About Cognitive linguistics

Historical Background

Cognitive Linguistics grew out of the work of a number of researchers active in the 1970s who were interested in the relation of language and mind, and who did not follow the prevailing tendency to explain linguistic patterns by means of appeals to structural properties internal to and specific to language. Rather than attempting to segregate syntax from the rest of language in a 'syntactic component' governed by a set of principles and elements specific to that component, the line of research followed instead was to examine the relation of language structure to things outside language: cognitive principles and mechanisms not specific to language, including principles of human categorization; pragmatic and interactional principles; and functional principles in general, such as iconicity and economy.

The most influential linguists working along these lines and focusing centrally on cognitive principles and organization were Wallace Chafe, Charles Fillmore, George Lakoff, Ronald Langacker, and Leonard Talmy. Each of these linguists began developing their own approach to language description and linguistic theory, centered on a particular set of phenomena and concerns. One of the important assumptions shared by all of these scholars is that meaning is so central to language that it must be a primary focus of study. Linguistic structures serve the function of expressing meanings and hence the mappings between meaning and form are a prime subject of linguistic analysis. Linguistic forms, in this view, are closely linked to the semantic structures they are designed to express. Semantic structures of all meaningful linguistic units can and should be investigated.

These views were in direct opposition to the ideas developing at the time within Chomskyan linguistics, in which meaning was 'interpretive' and peripheral to the study of language. The central object of interest in language was syntax. The structures of language were in this view not driven by meaning, but instead were governed by principles essentially independent of meaning. Thus, the semantics associated with morphosyntactic structures did not require investigation; the focus was on language-internal structural principles as explanatory constructs.

Functional linguistics also began to develop as a field in the 1970s, in the work of linguists such as Joan Bybee, Bernard Comrie, John Haiman, Paul Hopper, Sandra Thompson, and Tom Givon. The principal focus of functional linguistics is on explanatory principles that derive from language as a communicative system, whether or not these directly relate to the structure of the mind. Functional linguistics developed into discourse-functional linguistics and functional-typological linguistics, with slightly different foci, but broadly similar in aims to Cognitive Linguistics. At the same time, a historical linguistics along functional principles emerged, leading to work on principles of grammaticalization (grammaticization) by researchers such as Elizabeth Traugott and Bernd Heine. All of these theoretical currents hold that language is best studied and described with reference to its cognitive, experiential, and social contexts, which go far beyond the linguistic system proper.

Other linguists developing their own frameworks for linguistic description in a cognitive direction in the 1970s were Sydney Lamb (Stratificational Linguistics, laterNeurocognitive Linguistics) and Dick Hudson (Word Grammar).

Much work in child language acquisition in the 1970s was influenced by Piaget and by the cognitive revolution in Psychology, so that the field of language acquisition had a strong functional/cognitive strand through this period that persists to the present. Work by Dan Slobin, Eve Clark, Elizabeth Bates and Melissa Bowerman laid the groundwork for present day cognitivist work.

Also during the 1970s, Chomsky made the strong claim of innateness of the linguistic capacity leading to a great debate in the field of acquisition that still reverberates today. His idea of acquisition as a 'logical problem' rather than an empirical problem, and view of it as a matter of minor parameter-setting operations on an innate set of rules, were rejected by functionally and cognitively oriented researchers and in general by those studying acquisition empirically, who saw the problem as one of learning, not fundamentally different from other kinds of learning.

By the late 1980s, the kinds of linguistic theory development being done in particular by Fillmore, Lakoff, Langacker, and Talmy, although appearing radically different in the descriptive mechanisms proposed, could be seen to be related in fundamental ways. Fillmore's ideas had developed into Frame Semantics and, in collaboration with others, Construction Grammar (Fillmore et al. 1988).

Lakoff was well-known for his work on metaphor and metonymy (Lakoff 1981 and Lakoff 1987). Langacker's ideas had evolved into an explicit theory known first as Space Grammar and then Cognitive Grammar (Langacker 1988). Talmy had published a number of increasingly influential papers on linguistic imaging systems (Talmy 1985a,b and 1988).

Also by this time, Gilles Fauconnier had developed a theory of Mental Spaces, influenced by the views of Oswald Ducrot. This theory was later developed in collaboration with Mark Turner into a theory of Conceptual Blending, which meshes in interesting ways with both Langacker's Cognitive Grammar and Lakoff's theory of Metaphor.

The 1980s also saw the development of connectionist models of language processing, such as those developed by Jeff Elman and Brian MacWhinney, in which the focus was on modeling learning, specifically language acquisition, using connectionist networks. This work tied naturally in to the acquisition problem, and with the research program of Elizabeth Bates who had demonstrated the learned nature of children's linguistic knowledge, and its grounding in cognitive and social development. Gradually, a coherent conceptual framework emerged which exposed the flaws of linguistic nativism and placed experiential learning at the center in the understanding of how children acquire language. This conception was the foundation for the research program of Michael Tomasello, who in the 1990s began to take the lead in the study of acquisition in its social, cognitive, and cultural contexts.

Through the 1980s the work of Lakoff and Langacker, in particular, began to gain adherents. During this decade researchers in Poland, Belgium, Germany, and Japan began to explore linguistic problems from a cognitive standpoint, with explicit reference to the work of Lakoff and Langacker. 1987 saw the publication of Lakoff's infuential book Women, Fire and Dangerous Things, and, at almost the same time, Langacker's 1987 Foundations of Cognitive Grammar Vol. 1, which had been circulating chapter by chapter since 1984.

The next publication milestone was the collection Topics in Cognitive Linguistics, ed. by Brygida Rudzka-Ostyn, published by Mouton in 1988. This substantial volume contains a number seminal papers by Langacker, Talmy, and others which made it widely influential, and indeed of influence continuing to this day.

In 1989, the first conference on Cognitive Linguistics was organized in Duisburg, Germany, by Rene Dirven. At that conference, it was decided to found a new organization, the International Cognitive Linguistic Association, which would hold biennial conferences to bring together researchers working in cognitive linguistics. The Duisburg conference was retroactively declared the first International Cognitive Linguistics Conference (see ICLA Organization History).

The journal Cognitive Linguistics was also conceived in the mid 1980s, and its first issue appeared in 1990 under the imprint of Mouton de Gruyter, with Dirk Geeraerts as editor.

At the Duisburg conference, Rene Dirven proposed a new book series, Cognitive Linguistics Research, as another publication venue for the developing field. The first CLR volume, a collection of articles by Ronald Langacker, brought together under the title Concept, Image and Symbol, came out in 1990. The following year, Volume 2 of Langacker's Foundations of Cognitive Grammar appeared.

During the 1990s Cognitive Linguistics became widely recognized as an important field of specialization within Linguistics, spawning numerous conferences in addition to the biennial ICLC meetings. The work of Lakoff, Langacker, and Talmy formed the leading strands of the theory, but connections with related theories such as Construction Grammar were made by many working cognitive linguists, who tended to adopt representational eclecticism while maintaining basic tenets of cognitivism. Korea, Hungary, Thailand, Croatia, and other countries began to host cognitive linguistic research and activities. The breadth of research could be seen in the journal Cognitive Linguistics which had become the official journal of the ICLA. Arie Verhagen took over as editor, leading the journal into its second phase.

By the mid-1990s, Cognitive Linguistics as a field was characterized by a defining set of intellectual pursuits practiced by its adherents, summarized in the Handbook of Pragmatics under the entry for Cognitive Linguistics (Geeraerts 1995: 111-112):

Because cognitive linguistics sees language as embedded in the overall cognitive capacities of man, topics of special interest for cognitive linguistics include: the structural characteristics of natural language categorization (such as prototypicality, systematic polysemy, cognitive models, mental imagery and metaphor); the functional principles of linguistic organization (such as iconicity and naturalness); the conceptual interface between syntax and semantics (as explored by cognitive grammar and construction grammar); the experiential and pragmatic background of language-in-use; and the relationship between language and thought, including questions about relativism and conceptual universals.

In this summary, the strong connections between Cognitive Linguistics and the research areas of functional linguistics, linguistic description, psycholinguistics, pragmatics, and discourse studies can be seen.

For many cognitive linguists, the main interest in CL lies in its provision of a better-grounded approach to and set of theoretical assumptions for syntactic and semantic theory than generative linguistics provides. For others, however, an important appeal is the opportunity to link the study of language and the mind to the study of the brain.

In the 2000s regional and language-topical Cognitive Linguistics Associations, affiliated to ICLA, began to emerge. Spain, Finland, and a Slavic-language CLA were formed, and then Poland, Russia and Germany became the sites of newly affiliated CLAs. These were followed by Korea, France, Japan, North America, the U.K., Sweden (which soon expanded to a Scandinavian association), and, most recently, China and Belgium. Some of these associations existed prior to affiliation, while others were formed specifically as regional affiliates.

A review journal, the Annual Review of Cognitive Linguistics began its run in 2003, and other new journals followed suit. Cognitive Linguistics, after being edited by Dirk Geeraerts and then Arie Verhagen, was taken on by editor Adele Goldberg in 2003, followed by the current editor Ewa Dabrowska who took the helm in 2006. Throughout, the journal has continued to increase its reputation and prominence in Linguistics.

Cognitive linguistics conferences continue to be organized in many countries, to the extent that it is difficult to keep track of them all. The ICLC was held for the first time in Asia, specifically in Seoul, Korea in July 2005. Asia has a now very significant membership base. In 2005 the Governing Board voted to take the conference to China, and a definite venue for the 2011 conference was approved in 2007: Xi'an, China.

The ICLA continues to foster the development of Cognitive Linguistics as a worldwide discipline, and to enhance its connection with its natural neighbor disciplines of Psychology, Anthropology, Sociology, and of course Cognitive Science.


  • Geeraerts, Dirk. 1995. Cognitive Linguistics. In J. Verschueren, J.-O. Östman and J. Blommaert, eds., Handbook of Pragmatics. Amsterdam: John Benjamins, 111-116.
  • Lakoff, George. 1987. Women, Fire, and Dangerous Things. What Categories Reveal about the Mind. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
  • Lakoff, George and Johnson, Mark. 1980. Metaphors we Live by. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
  • Lakoff, George and Johnson, Mark. 1998. Philosophy in the Flesh. The Embodied Mind and its Challenge to Western Thought. New York: Basic Books.
  • Lamb, Sydney M. 1971. The Crooked Path of Progress in Cognitive Linguistics.Georgetown University Monograph Series on Languages and Linguistics 24:99-123.
  • Lamb, Sydney M. 1999. Pathways of the Brain. The Neurocognitive Basis of Language. Amsterdam: John Benjamins.
  • Langacker, Ronald W. 1987. Foundations of Cognitive Grammar Vol. 1: Theoretical Prerequisites. Stanford: Stanford University Press.
  • Langacker, Ronald W. 1990. Concept, Image, and Symbol. The Cognitive Basis of Grammar. Berlin: Mouton de Gruyter.
  • Langacker, Ronald W. 1991. Foundations of Cognitive Grammar Vol. 2: Descriptive Application. Stanford: Stanford University Press.

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