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Cognitive Linguistics and Language Structure

Richard Hudson

last changed 3 May 2012

Bibliographical information

Submitted to Language and Cognition April 2012. Rejected but turned into shorter papers: Linguistic levels and cognitive linguistics.



Cognitive linguists agree that language is handled mentally by general cognitive structures and processes rather than by a dedicated mental module. However, in spite of remarkable progress in some areas, cognitive linguists have generally paid little attention to the possible implications of this ‘cognitive assumption' for the theory of language structure – how language is organised and what structures we assign to utterances. Cognitive Grammar has avoided formalization, and the various versions of construction grammar have adopted rather conservative views on grammatical structure. The exception is Word Grammar, which offers a radical alternative view of language structure. This paper defends the structural claims of Word Grammar on the grounds that most of them follow logically from the cognitive assumption (though a few need to be revised). The paper starts by breaking this assumption into a number of more specific tenets relating to learning, network structures, ‘recycling', inheritance, relations, activation and chunking. It then shows how these tenets support various claims that distinguish Word Grammar in cognitive linguistics. According to this argument, morphology and syntax are distinct levels, so language cannot consist of nothing but ‘symbols' or ‘constructions'. Moreover, in syntax the main units – and possibly the only units – must be words, not phrases, so the basic relation of syntax is the dependency between two words, not the relation between a phrase and its part. In other words, sentence structure is dependency structure, not phrase structure – a network, as expected in cognition, not a tree. One of the benefits of this analytical machinery is in the treatment of the various patterns that have been called ‘constructions', which benefit from the flexibility of a network structure. This kind of structure is also very appropriate for semantic analysis, illustrated here by two examples: the distinction between universal and existential quantifiers, and a detailed structural analysis of the meaning of the how about X? construction, covering its illocutionary force as well as deictic binding. Finally, the paper discusses a formal property, the order of words, morphs and so on, arguing that the constraints on order are expressed in terms of the ‘landmark' relation of Cognitive Grammar, while the actual ordering requires the more primitive relation found in any ordered string, here called ‘next'. The paper explains how landmark relations can be derived from word-word dependencies in both simple and complex syntactic patterns, and why the words in a phrase normally stay together.