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What Is Cognitive Grammar?

By T. Carrier
Updated May 23, 2024
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The guiding word in cognitive grammar is meaning. Grammar itself refers to the basic modes of implementing a written and spoken language. While some theories focus on the purely structural aspects of language, cognitive grammar — developed by Ronald Langacker and others — recognizes that language patterns and sounds are a symbolic representation of human thoughts and perceptions about the surrounding world. Perception, memory, and attention are therefore crucial aspects of developing grammar. Forms of cognitive grammar include construction grammar and generative grammar.

Cognitive linguists apply theories regarding cognition to grammar. Cognition focuses on human thought patterns and how humans form and maintain ideas. Language is simply a natural extension and expression of human mental capacities and not a specialized practice in and of itself.

Thus, letters, words, and sounds are language symbols that represent thought processes. A cognitive schema, for example, is a mental plan that a human being develops to address recurrent specific situations. For example, a human might form a step-by-step plan for how to react when meeting a stranger and carry out this plan unconsciously. In linguistic terms, languages might create a certain standard, or schema, for putting action words in different tenses.

Cognitive grammar practitioners are also interested in how words and phrases can be altered and moved to create a certain effect or express a certain idea. Rhetoric, or the use of language for persuasive purposes, might be a particular topic of focus for many cognitive grammar researchers. Even literary devices like comparative similes and metaphors can become important areas of study in cognitive-based focuses.

Several specific sub-fields of cognitive grammar exist. For one, famed language scholar Noam Chomsky introduced generative grammar in the mid-20th century. This theory deals with syntax, or the particular ordering of words. Chomsky proposed that the human mind contained instinctual guidelines for using words and sounds — or phonology — to create comprehensible phrases and sentences. These ideals were universal to all humans in general terms if not in specifics, and thus the human brain naturally contained mental capacities for language from birth.

Other cognitive grammar approaches consider different aspects of how the mind forms relationships between words, their sounds, and their meanings. Word grammar, for example, proposes that the human mind has a vast, almost computer-like network where it stores words, sounds, and meanings. Such modes of cognitive grammar owe much of their origin to gestalt psychology, which focuses on organized groupings, building-block rules and customs, and a holistic philosophy.

Construction grammar furthers the aims of word grammar by considering how words are linked with specific and categorized sounds and meanings. As an example, the English words knife and gun can both be categorized under another word: weapon. In this and countless other examples, the brain creates pathways between the specific profiles, or definitions, and the more general domain categories. This gradual building of associations eventually generates whole languages.

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