Category Archives: Domains

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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Maple Keys remind me of a Taxonomy chart

Silver Maple. Seeds.

Image via Wikipedia

I was thinking about maple keys recently.

The maple key is an interesting schema of a taxonomy; the kernel is like a category node – the top-level domain.  Each vein in the wing of the seed branching away from the node is a trace of the path along which the line of membership in the category emerges as an [instance] of a membership [type].

On a slightly more abstract note, the veins also forecast a resemblance of the future roots and branches of the eventual tree, and in a way alluding to the further growth of category membership as each tree root eventually supports the life of the tree so that each tree branch can ultimately produce more seeds so that it might perpetuate, exponentially, the life of this tree of knowledge.


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On walking and mediated embodied experience in ethnographic map making

Girl walking in a beach. Porto Covo, Portugal.

Image via Wikipedia

Recently I’ve been thinking about my spatial experience of my contextual environment and about what I have learned over the years in consciously encountering space as a user of space, a creator of space, and a participant in community through space.  I am thinking about this as I am getting ready to do some tutoring on domain mapping in ethnographic research.  Here is a summary of my spatial experience.

As a child most of my experience with space was either moving through it on foot or by being driven around in a car.  Toss in the stroller, occasional plane ride, boating, crutches, sledding, riding a bicycle, but by and large WALKING and RIDING dominated my childhood experience of space.

As an adult I would live in cities like Chicago and Honolulu, places where the infrastructure encouraged walking.  This changed my understanding of terrain, and walking became my primary vantage point for my movement through space, although each place did have new modes of movement; Chicago had a train, Honolulu had surf boards.

Doing fieldwork in West Africa I would never drive; I saw most of sub-Saharan Africa in a van, or a Volkswagen, or a Renault, but I was always the passenger.  At least I could stare out the window and imagine what it was like at a walking pace.

Where I live now has a walkability score of 25 out of 100.  Where I lived in Chicago had a score of 98, Hawai’i had a score of 78; clearly my current 25 is pitiful in comparison.

To be fair, where I live now there are some residents with a score of 82, so, it is not like walking is precluded by living here, just that it is not easy for everyone (like me).  I walked home from work once and it took me three hours.

This has restricted my daily routine movement to driving.  These days I experience my landscape from a vehicle (much like my Africa passenger days), but this time I don’t even get to look around and pay attention to what zooms past my face; no, I only pay attention to that which is necessary to avoid collisions.

Driving has seriously hindered my sense of place.  I used to spend a lot of time walking, exploring, noticing things at street level, at a pace that let me participate and observe; being a car driver has forced me to give up participation with a place in favor of being a consumer of that place, the road is just a conduit.

Instead of participating with the place I now participate with my driving peers as we consume the street on our way to our various destinations.  The interactive dynamic is not with the people who reside in a place, but with people who routinely pass through the place.  This is like the boat that is moored to the riverbank, the boat might not move but the river has certainly changed.

Compared to the speed with which I now drive through my neighborhoods, walking is practically standing still.  Walking is being the boat moored to the bank; driving is the rushing river.  And the places I drive through do not really change either, but I have nothing to do with the neighborhoods which I zoom through, not the shops, not the landscape, not the people.

I need to stop driving so much.

I need to learn to walk, again.

I need to experience the physical crust of earth and to encounter a place with my feet, unmediated by round rubber tires and a gas pedal.

Being a driver has abstracted my encounter with a place by removing the minutia and patient tiny details made visible to the walking man.  I say “man” because I speak of myself; I was a walking man, like James Taylor, but now, where I live, if you walk expect to be stared at, honked at, yelled at by crazy fun-loving child-drivers, and occasionally the target of someone’s empty sodacan/coffeecup/waterbottle hurled out the window with an insult.  I am serious; walking is stigmatizing, and dangerous.

This is partly why I drive places.

My level of attention to place as a driver does not decompose into lower level experiences with place like it does on a stroll where those small experiences gradiently build up to become a walking journey, instead I pay more attention to how many red lights have impeded my progress.

Walking for me does more than serve the function of travel between places; I walk to know a place.

When I move somewhere new (or even visit from out of town), the first thing I do is walk around a place, in an ever widening gyre, a scroll stroll uncurling through a city emanating away from my apartment or hotel room.  I walk around and I get a feel for what surrounds me.  I don’t even look at a map until I have learned the map through my feet.  By doing this I start to learn my place in the broader context, and this is where you encounter the joys of a place, its people, its vitality, its curiosities; by walking you learn the identity of a place.

This afternoon I thought about how walking is natural for me as an ethnographer; in fact, walking is essential.  And one of the reasons it is so important is that it helps in making maps of a place, in mapping the domains and the various spatial relations found in that place.  Sure, you can sit somewhere and draw a map of everything you see, but I promise you, if you walk around a place and look first with your feet, your map will be more detailed, more accurate, and more relevant as you come to capture the reality which each participant experiences as they use that space.

I might have seen a lot of sub-Saharan West Africa, but it doesn’t mean too much to me, and I certainly could only attempt to map it out from an approximation of the various landmarks I happened to have noticed from the window.  This is because the dynamic and progressive movement of a vehicle is that your sense of figure-ground organization is constantly shifting, and it goes as fast as the driver feels is necessary.  But when you walk around, if something becomes figural in your field of vision, and you feel it is important, you get to pause for a moment and reflect on the significance of what you have seen.  This kind of intentional embodied experience is vital for making sense of a place.

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Why I Care About Ontology

Staircase perspective.

Image via Wikipedia

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

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

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

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

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

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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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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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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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