Category Archives: Basic Assumptions of the Cognitive Linguistics Party Line

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

Papillon

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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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:

Abstract:

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.

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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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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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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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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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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CONTAINER Is an Ontological Metaphor

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

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Cognitive Mindfulness # 18

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

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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: http://chasinglinguistics.wordpress.com/

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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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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.”

Bibliography:

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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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.

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...

Image via Wikipedia

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.

STUDENT

  • 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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