Tag Archives: Social Sciences

Real Life Applications of Cognitive Linguistics

Shopping's Goat...

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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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How I became a Linguist: Characteristics of Intelligent Behavior

Systems thinking about the society

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

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

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

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

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

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


Costa, Arthur, L. (1988). Teaching for Intelligence: recognizing and encouraging skillful thinking and behavior. (p.22) in Transforming Education (IC #8), Context Institute. Stable URL: http://www.context.org/ICLIB/IC18/Costa.htm

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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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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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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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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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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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HighLevel Issues in EthnoBotany; Interdisciplinary Cross-Pollination

My Shrunken Head - 2008 - RyanDewey.org

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

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

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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 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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Cognitive Mindfulness #2

“Starting from a different perspective, using relevance theory one can claim that when a meaning has been assigned to a form but that meaning is dependent on the context, then the meaning is derived from the context and is not essentially a part of the form.” [244, Loos]

Loos, Eugene, E. editor, (1999) Logical Relations in Discourse, Summer Institute of Linguistics

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