the system our earth belongs to, by and large the car does nothing good for the earth, and truly embodies the role of parasite.

Something should change.

Because transferral of energy always entails a forward chain of consumption, it cannot be the consumption model that needs to change; it must be the parasitic nature.

One alternative is an epiphytic consumption, something like a solar car.  (At this point you probably see that this is not an article about babies or about cars, but rather construal and schematization).  Whether or not solar cars are a reality, that model would satisfy the need to reduce the parasitic nature of gasoline-run cars on the limited resources of a mother earth.

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Different Uses of “If”

Arthur River, Mitre Peak and Milford Sound, 19...

Image by National Library NZ on The Commons via Flickr

  1. If we don’t pay that ticket, then I will have to go to court. [causal]
  2. It would be great if everyone just got along. [idealistic]
  3. I wonder if she knows she has jelly all over her silk blouse? [oblique]
  4. This kind of mustard, if it can even be called mustard, makes me sick.[aside/exception/dismissive/doubt]
  5. We can keep talking, if you want. [permission]
  6. If you don’t shut up, we are splitting up. [threat conditional]
  7. If everyone is doing it, I might as well do it too. [since causal]
  8. If you’re not shutting up, well, I guess we are splitting up. [since/continuing conditional]
  9. Sounds iffy to me. [uncertainty]
  10. We have to consider the “what ifs?” in order to do our jobs properly. [full NP uncertainty construction]
  11. We have to consider the “what ifs?” if we want to succeed. [conditional]
  12. Treat everyone with kindness, if not respect. [restrictive]
  13. If you must. [concession]
  14. If only. [implausibility]
  15. As if. [sarcastic implausibility]
  16. If he was an ogre, at least he was kind. [factual]

How Inception Helps Me Edit Papers

Inception: Alternative Poster

When I am writing a paper that has a page limit I use the first draft to make sure that I have a complete thought, I do not worry about exceeding the page limit.

For the first round of editing I read through the entire paper once. I then reread the paper section by section.

I open a new document for sections which I want to edit and conduct all of my editing in the new window so that I can preserve the original thought while I carve up its copy.

During that new window editing, I will then take paragraphs from the section and open new windows for each of them before using the cut copy paste “kick” to move it back through the layers of the document.

When I make it back to the original layer, what I am left with is a concise, coherent, and consistent paper. In a way, for each paragraph I have gone three layers deep to plant my idea.

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How I became a Linguist: Characteristics of Intelligent Behavior

Systems thinking about the society

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Sometime in the early nineties my mother gave me a list of Arthur Costa’s twelve characteristics of intelligent behavior.  This list actually had a lot of influence in my life as I stumbled upon the trajectory toward anthropology and linguistics.  It taught me that I could actually organize observations and thoughts and cause them to not only make sense out of reality, but to blend the sense-making process with the process of describing reality.

I wanted to summarize Costa’s 1988 list here and to provide a link to a full article by Costa that explains the rationale behind each of the list items.

  1. Persistence, persevering when the solution to a problem is not immediately apparent
  2. Decreasing Impulsivity
  3. Listening to Others – with Empathy and Understanding
  4. Flexibility in Thinking
  5. Metacognition: Awareness of Our Own Thinking
  6. Checking for Accuracy and Precision
  7. Questioning and Problem Posing
  8. Drawing on Past Knowledge and Applying it to New Situations
  9. Precision of Language and Thought
  10. Using All the Senses
  11. Ingenuity, Originality, Insightfulness: Creativity
  12. Wonderment, inquisitiveness, curiosity, and the enjoyment of problem solving – a sense of efficacy as a thinker [Costa: 1988]

What strikes me as important in this list, is the correlation to the task of conducting both anthropological and linguistic fieldwork.  Wherever one is a stranger this list equips with the basic attitude necessary to learn to fit it, or at least to be welcomed in to a community.

This list is also manifest in anyone doing any kind of systems science.  All twelve of these skills make it possible for you to collect data, analyze it, and turn it into some kind of presentable report that describes the system.  This three activity cycle: collect, analyze, present is what I feel is at the core of being any kind of productively observational person.

Since this original list was published in the 80’s, Costa has revised it under the label “Habits of Mind” and expanded it to include 16 habits.  Since this revised list was not a part of my path to linguistics I chose instead to list the original.  However, the revised list is great and can be found here.


Costa, Arthur, L. (1988). Teaching for Intelligence: recognizing and encouraging skillful thinking and behavior. (p.22) in Transforming Education (IC #8), Context Institute. Stable URL:

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Primitive Modals in Child Language (Hafta, Wanna, Gonna) As Functionally Equivalent to Auxiliary Modals

Modals represent a perspective of force in relation to the participatory elements of a construction.  In fact, they represent an encoding of force in the relation between subject, verb, and object.

Children acquire modals by way of constructions that employ notions of speaker attitudes like intention, volition, and compulsion (245, Tomasello: 2003), and the constructions that they use are form-meaning pairings of these attitudes to a class of non-modal verbs including: want, have, need, among others.  Through use of these constructions, children begin to use reduced forms to communicate their understanding of internal volition (wanna), external compulsion (hafta), internal compulsion (needta) where the verb is coupled with a reduced form of “to” (indicating direction toward) (246, Tomasello: 2003).

These quasi-modal constructions are aligned functionally with auxiliary modals which direct degrees of compulsion and force of purpose.  This is seen in the deontic modal function of hafta which equates with must (Tomasello, 262).  In a way, these can both be understood to represent a requirement on the part of the grammatical subject.


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An Emergentist vs. Universalist view of Language and Cognition

Distributed cognition

Image by Lisa Brewster via Flickr

I wanted to present a list that outlines some of the main differences in thought about language between Emergentist and Universalist perspectives.  This is important I think because it shows how only certain kinds of programmers and mathematicians can work successfully within a Cognitive framework.

Consider these characteristics of an Emergentist (Cognitive) view:

  1. Singular Mind (General Cognitive Abilities)
  2. Distributed Cognition
  3. Neo-Empiricist
  4. The Complex System IS the primitive
  5. Prototypes
  6. Online and Dynamic Processing
  7. Usage Based View of Language
  8. Falsifiable
  9. The Appropriate Level of Granularity is the Form-Meaning Pair (i.e., constructions)

Now, compare that list with this Universalist (usually Generative) view on the same issues:

  1. Modular Mind
  2. Localization in Neuroscience
  3. Innate
  4. Atomistic, Reduce!
  5. Feature based categories & Atomistic Set Theory
  6. Stable Structures and “Switches” that enable cognition
  7. Competence Based View of Language
  8. Language is the de facto expected product of the mind
  9. Reductionism refines phenomena out of existence

Can some middle perspective be taken that combines both extremes?  What are your thoughts?

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Intention Directing, Self-Reporting, and the Transitive Constructions in Early Childhood Grammar (preschool, 2-5 years old)

Group of children in a primary school in Paris

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Since constructions are learned through usage, constructions are accumulated as individual entities that begin to form collections and these collections of constructions begin to exhibit type frequency.  I think that this type frequency represents an aspect of the nature of child conceptualization, and indeed, it enables the communication of conceptualization in relational behavior from early ages.  This post explores a little about my extension of Tomasello’s analysis of the abstract transitive construction from his book Constructing a Language.

Tomasello divides a list of verbs used in the transitive constructions into four categories: Having Objects, Moving or Transforming Objects, Acting on Objects, and Psychological Activities (150, Tomasello: 2003).  These are not productive constructions until around 3,5; at which point children begin to use the transitive construction with verbs outside of the list presented by Tomasello.  Children use the verbs to indicate Agent and Patient roles in the [Trans-SUBJ Trans-VERB Trans-OBJ] transitive construction.  Looking through the list of verbs presented in Tomasello’s text it is easy to see that children have subjective conceptualizations and are able to begin articulating these ideas.  Verbs like: mean, know, like, help, need, and want represent a complex internal awareness of the interface between the physical/objective world and the mental/subjective world.  This understanding of the descriptive functions of the transitive construction enable the child to foray into relational transactions that involve intention-directing and launch the child into participation in the social world with the means to assert their identity as communicative entities in conversation.  These constructions allow self-reporting of internal states and an articulation of desire that transcends the physical environment.  The child can now make declarations, but also utter imperatives regarding subjective concepts to effect changes in the concrete world.

Interestingly, the early abstract transitive constructions allow the child to place varying degrees of focus on the elements used in the construction.  This is a salience-determining skill that allows the child to manipulate meaning in relation to the Agent and Patient roles, which may be a precursor to learning other constructions like the Passive construction.  Additionally, the emergence of this ability may represent the manifestation of figure-ground distinctions in early child grammar.

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Bybee’s notion of “exemplar representation”

In exemplar representation situation-specific tokens are decoded and classified as being instance-overlaps with existing exemplars and thereby reinforcing that exemplar instance, or else they are classified as having slight divergence from the existing exemplar, and so the situation-specific token gets classified as a new exemplar.  The idea is that the usage and mapping of meanings are situated best examples; the situated usage of the meaning (i.e., the exemplar) reveals the meaning to be in line with a known exemplar, or to be an extension of an existing exemplar which merits formation of a new exemplar to represent this new situated token.  In this approach, frequency of tokens enables the solidification of exemplars (reinforces knowledge) or enables the expansion of exemplars (increasing knowledge).

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Stone Soup, Bouillon Cubes, and Innovation

In my childhood I think it was the fable about Stone Soup that made me start to think about innovation.  As I learned to cook and came further into the world of soup-lore I realized that good soups rely on a reduction of some sort, some kind of richly delicious liquid broth.  In the food world reducing things to something rich and dense is worthy of gustatorial praise.  A brief tour of cookery terms reveal that we have many aspirations to reductions (I am thinking about words like reduction, concentration, syrup, et cetera) and our food science inventions reveal something similar: the bouillon cube.  I think beyond a soup stock, the bouillon cube is the pinnacle achievement of reduction.  It is an abstraction of flavor from the specificity of the ingredients.  But anyway, getting to the point, I don’t like to use bouillon cubes; instead, I make my own soup stocks from scratch in much the same manner as the man who first made stone soup.

For a while now I have been finding myself throwing my vegetable scraps in the freezer so that I can use them to make soup stocks from scratch.  I have recently started cycling through the process on a weekly basis.  Take a look at this week’s table-scraps: Continue reading

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Doing Strategic Planning #2: Decision Making and Identifying Policy Material through Discourse Analysis

,., decision making

Image by nerovivo via Flickr

Continuing on the posts about strategic planning, today I want to share how I encourage people to develop policy.  The organization that I am helping had a baseline report drafted by a committee member.  In the baseline report all of the areas of involvement were catalogued and this person identified several gaps in the way that the organization operated.  This person also organized all of the decision-making processes that the organization (a small foundation) uses to conduct day-to-day business and to make decisions about monetary investments & expenditures.

The organization has a long history of successful functioning and I am only a recent player in the story, but the organization is in a state of transformation and part of my role is to bring consistency to the process of adaptation.  Basically this project is sort of the development of a change-management strategy.  This means that a lot of policies will need to be rewritten.  In fact, decision-making is the prime goal of this particular strategic planning project.

Because the organization already had several documents and had recently drafted the baseline report I was able to compare the report to the historical documents and identify statements that would drive the prospective policy.  I borrow a common industry standard called “requirements” that are basically active-voice, single-proposition statements that elucidate a concept that is vital to be considered in the system (the decision-making process in our case).  Another feature of these statements is that they usually contain an auxiliary modal to indicate a degree of forcefulness behind the statement.  Again, the idea is to get at what things are vital to be considered in the decision-making process.

I took the baseline report and identified what the committee member found as criteria for decision-making.  I made a list of these items.  Next, I took the historical decision-making documents and identified where those criteria came from in the historical document and made a list of those locations.  This is like the process of making a concordance of references and is similar to the data management strategies that field linguists and anthropologists use in constructing data tables and dictionaries.

I asked the organization members to look through the documents and draft their own list of these vital statements so that through the process of this shared discourse experience they would become increasingly familiar with the actual textual material that we will be using to draft the strategy and goals in subsequent meetings.  The idea was to get people thinking about what their real needs actually are before they start looking to the future and to do this with an eye toward using policy to keep their strategy planning in line with their vision and mission statement and other relevant brand documentation.

Stay tuned for further updates.

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Inherent Narratives in Ad Hoc Collections

Part of my portfolio includes this project called Weaving Narratives: Possessions = Autobiographies, it is an exploration into how any ad hoc grouping of objects has some kind of inherent narrative, albeit a selected and limited narrative; but it is a narrative nonetheless.

When I was a boy I remember my father keeping a box of items that meant a lot to him.  I keep a box like this too.  The Italian blacksmith that I apprenticed under also kept boxes of items, but on a different scale; when he died I got one of those boxes: we call it a storage unit in American English. Continue reading

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Sample Sentences Using Spradley’s Nine Semantic Relations from The Ethnographic Interview

Cover of "The Ethnographic Interview"

Cover of The Ethnographic Interview

I love James Spradley’s work on ethnographic interviews, componential analysis, taxonomic analysis, and participant observation, but Spradley’s work on semantic analysis has been the most thought-provoking for me theoretically.  Here I list out his nine semantic relationships and give some sample descriptive sentences to show you how the semantic relation describes the two elements in the relationship.  I have to say, however, that none of these sentences are very natural in a natural language kind of way.  In fact, the one concern that I have with Spradley’s view of semantics (from my usage-based cognitive view of language) is that it does not adequately lend itself to a straightforward modeling of the semantics of a natural language sentence.  Instead, if you want to use this for natural language, it has to be on a propositional level.

These semantics are best for modeling culture and the dynamics of a culture.  After all, they were drawn up in a methodology for ethnography.  In the sentences I present below you will find that they have a rigid and non-human sound to them; in fact, I think (and this is my opinion), that if you want to use Spradley’s semantics for anything other than modeling culture, that they are best used in formal system modeling, such as an expert system. Continue reading

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Ad hoc Categorization and the “Virtual City” in Soulwax’s “Part of the Weekend Never Dies”

2 Many DJs (Stephen and David Dewaele / Soulwa...

Image via Wikipedia

Recently I started watching one of my all-time-favorite documentaries again, Soulwax’s “Part of the Weekend Never Dies“; I was struck by a particular film sequence that captured the essence of what I would call a “virtual city” that embodies part of the notion of ad hoc categorization. Continue reading

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Reflexivity and Recursion in Soulwax’s “Part of the Weekend Never Dies”

Cover of "Nite Versions"

Cover of Nite Versions

Since I am posting a lot about Soulwax this month, I thought I should include this clarifying snippet about the differences between the various acts which the Dewaele brothers lead.  In “Part of the Weekend Never Dies” Stephen explains these acts to a Mexican female presenter who is interviewing him about the show:

[00:03:50] Presenter: “First of all, what’s the, can you tell the audience like what’s the difference between 2ManyDJs, Soulwax, or Radio Soulwax?” Continue reading

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Why I Believe in Cut & Paste as a Design Strategy


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Cut & Paste is not just a keyboard function.  In fact, R.G. Collingwood coined the term in the mid 1940’s in his book The Idea of History, but being a more formal speaker of a more formal ancestor of colloquial English he called it the “scissors and paste” method and was critical of it as a tool in historical method (33, Collingwood: 1946).

Nonetheless he did use the term and since then it has come to be used rather frequently as a tool in questionable secondary research, or as a way to validate and situate a claim in a historical context.  I think Collingwood’s problem with scissors and paste was that it was just a patchwork manipulation of existing work by people who were not historical eyewitnesses, and therefore outside of the bounds of science.  In essence, what was cut out and pasted lacked appropriate context and proper lineage, in fact, that has become a problem: it is called plagiarism. Continue reading

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Guest Post: The Digital Polis – Nicholas Carson Miller

I invited Nicholas Carson Miller to guest post on the shape of a particular internet culture…I hope you enjoy his work -SportLinguist

I. The New Prehistory

We can’t go ask ancient peoples what was going on when they decided to get together and start building cities. Frustratingly, none of the folks involved in the development of prehistoric communities are still around to ask and weren’t kind enough to leave detailed ethnographic and historical accounts of their experiences. Shame on them. We can, however, connect to the internet and observe the development of a new kind of community.

Early humans, tiring of wandering and hunting alone, began living around one another, trying their hands at farming, trading necessities and surpluses, and finding increasingly productive and complex ways to protect and govern the communities that developed. Early internet users logged on alone, visiting web pages and sending limited communications—but then a need for specialized communal activities lead to email lists, chat rooms, social networks, and, most interestingly, forums.

These internet communities, especially certain infamous and influential forums such as 4chan, Gaia Online, and Something Awful, are beginning to exhibit fascinating cultural trends that are to me reminiscent of early city-states. The development of the culture of these communities should be taken as a possible reflection of the development of real-world communities and is conveniently occurring right before our eyes at a highly accelerated rate. Continue reading

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Doing Strategic Planning #1: Vision & Mission Statements


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One of the services that I provide is to help small organizations and groups do strategic planning.  My approach is to shepherd the group through the process and get them thinking about how the different elements of a strategic plan actually work together to drive decision-making policy.  I don’t like to get caught up in mechanistic template driven planning, but really try to understand (with ethnographic insight) the soul of the organization and let the strategy emerge through a process of self-identification.  If you know anything about my research or my art, narrative is a key element in my beliefs about identity.  I like to bring that into the planning process.

All that to say, this morning I was helping a committee define a 5 year strategic plan that will account for a variety of goals and investments.  After I walked away from the first meeting I thought that this might be an appropriate thing to blog about since I feel that it relates to just about any organization whether it is individual as enterprise, research programs, community development organizations, et cetera.  In fact, it possibly even relates to the ways in which we manage ad hoc committees. Continue reading

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Weaving Narratives: Possessions = Autobiographies

I recently created a short interview about my art project “Weaving Narratives” where I describe the process of reading objects that people own.  I hope you check it out and let me know what you think in the comment section [click the picture to view the film].

Also, weave your own narrative using the photo-documentation for this project [a free download to use in your own creative process].

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CONTAINER Is an Ontological Metaphor

Ontological Metaphors are metaphors that give shape to abstract concepts and even contribute to the structure of Primary Metaphors.  CONTAINER is one of those metaphors. Continue reading

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Cognitive Mindfulness # 18

If Aristotle had spoken Chinese or Dakota, his logic and his categories would have been different. – Fritz Mauthner

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“Cleanliness Is Next to Godliness”

I remember reading a book about Germans that an anthropologist I knew in England let me borrow for the day. The most striking part of the book, at the time, was the recount of the author’s experience of seeing a dusty car in a parking lot on which some witty passer-by had written in the dirt that the condition of the car was the condition of that person’s inner life; filthy, unkempt, and disorganized.

The state of the artifacts of our life reflect and betray our true self.

My wife recently found a box of her childhood belongings at her mother’s house in the back of the storage room. She opened the box and looked at her cherished childhood possessions – doll clothes from when she lived in Thailand…still clean and folded. She told me that she took care of the few things she owned because she had so little. I love how my wife reflects her inner self onto her outer belongings. She really cares about things.

The state of the artifacts of our life reflect and betray our true self.

This past Sunday, my wife and I were out for brunch, and at the table behind us there was a woman talking about a recent trip to somewhere in Europe – noting how a storage bin like a rubbermaid cost 35 euros. The woman kept going on an on about how expensive it was to buy a box, how she gets them here for 5 dollars. And all I could think about was how much more neat and tidy Europeans are because of how expensive it really is to by crappy stuff. Who really needs the things that they plan to keep in a box?

I will say it again, the state of the artifacts of our life reflect and betray our true self.

He who has ears to hear, let him hear.

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HighLevel Issues in EthnoBotany; Interdisciplinary Cross-Pollination

My Shrunken Head - 2008 -

I started getting interested in botany during my undergraduate years when I wanted to complement the technical linguistics training with a tempered understanding of some practical skills.  I have always planned on doing anthropological linguistics and in most locations people grow their own food; learning about botany and horticulture would be good for my survival.  And since talking with people about plants is a great way to collect data I wanted to at least have the competency to grow plants and have some familiarity with the lives of plants.  I took a job working summers and breaks at a 100-year-old tropical aquatics greenhouse where I learned to cultivate Lotus, Victoria Regina, Water lilies, marginal plants, and how to raise fish and maintain healthy ecological systems.  This got me interested in algae, protists, lichens, mosses, ferns, et cetera…

Even earlier in life, during primary school I took part in a Naturalist Aid program which taught me about the medicinal uses of plants, biodiversity, and ecology.  I guess my first encounters with plants was really from a pedagogical perspective on ethnobotany. Continue reading

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Preludes for Memnon – Aiken, Consciousness, and Ontology

I have a new link in my sidebar and I wanted to tell you a little about it.  One of my three favorite poets is Conrad Aiken, a sincere and highly lucid poet of consciousness.  Currently I am working on a paper about the metaphors of trees in ontologies (expect a post mid February) and a segment of Aiken’s Preludes for Memnon are included in a section using cognitive poetics to extract the conceptualization structures in his work.

Anyway, check out this site dedicated to Aiken’s work:


A Brief Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis Summary…

A reasonable summary of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis in its tractable form is that different cultures interpret the same world differently and this has an impact on how they both think and construct meaning in language; in fact, language shapes or influences thought to some degree.  The Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis combines linguistic relativity and linguistic determinism.  Adherents of the hypothesis follow these two principles to varying degrees producing gradient interpretations from weak to strong versions of the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis.  Cognitive linguists are among the only linguists to take this “mentalist” position seriously, and most linguists of any orientation reject a strong version of the hypothesis.  Continue reading

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MUST: Polysemous Network for a Closed Class Lexical Item

Here is another network diagram…double click to enlarge…the diagram is an interpretation of the sense variation for the semantics of the modal auxiliary “Must”.  [NB: I included a few obsolete usages that are not necessarily polysemy, but are definitely fun; these are notated with the dotted line].


There are two levels of membership that stem from the central MUST sense, the third level is actually just how I chose to represent the instances of the Must[x] sense.  I know that this does not reflect a good hierarchy since for example Must[Permission] only has one child (in my representation) rather than two or more children.  NB: I am not trying to show a level decomposition past the Must[x] sense level.

Also, I added three uses of Must that are obsolete or rare.  They are not actually related to the must in a polysemous way, they are homophones.  The OED listed them and I felt like I should at least acknowledge them.


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HEAD: Polysemous Network for an Open Class Lexical Item

Take a look at this diagram of a possible interpretation for the polysemous network of HEAD:

[Hint: double click the image to enlarge…]

The senses for head have both physical and metaphorical interpretations.  I seemed to identify three main categories where head is understood in the sense of 1) providing direction, 2) providing a locus of representation, and 3) being at the top, beginning, or peak of something.

To me, it seemed like the locus of representation/embodied representative sense could also be the category for the subcategory sense “Head (Lead)”…but I am not sure about whether or not I am stretching it too far.

This diagram displays 3 levels of senses that orient around the central sense HEAD.  Additionally, there is a ?level for an idiom usage (head over heels) that I feel could have some relation to the continuation of the “head over” sense.  While “head over” means to head in a particular direction, “head over heels” means that something has toppled a person’s orientation (DISorient) so that they are tumbling and reeling from the event (usually falling in love), I imagine this tumbling motion to be the head moving toward the direction of the heels, but perhaps there is a better interpretation.

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The ICM for STUDENT…as if this was really still a hot topic in Cognitive Linguistics

GDR "village teacher" (a teacher tea...

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ICMs structure mental spaces by providing asymmetrical matching or mismatching between concepts, center-periphery models to structure categories, and encapsulated categories to structure to the scope of predication.  Below is an assortment of these three strategies including sarcasm derived from mismatch, radiality stemming from extension from the base definition, and  metonymic effects in some of the images presented as social stereotypes.


  • The TRADITIONAL MODEL: a prototypical student attends a school at a school building during set hours (usually 8am to 3pm) to learn from a licensed teacher or professor who evaluates their progress and testifies to the student’s acquisition of knowledge through a grading system.  This student progresses through a series of academic levels which increase in difficulty and specificity.
  • The NON-TRADITIONAL MODEL: a student is someone who is unable to participate in the complete traditional school system because of restrictions or scheduling.  However, the role of student and the role of teacher remain similar to  that of the traditional model.  This model of student can be a commuter, a night school student, a distance learner, a trade-school student.
  • The AUTODIDACTIC MODEL: a student is someone who approaches learning with a student mentality, outside of the traditional infrastructure of an institutionalized school. For instance, there are life-long learners, self-taught painters, Helen Keller, tinkerers, enthusiasts.  Also, practicing ethnographers may fall into this model as they learn about cultures through observations, interviews, and other self-directed techniques.
  • The APPRENTICE MODEL: a student is an apprentice to a master in some discipline or trade which may or may not belong to an institutionalized guild system.  The apprentice learns from the wisdom of the master who has accumulated knowledge through years of experience.
  • The PROTEGE MODEL: a student is an extension of the teacher, in some cases for the glory of the teacher more than the student.
  • The CATHOLIC SCHOOLGIRL MODEL:  the ubiquitous Halloween costume almost as blase as HOOKER or NUN.
  • The PERFORMANCE MODEL: a student can exhibit a range of behaviors that indicate quality of performance. For instance, there are class clowns, dunces, straight A students, B students, model students, lazy students, drop out students.
  • The APPEARANCE MODEL: a student is anyone in the suburbs who reads thick books, looks young, or drives a car from the late 80s to mid 90s.
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Semantic Construal in the terms for Landscape Architects & Groundskeepers

If a landscaper works to sculpt the land and then someone has to maintain that land that person cannot be called a land keeper

(a) *land keeper

The person who upkeeps the landscaping must be called a grounds keeper (or a gardener…but the point I want to focus on is the distinction between construal of ground & land). We cannot refer to a land keeper and remain grammatical.

If you doubt the analysis try reversing the problem: can you say groundscaper?


(b) *groundscaper

Ground is usually understood as something from a vertical axis, and something that is multiplex.

Land is usually understood as something from a horizontal axis, an expanse, and a discrete entity.

I want to know why the construed category for the object of labor is discrete in one case but multiplex in the other case…

Word choice matters. It matters because it reflects the way in which we conceptualize reality. Why does our language restrict our ability to discuss the same referent from the same perspective when we are discussing two different activities and their orientation?

In many cases Language is not economical in terms of lexicon & categorical semantics. Language is extravagant. I love it!

Purple Finch vs Bird

House Finch (Carpodacus mexicanus) Purple finc...

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Today I experienced one of those classic text-book cases of construing a category member at varying levels of categorization for different purposes.

I was walking down the hall in my office today and I noticed a small purple bird sitting in a puddle of water in the rain.  It looked injured.  I looked at it for a while and thought that it might be a purple finch.  I went upstairs and found a shoe box in a cabinet and went outside to collect the bird.  I then took it to a nature center down in the forest preserve that has a wildlife rescue clinic, and this is where my construal takes place:

I walk in the door holding a shoe box. Continue reading

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The Gestalt Principle of Proximity, Pointillism, and Sex at Starbucks

Detail from Seurat's La Parade de Cirque (1889...

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The Principle of Proximity is a Gestalt principle that states that objects that occur in proximity to one another are perceived as beginning to form a pattern or whole.  The closer the occurrence, the greater the suggestion of meaning or pattern.  It seems reasonable to me to extend this principle beyond objects into occurrences, events, concepts, phenomenon, et cetera.  Some examples might include:

Vision: Georges Seurat’s paintings in the tradition of pointillism use adjacent dots of different colors to create gradient color groupings that the mind abstracts as a block of hue in an image.  Some of Chuck Close’s paintings also have a similar effect. Continue reading

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Mashing Ray Jackendoff’s Ontological Categories with James Spradley’s Cultural Dimensions & Wh- Question Words

While I don’t necessarily agree with Jackendoff’s use of the semantic primitives, and while I recognize that this comes from a book that is from the early 80’s, I still want to present these ontological categories because they represent one way that the world is sliced, and they have interesting correlations to wh– question words.

Frankly, they are a little too close to Aristotalian categories for me to have much use for them in the stuff I am doing, but still, this represents an interesting perspective that ties in with ethnographic inquiry [specifically James Spradley’s work in Participant Observation].

Jackendoff proposes categories like THING, PLACE, DIRECTION, ACTION, EVENT, MANNER, AMOUNT and proposes a correlate question word which would access this category.

Spradley talks about 9 cultural dimensions: SPACE, OBJECT, ACT, ACTIVITY, EVENT, TIME, ACTOR, GOAL, FEELING, and looking at these nine dimensions in a matrix provides an ethnographer with 81 questions to keep their observations focused. But Jackendoff is more interested in seeing how these types of categories are manifest in linguistic structure, and less interested in modeling culture. Continue reading

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Cognitive Mindfulness #17

Reading Langacker’s Cognitive Grammar has been a dense pleasure.  I am currently reading part of it in a volume edited by Dirk Geeraerts called Cognitive Linguistics: Basic Readings (Mouton de Gruyter).  Consider these words about the networked meaning of a lexical item:

Most lexical items have a considerable array of interrelated senses, which define the range of their conventionally sanctioned usage.  These alternate senses are conveniently represented in network form…The nodes and categorizing relationships in such a network differ in their degree of entrenchment and cognitive salience…The precise configuration of such a network is less important than recognizing the inadequacy of any reductionist description of lexical meaning. A speaker’s knowledge of the conventional value of a lexical item cannot in general be reduced to a single structure, such as a prototype or the highest-level schema.  For one thing, not every lexical category has a single, clearly determined prototype, nor can we invariably assume a high-level schema fully compatible with the specifications of every node in the network.

[Langacker’s Cognitive Grammar, 31, Geeraerts] (emphasis mine)

This is amazing, it basically asserts that lexical meaning resides in the total package of lexical knowledge and the relationship between points in the network.  In my understanding, this is the basis for grounding a strict reliance on encyclopedic knowledge in sense-making activities.


Geeraerts, D. editor. (2006) Cognitive Linguistics: Basic Readings, Mouton de Gruyter

Langacker, R.W. (1990). Introduction in Concept, Image, and Symbol: The Cognitive Basis of Grammar, Mouton de Gruyter (Reprint of ‘An introduction to cognitive grammar’. Cognitive Science 10(1):1-40, 1986.)

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How Spiders Conceptualize Reality

I found this spider in West Africa...outside my house.

I was working through a homework assignment about developing a language that captures the conceptualization patterns that a spider would have (given the boundaries of its embodied experience), this was a fun experiment, very much like Thomas Nagel’s What is it like to be a bat? (1974).  Anyway, here are some of the ways I cut up the problem:

If I am a spider, these are things that I cannot do:

  • pick stuff up and hold it in my hands
  • juggle
  • flick stuff
  • jump up and down vertically (rather than forward)
  • throw
  • kick
  • dance Continue reading
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Schematization of a research article on discourse metaphors

I am learning about various research methods and so I am reading articles to figure out their basic approach to research.  Here is an article that I have recently read and that I feel embodies a good research design.  Many people say that Cognitive Linguistics has a deficiency in text-based scholarship, this is a good example of a project that embraces text (original texts and transcripts of speeches – so, transcript as artifact/object of study)…enjoy!

Review of: Zinken, J. ‘Discourse metaphors: The link between figurative language and habitual analogies’ in Cognitive Linguistics 18(3) 2007, pp 445-466

This article introduces discourse metaphors as a link between language use and habitual analogical schemas to show that metaphors do not exist only at the superordinate level of categorization (as Conceptual Metaphor Theory suggests), but that they also exhibit systematically consistent (form-specific) figurative mappings at other levels.  In other words, lexical items within a superordinate level also have distinct patterns for figurative use; Zinken terms these discourse metaphors. Continue reading

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Cognitive Mindfulness #15

Schema for cognitive differenciation between c...

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Ronald Langacker is considered one of the founding fathers of the Cognitive Linguistics enterprise, his seminal work in Cognitive Grammar has influenced pretty much everyone who does anything at all in Cognitive Linguistics.  Anyway, here is a quote that talks about the conventional meaning of a lexical item, this grounds the notion of encyclopedic knowledge: Continue reading

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Cognitive Mindfulness #14

This comes from the introduction to a book edited by Dirk Geeraerts:

If conceptual perspectivization is the central function of a grammar, the typical formal categories of grammatical description (like word classes or inflection) will have to be reinterpreted from a semantic point of view. [7 Geeraerts, 2006]

It made me think twice…especially since syntax has been the normal focus of grammar in the last 50-70 years; a meaning based grammar makes a lot more sense to me than a rewrite rule based grammar.


Geeraerts, Dirk, editor, (2006). Cognitive Linguistics: Basic Readings, Mouton de Gruyter

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Language Is a System

Language makes use of ecological elements (symbolic function, communicative function, et cetera) to provide an integrated “tool” with which meaning can be expressed and understood.

Being a system implies the interrelationship of components where a change in stimulus, neurological mechanism or linguistic mechanism alters the system output.  Meaning changes when one element changes, so, as in the case of active vs. passive syntactic arrangements, any syntactic change must entail a semantic change.

The elements of language follow certain regularities in collocations, arrangements and combinations that emerge from meaning and categorization. Continue reading

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Cognitive Mindfulness #12

We face the future; the past is behind us.

In English we talk about the future being ahead of us, forward in time, in front of us, what lies ahead, what is to come, what we are facing, what our week looks like, what we see approaching.

We talk about the past as being behind us, something that we look back on, something we have passed through (and as such is behind us), what our year looked like.

This is the way that we use our body and our experience to shape our understanding of the sequence of events in our life, to make sense out of TIME in terms of SPACE. Continue reading

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Ethnocentrism in Parenting

I just started reading an ethnomusicology book and I was struck by this definition of ethnocentrism.  Being an anthropologist I am conscious of the dangers of ethnocentrism in my practice and I can look at members in their context and not force my own values onto those members in my evaluation.  But still the clarity of this quote haunted me a little.

When the commonsense perspective dominates the attitude of anyone confronting new and strange experiences, it becomes ethnocentrism.  Ethnocentrism is the common tendency to view all human behavior from the value system of one’s own society, often including the tendency to consider other practices inferior and misguided.  The scholar must therefore avoid the commonsense perspective of his or her own society, and seek to understand other people’s practices from their point of view. Every society has its own commonsense perspective, and part of the task of understanding music in other societies is to understand the commonsense perspective commonly held in those societies.

[2-3, Kaemmer, 1993]

When I read this passage it reminded me of my own fears of ethnocentrism in my life.  My fear is that one day I will have a child who values a different type of creativity than I value.  Actually, it is not necessarily a different type of creativity as much as it is a preference for a different aesthetic in my child’s progression into self-expression.  I am embarrassed to even admit that fear. Continue reading

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Recursion, Björk, Mise en Abyme, Abstraction & the Ontological Metaphor ‘CONTAINER’

Abstraction takes an instance of something and edits out the redundancy and unnecessary elements to leave the basic pattern in a less detailed, but more succinct manner.

Abstraction in art seems to be something of a catch-all bin for art that is not realistic, at least in the common vernacular of the non-art historian/non-art critic.  This is not a healthy conceptualization of abstraction, and it may distort the understanding of abstraction.  I know for me, my view of abstraction was not clear for a very long time because I only associated the term with contemporary art.

What are some of the senses of abstraction?

  • Abstract vs. Concrete
  • Abstract vs. Body Content
  • Abstract vs. Realistic (similar to concrete)

I am interested in the abstraction that has the effect of zooming out, blurring the edges, pixilating the resolution, blocking smaller patterns into larger patterns; this kind of abstraction is of the summarization kind. Continue reading

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Cognitive Mindfulness #9(a)

This passage covers a discussion of the conceptual domains of space and time while introducing the quantities of each domain and their instantiation in reality.  I like this passage because it differentiates basic concepts in matter and action; since these are the components of productive creativity I feel that this clear exposition of these concepts enables me to be more creative with my art.

The quantity that exists in the domain of SPACE is matter, which may be either continuous or discrete.  We return to these terms directly, but for the time being we can think of ‘continuous’ matter as having no inherent ‘segmentation’ in its composition; this type of matter is mass, illustrated by AIR. Continue reading

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Overcome Writer’s Block With Semiotics [Free Download]

I just posted a free download of an excerpt of my semiotics project which will be available as a paperback in September.  I encourage you to check it out and let me know what you think about it.

Most of the textual content is absent; I wanted this excerpt to be visceral and intuitive.

The backbone of the project actually came out of an art piece that I made a few years ago that was intended to question identity and the formulation of identity out of memories and possessions [You will read about it in the Disambiguate Me! series on this blog].

As I developed the art project I realized that it could stand in place for a generic narrative that depends on the ways in which the objects are combined and recombined along a plot line that suggestively emerges from the set of objects as a whole. Continue reading

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Cognitive Mindfulness #7

Portrait photograph of Jack London

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Take this advice from Jack London:

“When a man journeys into a far country, he must be prepared to forget many of the things he has learned, and to acquire such customs as are inherent with existence in the new land; he must abandon the old ideals and the old gods, and oftentimes he must reverse the very codes by which his conduct has hitherto been shaped.  To those who have the protean faculty of adaptability, the novelty of such change may even be a source of pleasure; but to those who happen to be hardened to the ruts in which they were created, the pressure of the altered environment is unbearable, and they chafe in body and in spirit under the new restrictions which they do not understand.  This chafing is bound to act and react, producing divers evils and leading to various misfortunes.  It were better for the man who cannot fit himself to the new groove to return to his own country; if he delay too long, he will surely die.” [21]

London, J. (1982). To build a fire and other stories, Bantam Books (reprinted from Novels and Stories by Jack London)

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Lady Gaga Is Her Own Black Box

Sorry about the obtuse title, I don’t know how to name this odd post that integrates multiple concepts that tangentially relate.  Hopefully the ambiguity of description entices you to read.

It seems to me, that because Cognitive Semantics is constructional rather than compositional, it is suited for integration with Object Oriented Philosophy.

This statement might get some negative reactions, but I am learning, so, bring on the criticism.

Here is why I think Constructions are better suited for OOO than a strict Compositional approach: at the level of a relation between two hierarchies, concepts which construct do not need to regard the hierarchical levels as boundaries which must be maintained, in other words, a hierarchical element on level 5 in hierarchy A does not have to match across hierarchies to another hierarchical element on level 5 in hierarchy B. Continue reading

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Cognitive Mindfulness #5

Thomas Young's sketch of two-slit diffraction,...

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On Beauty:

“It is much harder to study the psychology of aesthetic pleasure in reference to fine art.  Many artists, aestheticians, and philosophers who have tried to do so have not gone very far.  They have advanced hypotheses that seem valid for some cases but not for others.  In relation to wit and the comic, the corresponding problem is relatively simple.  In considering poetry (or literature in general), we have the great advantage of dealing with cognitive symbols.  Thus any thought that we may have about a literary work, even when we focus on forms, is closely related to its content.  But in visual art, any thought is widely separated from the perceptual aesthetic perception.  Certainly we know that beauty in visual art, as in any aesthetic experience, is an encounter between something that resides in the aesthetic object, and a subjective feeling.  In this dual quality the appreciation of beauty is not different, let us say, from the appreciation of a color.  When we see something green or red, the greenness or the redness exists in the external object but also in ourselves.  Without us there to experience the green and the red, there would only be light waves.  However, whereas it is relatively easy to determine the wave length that we will perceive as yellow, blue, or green, it is impossible to determine the “wave length” that will make us see beauty when we see an object of art.” [235, Arieti, 1976]

Arieti, S. (1976). Creativity the magic synthesis, Basic Books

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Cognitive Economy and Perceived World Structure

In Cognitive Linguistics and Cognitive Psychology there are two principles that govern the well-formedness of categories: Cognitive Economy and Perceived World Structure.

Cognitive Economy (CE) assumes that categories form with the most bang for their buck; that they try to get as much as possible for as little effort as possible.  Kind of like Target’s Brand Promise: “Expect More, Pay Less”; when we make categories in our minds we try to make them as informative as possible with as little expenditure of mental energy as possible. Continue reading

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The Unity of Complexity – In Defense of Hierarchy

Stained glass at St John the Baptist's Anglica...

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You can model a system and describe the way that all of the parts interact and use that description to provide the prescriptive foundations for similar systems and projects. This is good if you want to be profitable with your description.

You can describe the meaning of a sentence and trace it to memories, trace it to your acquisition of those elements that built your knowledge, your memories – but you don’t prescribe that you will plan future thoughts around that description (like you would with a system description) – no, your future thoughts grow out of your secret knowledge inside the closed walls of your mind.

There are many levels that compose the universe, the universe decomposes and decomposes again into little tiny manageable chunks of smaller things like atoms and thoughts. Continue reading

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Apparent Classical Categories In A Cognitive Textbook!

I feel like I have a good vantage point for recognizing problems with cognitive linguistics, especially since I have a descriptive linguistics background and I know a lot of generative linguistics.  I know both sides of the arguments, that should give me a good perspective on the questions those arguments try to answer.  For instance, generative arguments against cognitive strategies of categorization say that classical categories have rigid boundaries that contain members which all share a set of characteristics, and that cognitive dynamic categorization fails to adequately account for these fixed strategies of containment and description.  But, not all cognitive approaches reject rigid boundaries, as I will describe momentarily.  This little argument about rigidity in categories came to mind today when I was reading Evans & Green (2006), and I happened upon a list of rigid characteristics for category membership which seemed very very objectivist and a little out-of-place in the cognitive framework. Continue reading