Category Archives: Cognitive Linguistics

I was featured in a financial blog giving insight into financial crisis language

Last week I was featured in a column on the investment blog with some comments about financial crisis language like “crash” and “stagflation”.

Check out the feature here.

Like I have said before, linguistics has a lot to offer to other disciplines, hopefully we can continue to work our way into those disciplines and continue to create market value for our skill sets.  It just takes people realizing that cognition and language can be systematically applied to real world situations; which for linguists is already a no-brainer.

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Motion Imagery & The Glitch Mob

I love this image from the cover of The Glitch Mob’s We Can Make the World Stop:

People occasionally describe winding canyons as if they were snakes, and this image makes that language explicit by showing a snake winding through the canyon.  We know that canyons do not wind (at least, not in the sense that the language implies), usually it is the river that created the canyon that did the winding as it formed the canyon over time.  But, when this information gets applied to the canyon we can say that this is fictive motion, the canyon is fictively moving, fictively winding.

When The Glitch Mob translate this idea into the clear visual imagery of this cover art, it forces the obvious in a way that makes it compelling to look at.  I think this is because it is a conceptual blend in which there is an input space of CANYON and another input space of SNAKE.  The blended space is the scene of the snake body in the canyon.  Usually in a conceptual blend some of the structure from the input spaces gets left out through the process of compression, but in this case, it appears that there is no compression, but rather a full specification of the input spaces in the blended space.  I think this is a bypassing of compression, and I think that it makes the SNAKE represent the trajector of the motion, so by eliminating compression, what is normally construed as fictive motion has to be thought of as veridical motion; the SNAKE is moving, not the vacuous space of the canyon.

Does the movement of the snake imply causality? In other words, is the snake causing the winding of the canyon?

Does the movement of the snake imply opportunistic movement? In other words, is the snake moving in the canyon because the canyon is a CONDUIT in the conceptual metaphor sense?

Like I said in the first paragraph, except for cases where people are discussing rivers, people normally ascribe the motion to the canyon.  Canyon is thus conceived of as the substance moving through the CONDUIT. However, in this case, the snake is the substance moving through the conduit, and the snake is factively in motion.  This stagnates the fictive motion reading of this imagery, and replaces it with a blend that exploits a conceptual metaphor.  Amazing.

(image courtesy of The Glitch Mob press kit)

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


Image via Wikipedia

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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Real Life Applications of Cognitive Linguistics

Shopping's Goat...

Image by ImAges ImprObables via Flickr

I have said it before and I will say it again: ANYTHING that requires thought benefits from a cognitive linguistic perspective.

We use language to help in making sense of the world, this goes for broad and general topics as well as specific expert domains; language is the medium of meaning, wherever that meaning occurs.

The idea I use in my professional life as an organizational culture planner is to use cognitive science to make sense out of the systems of thought expressed in the routine tasks of the organization and to see how they are described through culture in the form of business practices and personnel behaviors.  If I can see how thought and culture relate via language structures (i.e., conceptual metaphors, conceptual blends, force-dynamics, attention, figure-ground relations, et cetera), then I can help grow organizational culture from an informed perspective.


If you take the communication produced in an average business meeting, break it up into sections that identify the underlying conceptual metaphors, see who communicates what message, and trace the outcomes of the meeting, you can start to get a feel for what drives the organization.


Because design is an artifact of human creativity, it reflects the processes of perception.  Pick up any art criticism, architecture and landscape writing, or pulp design magazine, and you will see a range of conceptual structures at play in the terms of the movement of a visual scene, the oscillation of figure and ground (which in many cases roughly correlate to grammatical subject and object), the directing of attention, and the general semiotic structure of the actual design or the commentary; each aspect of the design reflects conception and perception.


Since technology is used in every aspect of life, we can start to see how it becomes a part of culture and cognition; in fact, technology in many respects helps us to distribute our cognitive load across a piece of technology. Pieces of technology are like material anchors that helps us escape from merely thinking with our minds and instead enable us to think with our environment.  This is a matter of conceptual blending, and it plays out in the decisions we make using thought and language, since technology is a tool that helps us learn, decide, and act on collected knowledge.  This is as relevant for super-computers as it is for using a wooden ruler; technology of all forms enables us to actually have something to say about the sensed environment.


When people want to relate to each other, they use language and other models of symbolization to communicate.  One of the most frustrating and most interesting aspects of communication situations is knowing whether communication is actually happening, or if it is in fact failing.  A lot of this depends on negotiating the common ground to see what each party shares.  Since the language we use for communicating relies so heavily on metaphors, it is often interesting to look at which metaphors people use to communicate, and whether or not those metaphors are understood by the other conversation partners. This holds true for relationship counseling, for customer service relations, and for friendships.  Any time people get together, they use meaningful structures to communicate, and cognitive science offers a suite of tools to analyze that communication.

The idea I use in my work is to exploit the nuances in language and behavior to gain insight into what problems the organization is facing.  I use a three-pronged approach to collect, analyze, and present that data.  I then help the organization to see how to use the results in a meaningful way to produce actionable solutions.  What this does for me is invaluable; I get to have a good time working on different problems, and I get to see how different people work together to help me find solutions that work for them.

I welcome opportunities to participate in translating ideas into cultural practices and love to engage in productive collaboration with people who are open and curious.

Let me know if you want to talk. DM me: @SportLinguist, or leave a comment on the contact page.

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Truffle to Truffle: Metaphors of Dirty Decadence

Truffle Market in Carpentras.

Image via Wikipedia

I can’t tell if I like truffles the mushroom better than I like truffles the chocolate, but one thing is for sure, truffles of any kind offer a guilty pleasure.  From a cognitive science perspective both types of truffles are related to each other, perhaps not on the Linnaean taxonomy, but certainly from a metaphorical position.  Look at these facts:

Take the features of the Mushroom:

  1. Relative Rarity
  2. Decadent and Dark Earthiness
  3. Lumpy & Dirty
  4. Expensive

…and metaphorically translate them into Chocolate:

  1. Good ones (i.e., NOT Lindor or Trader Joes) are Rare
  2. Dark Chocolate Decadence
  3. Lumpy & Dusted with a fine cocoa powder
  4. Expensive

The idea is to get a sweet version of the savory kind, find a translatable equivalent from the language of savory to the language of sweet.

Both the mushroom and the chocolate share these two characteristics:

  • They are both Expensive, where: a) Cost correlates with Quality and b) Cost correlates with Rarity, and,
  • They are both Dirty
I have been making truffles by hand for a little over a decade and at first I followed a recipe but over time it has kind of evolved to the point that I feel that I can call it my own.  Here is my process:
Typically I take about a pound of a rich dark chocolate (try a slave-free chocolate from this list), shave it, melt it in a double boiler, concurrently bring about a cup of heavy whipping cream just to a boil (without scalding), remove it from the flame and fold the chocolate into the cream.  At this point I will add something special (i.e. dark rum, cayenne, or marmalade) and set it aside to cool.  This is the ganache for the truffle filling.  Once it is cool I scoop it into small marble-sized balls using a melon spoon, place them in my freezer and leave the door open (I use the freezer as part of my extended working space and it is easier than opening and closing the door).  Have on hand a deep bowl with an non-dutched cocoa powder (something French is nice).  I bring about 10 ounces of a different grade of chocolate to melting point (temper it if you know how) and one at a time roll the frozen ganache balls in the melted chocolate, gingerly dropping them into the bowl of cocoa powder and quickly swirling the truffle around in the powder.  If you do this right the powder covers the entire truffle and evens out the coating of tempered chocolate.  Remove it from the powder with a plastic spoon and return it to the chilled freezer to let it set up.  Keeping them any longer than a week diminishes their quality.

Now that I shared my recipe I want to address the metaphor.

The idea about the metaphorical transfer that takes place is that concepts from one domain are mapped onto referents in another domain; in this case: mushroom maps to chocolate.  Interestingly, like many metaphors, this directionality is a one way mapping, in other words, it might be hard to map concepts from the chocolate truffle back onto the mushroom truffle.  But this is not impossible, for instance, say that someone begins to wrap their truffle mushrooms in a foil bon-bon wrapper to add a touch of novelty – then this behavior would be a feedback mapping of the metaphor.  That said, no truffle vendor in their right mind would cheapen the mushroom with that kind of kitsch, and no sensible market customer would buy a wrapped truffle they could not see.  So practically, it is probably safe to say that the metaphor only goes one direction.

Looking at the dusting of the truffle with cocoa we can see how the dirt environment of the mushroom acts as a containing boundary, in fact, the irregular shape of the mushroom comes from the fact that it grows underground and the pressure of the soil molds the mushroom, the soil embodies a force schema of restraint and acts as a container.  Likewise, the swirling of the truffle in the cocoa powder shapes the truffle and envelopes the chocolate truffle in a skin of powder (another container).

To wrap things up, think about this super simplified rendering of the metaphor:

Can you think of any other types of food that could be mapped using this simple template?  If so, post a comment with an example, we should try and get a little typology of food process metaphors going.

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Usage-Based Construction Selection

I just posted a seminar essay that I wrote a few months ago to the Cognitive Science Network. You can download the paper here (click the button that says “One-Click Download”) and read the abstract below:


Broadly, the cognitive linguistic enterprise seeks to identify an emergentist approach to language that investigates the motivation of language use, considers the effects of distributed cognition in situated communication, views complex systems of form-meaning pairings as primitives, and views online processing as dynamic. Within this tradition, this essay takes the position that language use is a manifestation of construal operations in the selection process of utilizing appropriate constructions which encode speaker perspective in a situated common ground. What follows is a usage-based treatment of the situated nature of construction selection in adult language informed by research in child language acquisition, discourse studies of communication, and construction grammar.

Protected: Haiman’s view of Iconic and Economic Motivation

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Perpetual Epicentral Density Sphere

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

Image via Wikipedia

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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A Layered Approach to a Common Ground Reading

I just posted another paper on the Social Science Research Network, it is an analysis of a multi-layered communication situation using Herbert Clark’s notion of the Common Ground.  Here is the abstract:

In a January 27, 2011 interview on the National Public Radio radio show Fresh Air (hosted by Terry Gross), guest Robert Spitzer made this comment: “Brazil doesn’t have a second amendment in their constitution.” However, as of May 2010 the Citizen Constitution (Brazil’s constitution since 1988) has been amended 64 times, which necessarily includes a second instance of an amendment being made. This fact renders a literal reading of Spitzer’s remark to be infelicitous. Instead, it is argued that Spitzer’s remark utilized the architecture of the situation to engage participants in a joint activity of maximizing the common ground.

This essay explores the role of a shared common ground in layered communication situations which enables participants to understand speaker construals. This falls within the domain of joint attention and pragmatic analysis of communication situations. Clark’s (1996) notion of Common Ground will be used to analyze the situation and untangle the communication layers to question what each participant needs to understand in order to orient on the intended meaning of the speaker. Using attested data from a radio interview, this paper explores three layers of communication and identifies the various aspects of a common ground that are required for a proper reading of a speaker’s intended meaning. This common ground is argued to be essential in the process of the negotiation of meaning. What follows is an initial exposition of the methodological process in this analysis, followed by a situating of the context for the data, and finally the application of the analytical method to the data with appropriate conclusions.

Attention Hot Heads (of any stripe): I want to be clear about this, I am analyzing the structure and content of someone’s statements about the Second Amendment; I am not making any kind of evaluation (positive, negative, or neutral) of the content of the surrounding political discourse about gun laws.  I will not debate in the comments about any aspect of this political discourse, but I will debate aspects of my analysis and of Clark’s notion of the common ground.

Download my paper here:

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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]

Celebrate the Ides of March: Caused Motion Transitivity, Brutus and the Knife

I was thinking about examples of caused-motion verbs and realized that English has a caused-motion transitive use of the verb to run.  What might an example look like? Simple:

“Brutus ran a knife into Caesar’s back.”

You could say that this is merely metaphorical, but then, you would be wrong.  Try removing the indirect object:

*”Brutus ran a knife.”

My, that’s ugly.  It looks like the laurel wreath goes to transitivity for this use of run. Long live the transitive construction and the Cognitive Empire.

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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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On Failure & Resilience in Optimization of Human Systems, Ecological Systems, and Networked Systems of Systems

I was recently watching Eleanor Saitta’s talk called “Your Infrastructure Will Kill You“.  Part of her talk outlined how optimization equals fragility (more or less).  That to the degree that something is cleaner, more elegant, or more efficient, it is fragile, and a break in the system can be potentially catastrophic.

In thinking about her comments I thought of a few examples where I have observed optimization creating a state of fragility, here are a few of my thoughts:

  • This has interesting considerations for general principles of design, specifically the form/function aspect of design. Probably the point at which form begins to extend beyond the needs of function the focus on form becomes gratuitous and potentially even hazardous (depending on the type of system).  Ironically, optimization in this case is not absolute optimization, but only optimization considering a specific set of requirements: when things are running smoothly then the system is optimized.
  • Another place for failure is when relationships are optimized; when the dispersal of information through a system relies on optimized relationships it only takes the breaking of one of the nodes in a network to create a chain reaction of subsequent nodes being uninformed.We think about how a well-connected network effectively distributes information, specifically in recent thought this informed an analysis of William Dawes vs. Paul Revere – showing how Revere’s relationship of network brokers enabled him to broadcast more extensively than Dawes’ impoverished closed network.  This is good thinking, except that it misses the point of threat: Revere was a weak link in that optimized chain of information; had he been eliminated his message would have been eliminated.  Revere and his network, although connected and optimized, were fragile.
  • In generative linguistics there is an optimization of the lexicon. Economy in space is valued above economy in processing; if this is opaque to you, I mean that generative linguistics tries to minimize the amount of information that it stores as unique units.  It is called “generative” because it generates complex utterances from values stored in the lexicon through recursion, instead of storing those values as wholes.  But there is a weakness; in optimizing the lexicon the generative power of the spell-out rules of Universal Grammar are fragile when it comes to dealing with actual language usage (which is the test of a linguistic theory, is it not?), and the rules fail to account for some foundational constructions of language (like idioms for example).

Ok, so there are lots of places where optimization leads to failure, but what are some ways in which optimization leads to resilience?  What are some solutions to these problems?

Redundancy is a great solution, but it is bulky.

  • When function is optimized it allows you to work backwards in the process of making things have better forms. This is actually how a lot of design progresses.  Think about how every piece of electronic technology that we have today had a larger predecessor.  Think about those clunky mobile phones from the eighties with the handset, base and cord in a leather bag, now look at the mobile phone you carry in your pocket.  Functionality was concept proven in the clunky design, and the form was optimized to enhance the function.
  • It seems to me that the optimization weakness in the Revere incident was that Revere was the weak link.  Instead of depending on the optimization of Revere’s relationships, perhaps the message itself needed optimization. One possible way to optimize the information load of a message is to abstract it (as was done with the signal of the hanging lanterns to indicate the route of attack), and another way is to reduce dependence upon a single messenger exploiting a network (In 1775 the sexton who hung the lanterns was a single messenger, Revere was a single messenger, et cetera).  Flooding a network with messengers bearing an abstracted signal would have been less fragile (put aside for the moment the need for secrecy in the 1775 incident).  In situations where secrecy is not vital, consider how this kind of network flooding would communicate the coherence of the message; when you hear the same thing from five people you at least start giving some credence to the constancy of the message.  In such cases what may have been unknown or even background information becomes salient and foregrounded through repeated exposure. Also, consider other types of signals that can be exploited to prompt a response of crowd mobilization, noises work particularly well.  Sirens and loud noises alert and orient people’s attentional systems toward the source of the signal, and that source becomes figural in the contextual noise of that signal.
  • Optimization can lead to resilience in online processing, like in a maximized lexicon that places the task of optimization on the processing skills required in the selection and extraction of form-meaning elements from the inventory.  Cognitive approaches to the lexicon seek to preserve economy in processing; instead of having a minimal lexicon with lots of processing rules, the cognitive approach has an ordered inventory of form-meaning pairings (including monomorphemic elements, constructions, and phrases that are learned whole), with an optimized processing system of constraints, schemas, and other elements of cognitive processing (see this week’s post on emergentist vs. universalist view for understanding the contrast in general cognitive processing vs. modular mind).
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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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How Children’s Overgeneralizations in Construction Use Informs Second Language Acquisition and the Negotiation of Meaning

The acquisition of abstract grammatical constructions represents the maturation of a child’s linguistic productivity.  This productivity means that a child can take constructions that have already been learned and extend the application of the construction by using different words.

One way to identify if the child has utilized a new construction in a productive way is to look for overgeneralizations in the application of the construction.  For instance, things that sound like mistakes in a child’s speech might actually represent the analogical extension of a learned construction into new lexical territory to attempt to communicate something that the child understands, but which is outside of the acquired bank of constructions.  Children sometimes use intransitive verbs in a transitive construction.  While this overgeneralization of the transitive construction is ungrammatical, it does represent an attempt at productive use of learned lexical concepts in learned constructions.  Adults encountering overgeneralizations may be able to determine what the child is attempting to communicate as the actual utterance represents an encoding of a concept with the construction as the foundation of meaning with the intransitive verb as the domain of meaning.  “He falled me down” (Bowerman 1982, cited in Tomasello 2003) is an attested case which indicates that the child has not acquired the appropriate transitive verb to describe the situation of being knocked over, even though the child has acquired the transitive construction.

This is a strategy of innovation in conversation, and may have insight for second language acquisition; when a construction for a particular concept is known, but the lexical particulars are unknown, adapting lexical particulars that account for the general concept and using them in a known construction permits the fielding of the ill-formed utterance and enabling the negotiation of meaning to take place.

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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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How Novel Constructions Emerge Over Time

Reading Michael Israel’s The Way Constructions Grow taught me some things about how novel constructions actually emerge in a language.  I encourage you to check out this classic article.

The -Way construction in present usage has undertaken a sort of functional compression since its earliest usages in the 1300s.  Three main functions have been historically tracked in the -way construction usage: motion, path creation, and possession.  Motion has been functionally understood in the manner sense

Path creation has been functionally understood as the means sense.  Possession is not dealt with in an in depth manner, and Israel focuses on analyzing the convergence of Motion and Path Creation into the modern -way construction.

Here are two examples:

  • He chewed his way out of that mess (path creation)
  • The dog crawled his way home after getting hit by the truck (motion)

In the beginning the -way construction needed verbs that were related to motion and path creation, but as time went on it began to incorporate verbs that are “marginally or incidentally related to the actual expressed motion.”

The idea is that over time something I call “functional compression” occurred as the generic construction was expanded to include the different functional senses (Motion, Path Creation, Possession), which resulted in an increase in the construction’s productivity.  This process was enabled by the use of analogical extensions

Analogical usage and schema abstraction both provide important implications of CogLing approaches.  Analogical usage corresponds to the Production Principle which states that utterances should sound like things the speaker has heard before.  This is a form of conservatism in the theoretical framework.  Schema abstraction corresponds to the Comprehension Principles which states that representations should capture similarities across experienced usages, and assists innovation and novel extension.  This idea of compression is important for dealing with a vast exposure to similar tokens of a construction.

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Constructional Islands and the Organization of Language in Child Language Acquisition

Wake Island is a volcanic island that has beco...

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When a child’s multi-word utterances are formed around a particular and limited set of linguistic items (either Nouns or Verbs), Tomasello (2003) terms them “Islands” to emphasize how their structured form clustered around a particular Noun or Verb.  Picture the Noun or Verb at the center of the island.  This is not evident in their other forms which might not be organized around a central lexical item.  So Tomasello claims that the Islands are the beginning elements of organization in an “otherwise unorganized language system” [117].  This reflects how children rely on instances and instance-specific manifestations (tokens) to begin forming the basis for mature adult constructions.  Since children are less able to generalize (as adults do when accessing construction types), they must begin to use specific instances, and upon collecting sufficient instances, begin to expand the territory of their constructional islands into full-on adult constructions.  This reflects the child’s ability to maximize frequency in a usage-based approach.  Their exposure to the centers of their constructional islands is not preprogrammed (as is claimed in a UG framework), but emerges from usage.

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Foundational Cognitive Skills that Babies Need in Language Development

Reading on a Friday night

Image by mr brown via Flickr

As mentioned (yesterday’s post) three skills emerge from this acceptance of the triadic perspective:

1) Joint Attention Frame; 2)Intention Reading; and 3) Cultural Learning (Pattern Finding).  Joint Attention is the ability to coordinate attention with another individual on a third entity.  These third entities move from strictly concrete entities to more abstract entities as time goes by.  Without the ability to have a joint attention frame the transfer of knowledge would be impossible and the ability to converse with others in a meaningful way is equally impossible.  The process of intention reading is critical to understanding how others can have their behaviors influenced and likewise how the self can be influenced by the intentions of others.  Although not explicitly stated in Tomasello’s 2003 text, this particular cognitive skill would seem to be the foundation of basic relational strategies like the establishment of trust and credibility.  The final skill is pattern finding which enables cultural learning as the infant observes behavioral, intentional, and relational patterns in the contextual cultural community.  The child develops a sense for how things are done by intentional agents as the child attends to the patterns demonstrated through the everyday lives of those intentional agents with whom the child relates.

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Baby Behaviors Around 9-12 Months Enable “Conversation”

Joint Attention

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Infants move from a strictly dyadic sort of attentional phenomena to a triadic behavioral attention at around 9-12 months of age.  This opens the world for infants to allow them to consider other people as intentional agents with whom it is possible to interact.  This provides a platform for the infants to begin engaging in a relational way as a precursor to conversation including new ways of referencing the world around them and new ways of coordinating attention of the outside intentional agents.  Without this development into the capacity for accessing a triadic perspective children would be unable to operate in a joint attention frame, would be unable to read intention, and would not maximize cultural learning – all of which depend on recognizing the other-than-self as self-motivated.

I added this picture because it represents Joint Attention…now, substitute the three adults for an adult and an infant – this represents the ability to focus in a joint attention frame so as to develop a sense of common ground.  Stay tuned…more to come.

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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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Token Frequency and a Usage-Based Grammar

Token Frequency motivates learning through acknowledgement of repetition and familiarity.  This frequency reflects the type as it is instantiated through the various token usages.  In the Usage-Based perspective the token is the instance that is repeated and subsequently learned, giving rise to the type, and by extension, equating the type with its function.  Type and Token relate functionally and enable an emergence of grammar (without depending on the a priori insistence on Universal Grammar).

A Generative account does not need the idea of repetition to ground the learning of constructions since Universal Grammar already contains the abstraction of constructions.  Generative thought does not arrive at the Type by repetition, as the Type exists in UG, and is made manifest as Tokens in language use.  Token frequency is irrelevant in Generative models, except as it correlates to speaker competence and performance, and as it is paradigmatically selected in the UG compliant syntax.  In this way, Token and Type relate formally to one another and enable rules like PSRs to maximize multiple reinvestment of language.  The Generative understanding of Type:Token is thus driven in a top-down direction, not permitting token frequency to alter the grammar from the ground up since UG dominates from the top of the hierarchy.

This is why I think that the Usage-Based approach more adequately addresses the emergence of grammar through habituation and entrenchment.

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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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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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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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What does Soulwax’s website, DJing, & Construction Grammar have in common?

Soulwax’s website extends an invitation for viewers to participate in DJing as they explore the website.  From my first exposure this has been an amazing experience.  The intuitive guided navigation doubles as a loading of the clips so that your browser cache holds the clip for later manipulation in the mixing.  If you patiently experience each of the clips instead of navigating away from the site, you will get the chance to mix the video loops and beats by clicking your mouse. Continue reading

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Constructions Are “Objects” that Emerge from Patterns of Usage

Construction Grammar is like DJing electronic music.  This is what I mean: in the same way that electronic music is kind of object-oriented in that it takes elements from different pieces of music (loops) and combines the different loops so that they begin to form a new cohesive piece of music, language embodies this principle in its essential nature: we take different pieces of language (constructions) and combine them to form new cohesive utterances.  Constructions in this sense are “Objects”. 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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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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Your Language Constrains How You Can Think & Speak

When a specialist tries to talk about their specialist view of the world with a non-specialist it rarely ever goes smoothly.  In fact, usually, the specialist either talks at too specific a level for the non-specialist to comprehend, let alone understand, or the specialist talks at too general a level to do the subject any justice.

The same thing happens whenever you take any two people who belong to two different generations, disciplines, or subculture.  In fact, this same type of miscommunication happens whenever you take two very similar people and try to get them to relate, there are gross miscalculations in the process of decoding each other’s meaning. Continue reading

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Correction about the Goldberg Book in CogLing 100 book list…

I got a comment today on the CogLing 100 Book List page from a person with a slightly suspicious email address that I didn’t want to publish, but the content of the comment was very appropriate and I wanted to post that comment content and my response:


Great list! It’s very balanced across different approaches and viewpoints.

I just wanted to point out a few corrections:

1. Lexical Semantics (#8) was written by Cruse, not Croft.
2. Adele Goldberg did not write a book called Cognitive Linguistics (#17). I think you mean Constructions: A Construction Grammar approach to argument structure.
3. Taylor’s Linguistic Categorization is listed twice (#19 and #57).

Also, I think Croft’s Radical Construction Grammar should be on this list.

My response:

Thank you! I did some of this list from memory, which explains the Croft/Cruse mix-up…also, according to, Adele Goldberg is the editor for a series volume called Cognitive Linguistics [] due out June 2011. Although I haven’t read it, I included it because the length of the book suggests that it will be a definitive work…not to mention the fact that it is full of primary readings from major theorists in CogLing.

Thanks for catching the duplicate Taylor entry, I changed #57 to the Goldberg book you suggested.

As for Croft’s Radical Construction Grammar, I have added it as #101.

Thanks for helping me make these corrections!

– R

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Overcoming Self-Consciousness Around Linguists

[NB: I have told this story before, but this time I have a better understanding that I think is worth sharing.]

I had an experience a few years ago, a woman stood in my kitchen and told me that I didn’t know how to pronounce “adjective” correctly.

She insisted that my pronunciation was incorrect, in fact, she became quasi-belligerent trying to display how my pronunciation of adjective was so ludicrous that it was inconceivable that I would try to assert that I knew how to pronounce it. Continue reading

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What I got for Christmas…

Integrantes de Daft Punk, banda francesa de mú...

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  1. Daft Punk’s film “Electroma”
  2. Daft Punk’s album “Human After All”
  3. Gilles Fauconnier’s & Mark Turner’s “The Way We Think: Conceptual Blending and the Mind’s Hidden Complexities”
  4. Stephen C. Levinson’s “Space in Language and Cognition: Explorations in Cognitive Diversity”
  5. Stephen C. Levinson & David Wilkin’s “Grammars of Space: Explorations in Cognitive Diversity”


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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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Una chiste para ti….

Pollitos de colores!!

Image by YoSeLiN via Flickr

Una dia el pollito va a la casa blanca y toca la puerta

hay una persona abre la puerta y dice: “¿que queirres?”

y el pollito respondon, “necesito hablar con el presidente por favor”

y la persona que abre la puerta dice “el presidente no esta aqui, seran en Ohio”

y el pollito respondon “¿esta enojado? ¿con migo?”

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My Analysis of the Blend in “My Karma Ran Over My Dogma”

So I wanted to share my analysis of a blend that occurs on a bumper sticker.  This is a past homework assignment of mine, so keep that in mind as you read it. Anyway, it is not a complete blending analysis, but it was sufficient to cover the basics.  Enjoy.

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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AC/DC-inspired examples of the “-way” construction

Angus Young, lead guitarist of the hard rock b...

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Theway construction is a structure that expresses a range of ideas like “manner” in relation to an activity that follows a path.  The construction is elaborated by accessing an AGENT/Trajector, using a verb with a possessive pronoun and the word way, and the landmark/domain through or over which the AGENT moves.  The distribution pattern for the -way construction is: X Y its way Z, or,  NP VP -way PP.

Take a look at these five examples:

  • Bon Scott played his way all across Sydney.
  • Angus Young schoolboy’d his way through every concert.
  • Hells Bells tolled its way to the top as AC/DC reunited following Bon Scott’s tragic death.
  • Brian Johnson Bon-Scott-ed his way into the hearts of AC/DC fans.
  • “Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap” threatened its way to the top with its tough guy personae.

You will immediately notice that there are not just canonical verbs being used in this construction, “schoolboy’d” and “Bon-Scott-ed” are not typically considered verbs, but functionally in these cases they are acting as verbs expressing manner.

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New Blog in my Links Section

I wanted to let you know about a new blog that I have listed: “Chasing Linguistics” and deals with Cognitive Pragmatics among other things.  Take a visit:


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:


Infants Prefer Animacy that Exhibits Intentionality

My wife and I were at an extended family party last night and as the night wore on we found ourselves sitting at a table and she was holding my cousin’s newborn girl.  I always try to amaze my wife with my knowledge of babies, mostly because she doesn’t expect me to know anything about them (I only really experienced one baby entering my nuclear family) and she is the one with actual solid experience with babies (she has been a part of 10 or so births and knows a lot about babies in general, and comes from a large Irish-Catholic family).  So anytime I have something intelligent to say about infants it always comes as a surprise. Continue reading

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SWEET! My paper made a Top Ten Download List!

I checked my email this morning and received a message telling me that my recently distributed paper “Figure-Ground Organization in Attention and Construal” made it on a top ten list for downloads yesterday from both the Cognition & the Arts eJournal and the Cognitive Linguistics: Cognition, Language, Gesture eJournal…Awesome!

I hope you check it out!


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Ground-before-Figure in Dramatic Dialogue: Tom Stoppard’s Arcadia

As a feature of figure-ground organization, there is inherent flexibility in how the figure is aligned with the ground.  In light of evidence that permits a ground to precede a figure in the flow of information, it is appropriate to view this patterning happening in discourse and to ask how it enhances or disrupts communication.  Recall Chen’s model of Ground-before-Figure:


“There are times when a speaker wants her hearer to locate and/or pay attention to an entity (figure) in a location (ground), but the hearer does not know the existence of that figure in the ground.  So the speaker presents the ground first by anchoring it with a landmark that is established most often in the previous linguistic context and sometimes in the discourse context.  This order of figure/ground presentation invites the hearer to search the ground in order to locate and/or to focus on the figure.” [48, Chen, 2003] (Italics in original)


In light of Chen’s definition, consider this interchange in 1809 between two characters: Thomasina (age 13), and her tutor Septimus, (age 17) in Tom Stoppard’s play Arcadia:


Thomasina: Septimus, do you think God is a Newtonian?

Septimus: An Etonian? Almost certainly, I’m afraid.  We must ask your brother to make it his first enquiry.

Thomasina: No, Septimus, a Newtonian.  Septimus! Am I the first person to have thought of this?

Septimus: No.

Thomasina: I have not said yet.

Septimus: ‘If everything from the furthest planet to the smallest atom of our brain acts according to Newton’s law of motion, what becomes of free will?’

Thomasina: No.

Septimus: God’s will.

Thomasina: No.

Septimus: Sin.

Thomasina:(Derisively) No!

Septimus: Very well.

Thomasina: If you could stop every atom in its position and direction, and if your mind could comprehend all the actions thus suspended, then if you were really, really good at algebra you could write the formula for all the future; and although nobody can be so clever as to do it, the formula must exist just as if one could.

Septimus: (Pause) Yes. (Pause.) Yes, as far as I know, you are the first person to have thought of this.


Thomasina wants Septimus to consider whether or not what she is about to say has ever been thought of before.  Rather than burdening Septimus with a heavily preposed tag question, she presents first the question and intends to immediately follow the question with her assertion.  This initial question cataphorically references the assertion she is yet to make.  Septimus, not recognizing the attempt at conserving cognitive energy interprets the cataphora as anaphora and proceeds to respond according to his construal of anaphora.

Thomasina’s goal is to invite Septimus to search the ground by accessing the question frame (that content questions have some marker which indicates interrogativity plus some content that is unsolved for whatever is indicated by interrogativity).  Septimus is not yet aware of the existence of the figure (the content in question) within the ground (the framing of the question).  The confusion between the construed referent of the deictic “this” in “Septimus! Am I the first person to have thought of this?” results from the differences in anchoring the deictic: Septimus anchors it anaphorically, which Thomasina intends to be anchored as cataphora, noted by her exclamation “I have not said yet.”


Chen, Rong (2003) English inversion, a ground-before-figure construction, Berlin: Mouton De Gruyter

Stoppard, Tom (1994) Arcadia, Faber and Faber

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A blog about New Testament Greek Discourse

I came across this great post today while I was searching for people who have cited Stephen Wallace’s work on Figure-Ground organization.  It is a blog that looks at New Testament Greek Discourse.  It looks like he might have slight cognitive leanings…I’m going to check it out further but I thought I would pass it on for now.  Check it out.

Figure-Ground Reference and Indexicals in “The Life Aquatic”

First of all, this is not a critical interpretation of this film, it is not a hermeneutical analysis of the form of this script, I am merely using a snippet of discourse in order to demonstrate that a particular linguistic phenomena (figure-ground as a reference strategy) depends on more than truth and more than just shared attention; it requires a priori shared knowledge of the referent in a general context.  Secondly, I don’t even know if this is correct as an analysis, so I am not trying to make any major claims about any theory – I am trying to apply somethings I know about discourse to a piece of discourse, that is all.

Take some time and view the trailer for this film if you are unfamiliar with this scene, the scene is in the trailer and it is worth seeing.

Consider this fragment of discourse between Steve Zissou (Bill Murray) and Ned Plimpton (Owen Wilson) in the script of Wes Anderson’s “The Life Aquatic”:

Steve: Can you hear the jack whales singing?

[fog horn sound in the background]

Ned: Beautiful. I wonder what they’re saying.

Steve: Well that was the sludge tanker over there, but…

[the sound of whales singing in the background]

Steve: There you go!

In the film sequence for this scene there are numerous figure-ground organizations that occur, linguistically, visually, audibly; these converge to make sense out of the scene, and a complete analysis would need to consider this complete picture.

Roberts’ text discusses a similar type of situation in which a speaker directs the attention of a listener to a figure in the scene by selecting descriptions in the predicates of two different sentences.  He argues that this direction of attention does not rely upon the truthfulness of the predicate (as a predicate model would assert), but that it relies on other factors in the figure-ground relation, namely, that the figure is given to the hearer in the predicate description which points out the referent against the background (Roberts: 24). Continue reading

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how to talk about linguistics with non-linguists

As a specialist you have a level of contextual understanding for realms of knowledge contained in words for which non-specialists also have normal everyday uses.

Consider words like: “context”, “ungrammatical”, “attention”, and “construe”…these words mean entirely different things to a non-linguist than they do to a linguist (let alone the differences between a cognitive linguist and a generative linguist).

Using these types of words with non-linguists as if they understood the linguistic sense of the word will not work; you will have failed communication. Continue reading

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Ground Before Figure Orientation and Divergent Activation in Bruno Mars & B.O.B.’s “Nothin’ On You” Lyrics

Driving home tonight I heard a song on the radio, on the local hip-hop and R&B station, and while the song kind of annoys me, I kind of like it too.  Anyway, this song exhibits a characteristic of a marked figure-ground organization for normal American English constructions, and I wanted to point it out.

“beautiful girls all over the world
i could be chasing but my time would be wasted
they got nothin’ on you baby
nothin’ on you baby
they might say hi and i might say hey
but you shouldn’t worry about what they say
cause they got nothin’ on you baby
nothin’ on you baby”

Did you catch that?  That heavy preposed object NP?  “beautiful girls all over the world I could be chasing…”

This marked form is meant to stand out.  You are supposed to want to think about the beautiful girls before he gets to the verb phrase…and then, when he gets to the verb phrase, you realize that he is trying to draw attention to the salient recipient of the song; his woman. Continue reading

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Why Linguists Can Always Have an Intelligent Comment on EVERYTHING.

If you are a linguist you already know this.

What is “this”?

I’ve not said yet.

Here it is: “Linguists have the ability to make an informed comment about anything.

Disagree?  Care to comment?  You will probably be articulating your disagreement using words strung together coherently, which falls in the domain of linguistic analysis.

What is more, conceptualization of reality informs the structure of meaning, so, as cognitive linguists we have the right to try to figure out what it is in the situated context that evoked meaning and enabled your coherence, which again, falls within the domain of our expertise as linguists.

Language pervades everything that anyone can conceive, it crosses domains in all forms of industry, the entire range of emotions, cultures, beliefs, procedures, and since humans operate in a world described and controlled by language, linguists have keys to understanding that exist on another level all together.

If it exists outside of the utility of language, in our feebleness as lesser beings we can still attempt to describe it using language; which again, is in our range of expertise.

This is not arrogance; this is the nature of being a student of conceptualization.

Ethno-Architecture, the Built Environment & Its Role in Conceptualization

While this is outside of the scope of cognitive linguistics, I wanted to share this link because it relates to the types of daily living experiences that people have within the built environment. As a facet of experience in which our bodies interact, the built environment shapes how we think about what we experience, in fact it becomes a stimulus that triggers conceptualization.

What is more, this is the situated context of experience which is the discursive platform for our interaction with the principles of perception. Continue reading

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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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Grammaticalization via Metaphoric Extension in Tok Pisin

Stomach diagram in Inkscape.

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Grammaticalization is a process whereby items in a language change to move (usually) from an open class to a closed class. There are three main types of grammaticalization: 1) metaphorical extension, 2) invited inferencing, and 3) subjectification.

I think that Melanesian Pidgin (Tok Pisin) uses  a metaphoric extension system to grammaticalize certain lexical items (I think these are instances of renewal where a content word takes on a grammatical use).  Several of these terms derive from body part metaphors that align with axiality or cardinality.


[Mind, soul, heart or internal state.  Literally, “stomach” or “belly”]

Bel bilong me kamap hat, or, belhat

[Anger, literally, “my stomach has become hot”, or “my stomach is hot”]


[Your home village, where you originate from – literally, your “ass place” locative for the place where your ass belongs]


[mustache, literally “mouth grass”]

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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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Ala Moana and Makiki

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I recently had a visit to my site from Oahu, where I lived for a while…  I thought I would choose four samples from my memories of Hawai’i and illustrate Talmy’s Reference frames…
Anyway, here they are:

a. Ground Based

“The musubi is next to the register”

This example accesses a single reference point and elaborates on the position of one object in relation to the other by indicating its intrinsic geometric location in space.

b. Field Based

“Matsumoto’s Shave Ice is just south of the North Shore.”

This accesses an encompassing secondary reference point (Earth) which is implied in the use of “just south of”, by using the cardinal direction on the earth in relation to the other landmark “the North Shore” the speaker is providing the listener with a way to navigate to Matsumoto’s Shave Ice.  (I recommend getting the red beans and vanilla ice cream with your shave ice if you ever go.

c. Guidepost Based (in a Hawai’ian and Pidgin English code switch)

“Wea you stay? Makai side?”

“No, mauka side.”

[Makai approximately means “on the side of the ocean”]

[Mauka approximately means “on the side of the mountains”]

In this example, the primary reference point is the respondent’s house (the place where the respondent stay (lives)). In the question makai (the ocean) represents and encompassing reference point.  In the answer mauka (the mountains) represent the external reference point.

On an island the ocean is encompassing and all surrounding, but the mountains are a physical landmark that in this kind of usage are not considered encompassing.  Because the most people live between the ocean and the mountains on Oahu they represent boundaries rather than expanses.

I was thinking that perhaps the makai/mauka distinction might reflect a kind of physical center-periphery schema that is habitually understood on Oahu since the mountains are (more or less) in the middle/center of the island and the ocean is the periphery.

Also, most houses are contained within a taurus-shaped belt of land that is conceptually gradient in terms of being closer to the ocean or closer to the mountains.  Consequently you understand your house in relation to these landmarks; your house is either more characteristically mauka side or more characteristically makai side.

d. Projector Based

The tennis courts are to the right of Waikiki Yacht Club and to the left of The Bus at Ala Moana.

In this situation, the speaker (who is the secondary reference point) is projecting a left/right orientation from the speaker’s perspective) onto benchmark locations in a city (the Waikiki Yacht Club & The Bus).

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CogDef #1 (cognitive definitions)

I have several friends who are strict Generativists/Formalists and I want to start a little series that summarizes information about topics that sometimes get muddled up in cross-theoretical discussions.  This is the first in the series.

In the Cognitive Enterprise semantics drives the modeling in grammar (which is why it is a functional model). Grammar does not strictly mean syntax, as formal theories assume, but entails the entire package of language. Here is how we break down the approaches to semantics and syntax:

  1. Cognitive Semantics is used as a lens to view the conceptual structure and conceptualization
  2. Cognitive Grammar is used to view the cognitive principles that give rise to linguistic orientation
  3. Construction Grammar is used to view the units that emerge from cognitive semantics & comprise the grammar.

Going back through Evans & Green I found that I had written these definitions in the margin of page 49, hopefully they are clear.


Evans. V. & Green. M. (2006). Cognitive Linguistics, an introduction, LEA

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Lexical Ambiguity Couched in a Formulaic Reference to either Sunglasses or Blindness

A range of sunglasses with different lense col...

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Today on the train I overheard one man say to another man: “I got my Stevie Wonders on…I didn’t even see you.”

Either he was trying to convey that his inability to see his friend on the train was equivalent to a blind man’s (i.e., Stevie Wonder) inability to see his friend, in which case he did not need to be wearing his “Stevie Wonders” (sunglasses?); or, he meant that because he was wearing sunglasses and because of the lighting on the train he failed to perceive his friend sitting across the car from him.

Unfortunately I did not turn around to see which was the case.

[NB: I don’t think he meant anything against Stevie Wonder, blind people, or disabled people…the person he was addressing was in a wheel chair and seemed to take it ok.]

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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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Metaphoric Extension of Hunger and Thirst Adjectives

Knowledge, mural by Robert Lewis Reid. Second ...

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So, this morning as I was coming out of sleep and waking to face the day I remember trying to figure out why the stative adjective for not being satiated and having hunger was hungry and the stative adjective for not being quenched and having thirst was thirsty, but the stative adjective for not knowing everything and wanting knowledge was not *knowledgy. (*indicates ungrammaticality)

Instead of having a stative adjective to describe the want of knowledge, we say things like “have a thirst for knowledge” or “hunger after knowledge”, these are both metaphoric extensions of adjectives that describe situations which have a number of features in common.  For instance, hunger and thirst share these features: Continue reading

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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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Wow! This is an amazing overview of Cognitive Linguistics…

If you know nothing about the Cognitive Linguistics enterprise, this overview is a great place to start.

I personally think that Vyvyan Evans is one of the clearest writers in the field…

Go buy the book (this is an excerpt).

Evans, Vyvyan, Benjamin K. Bergen, Jörg Zinken (editors) (2007). The Cognitive Linguistics Reader (Advances in Cognitive Linguistics), Equinox Publishing Ltd

[ISBN 1845531094]


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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The Symbolic Function and Communicative Function of Language

The Symbolic Function of language is the mechanism by which meaning is attached to form.  It is the pairing of form and meaning; the symbolic function is a sense-making utility that labels objects (referents) with “names” that map to a conceptualized meaning.

The Communicative Function of language is the means by which parties exchange notions of combined symbols in conventionalized ways to share conceptualizations in a relational way.  This includes the ability to alter states of the world, to express internalizations, and to situate meaning in ad hoc frames that draw on world knowledge and encyclopedic knowledge.

These two functions interact in a number of ways, actual usage of symbols to communicate being one of those interactions – this may work to explain how idioms form, as the symbols are used in communication to attach meaning to a symbolic construction – entrenched usage normalizing the idiomatic construction into a common unit of communication.

Works Consulted:

Evans, V. & Green, M. (2006). Cognitive Linguistics an Introduction, Lawrence Erlbaum Associates

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I have finally found a used bookstore that actually has a cognitive linguistics section!

Check it out:

City Books, Inc.  1111 E. Carson Street, Pittsburgh

This store is neatly organized, the bookshelves are fantastic…they specialize in general and scholarly hardback books in the humanities, social science, and fine arts…AMAZING!

I recently visited and purchased a book I have been wanting for five years…Leonard Talmy’s Toward a Cognitive Semantics Vol. II Typology and Process in Concept Structuring, MIT

Confession: I read part of this book at my school in England & photocopied a chapter with the intent of eventually purchasing it… I am so happy to have my own copy!

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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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Cognitive Science & Engineering by Deductive Reasoning

Flywheel from old factory

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Here is a brief passage from my book The Art of War Against Boredom.  I wrote this passage around 8 years ago, and while it is influenced by my background in descriptive linguistics as opposed to strict cognitive linguistics, I still feel that it has something to say about the cognitive enterprise.  For example, in cognitive linguistics the actual language in use reflects the mental processing which produced that actual language.  In this passage below, the designed object reflects the mathematical processes which drove the production of the designed object.  I recognize that this can be interpreted through a generative lens too, but the passage isn’t meant to illustrate linguistic theory, it is a folk-methodology for problem solving.  Anyway, the designed object reflects the process of production. Continue reading

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Grammar Is Only A Matter Of Time

Last year I built a sculpture/assemblage that explores the dynamic and time-sensitive nature of language.  I say time-sensitive, and what I mean by that is that the meaning in particular utterance (or usage-event) has a shelf-life that is directly linked to the context in which that utterance is situated.

If you extract that utterance out of the situated context it becomes, to varying degrees, meaningless in respect of precision. Continue reading

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The Cognitive Commitment and Situated Context

A key concept behind Cognitive Linguistics is that language reflects the mental processes and their functions.  This concept enables the linguist to work on multiple problems simultaneously, studying language and language use, but also studying the processes whereby language is created, and studying subjects such as the structure of categorization, mental maps, polysemy, and other cognitive processes. Continue reading

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