Category Archives: Usage-Based Grammar

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.

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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

Image via Wikipedia

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...

Image via Wikipedia

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

Image by jeanbaptisteparis via Flickr

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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