The source of SOURCE Expressions: Embodiment

When we talk about prepositional meaning, we have focused on the usage of prepositions in constructional contexts. We have not talked about ἀπό or ἐκ meaning SOURCE or CAUSE, for example, but rather ἀπό and ἐκ being used in SOURCE and CAUSE expressions. This is an important distinction. As a conceptual category, CAUSE functions within the larger domain of event structure. It is a much larger concept than simply the meaning of a preposition, evoking other concepts such as FORCE, CHANGE, and STATE. It necessarily implicates two participants: an ACTOR that initiates the CAUSE and an UNDERGOER that is affected by the CAUSE. The result is that if a given verb implicates CAUSE in its usage, often ἀπό is simply a contextual necessity. The same can be said of the prototypical usage of ἀπό: SOURCE expressions implicate a number of additional conceptual categories: motion through space (i.e. SOURCE-PATH-GOAL, DIRECTION & POSITION). And just as with CAUSE expression, these conceptual categories are larger than simply ἀπό, ἐκ, or any other preposition. Where do they come from?

Human bodies provide an experiential motivation for grasping concepts. People use these schemas in everyday reasoning: the body as a container (IN/OUT), body movement in space (SOURCE-PATH-GOAL), the bodily senses (FIGURE/GROUND), the posture of the body and experience of gravity (UP/DOWN), and many more (Janda 2010, 9). Each of these are predicated on our human experiences, experiences that we share amongst us, independent of our languages.

From there, linguistic meaning encompasses human experience and is intermingled with perceptual knowledge and cognitive capacities. Concepts are meaningful and find their grounding in preconceptual bodily experience (Langacker 1986, 3). What is specifically rejected here is that meaning is a bundle of features or a set of primitives. Instead, meaning is coupled with conceptualization. This includes all kinds of embodied experiences (sensory, motor, kinesthetic, emotive) and full apprehension of phenomena (linguistic, social, and cultural context) (Langacker 1986, 3). The common dictum of the arbitrariness of the sign does not hold. The sign is not arbitrary but is grounded in cognition and embodied experience. Grammar and lexicon form the two extreme ends of a continuum of meaning (Langacker 2007, 421). All forms are imbued with meaning from morphology to discourse features: “Meaning underwrites the existence of all linguistic…phenomena, none of which is semantically empty. Meaning is therefore not tidily contained in the lexicon, but ranges all through the linguistic spectrum, because meaning is the energy that propels the motor of language” (Janda 2010, 6).

Cognitive linguistics regards language as a tool for meaning-making, for organizing, processing, and conveying meaningful information (Geeraerts 2006, 3). Of central importance is understanding the conceptual basis of linguistic categories. The primary function of language is categorization, involving networks, prototypes, polysemy, image schemas, and metaphor (Taylor 2003). Categories have schematic structures with prototype centres that are motivated on the basis of semantic construal (Lakoff 1987). Grammar is dependent on cognition, and grammatical structures are symbolic of conceptualization (Lakoff and Johnson 1999, 464).

Though cognitive linguistics is more of a cluster of linguistic approaches than a single theory, there are defining assumptions about the nature of language and meaning that give the various strands a common identity.* The following list is adapted from Dirk Geeraerts (2006, 4-6) who provides a helpful description within five related factors:

*For a helpful delineation of the strands, see van Wolde (2008).

(1) Meaning is perspectival. Categorization is central to human experience and cognition. People use language to organize and language itself is the object of categorization (Taylor 2003, 9). Rather than reflecting objective reality, linguistic meaning categorizes the world. Language expresses the contexts, history, and culture of people.

(2) Meaning is encyclopedic. Linguistic meaning encompasses all human experience and is integrated with perceptual knowledge and cognitive capacities. Because people use language to organize knowledge, positing a separate structural level of meaning is unnecessary. Instead of studying semantics, lexicon, and syntax as distinct entities, cognitive linguistics recognizes categories of linguistic form as motivated on the basis of meaning (Lakoff 1987, 465).

(3) Meaning is experientially grounded. People are not pure minds but engage in the world through embodiment. Embodiment affects experience of the world and how language is used to talk about it. Meaning is not merely in the words, morphemes, or propositions, but meaning is based in a shared human experience.

(4) Meaning is based on usage. Because linguistic meaning is grounded by embodied experience of the world, “experience of language is an experience of actual language use” (Geerarts 2006, 6) In the view inherited by Saussure, there are discrete categories of langue and parole. Langue is the proper concern of the linguist because it is language structure. Parole, language use, is ancillary. If cognitive linguistics is committed to the experiential grounding of linguistic meaning, then the lived experience of language use is of primary interest.

(5) Meaning changes. It is embodied, dynamic conceptualization that is more than the sum of the parts. As much as linguists might push for linguistics as an exact science, language remains unpredictable and dynamic in nature (Janda 2010, 7).

Works cited

Evans Vyvyan and Melanie Green. 2006. Cognitive linguistics: An introduction. London: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Publishers.

Geeraerts, Dirk. 2006. Cognitive linguistics: Basic readings. New York: Moutin de Gruyter.

Janda, Laura. 2010. Cognitive Linguistics in the Year 2010. International journal of cognitive linguistics. 1.1: 1-30.

Lakoff, George. 1987. Women, fire, and dangerous things: What categories reveal about the mind. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Lakoff, George and Mark Johnson. 1999. Philosophy in the flesh: The embodied mind and its challenge to western thought. New York: Basic Books.

Langacker, Ronald W. 1986. Introduction to Cognitive Grammar. Cognitive Science 10:3.

Langacker, Ronald W. 2007. Cognitive grammar. Pages 421-462 in The Oxford handbook of cognitive linguistics. Dirk Geeraerts and Hubert Cuyckens, Eds. New York: Oxford University Press.

Taylor, John R. 2003. Linguistic categorization. 3rd ed. New York: Oxford University Press.

van Wolde, Ellen. 2008. Reframing biblical studies: When language and text meet culture, cognition, and context. Winona Lake, IN.


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