First Impressions of Cognitive Linguistics (or, Hurdles for the Biblical Scholar-Linguist)

Editor’s note: this article was originally published on the blog Old School Script. We have taken over its archives and are slowly republishing pieces that have continuing importance and value. This article was originally published November 3, 2015.

Jesse Owens jumping over a hurdle during practice at Ohio Stadium, side view, 1936
Jesse Owens jumping over a hurdle during practice at Ohio Stadium, 1936

As one krɪs wraps up his PhD another begins his own. (More details about that later). All that to say, as I’ve been getting familiar with the linguistic literature around which my own dissertation will revolve I’m just struck by how much—again—there is to learn, and similarly, how much there is I want to share. Most recently I came across an interesting section of an article that’s likely relevant for many biblical scholars who find themselves interested in dabbling with linguistics, and with the program of Cognitive Linguistics in particular. So without further ado, I give you the words of Geeraerts (2006:40–42)—he who has ears let him hear…

[W]hat is the image that newcomers and young researchers get when they are confronted with the work of the most highly valued researchers in the field? What methodological impression does a novice get from Cognitive Linguistics if he or she looks at the current work of the founding fathers? Their work, in fact, is to a large extent of an analytical, theory-building kind that does not go, in terms of methodological procedure, beyond the traditional methodology of contemporary linguistics…. Let’s assume that we restrict the set of founding fathers of Cognitive Linguistics to Langacker, Lakoff, Talmy, and Fillmore….

Now, in their work on grammatical phenomena and linguistic theory, Langacker (in spite of the fact that he is the person who coined the phrase “usage-based model”: Langacker 1988), Talmy, and Fauconnier are highly traditional linguists in terms of data gathering and data analysis: no systematic corpus analysis or ingenious experimentation in this line of research. Fillmore is a notable exception, to the extent that the FrameNet project that pursues a large-scale application of frame semantics to the English lexicon is definitely and deliberately corpus-based.

Lakoff too occupies a specific position, to the extent that the “cognitive commitment” that he formulated in Lakoff (1990) has led him to numerous forms of interdisciplinary collaborations with philosophers, literary scholars, and other cognitive scientists. In particular, he lies at the basis of a neural theory of language that looks at the neurophysiological basis of his Conceptual Metaphor Theory. However, the way in which Conceptual Metaphor Theory is usually practised is largely an introspective matter (see Haser 2005, and Gibbs, this volume, for a critical assessment). It is, in fact, possibly the easiest form of linguistics that you can do in the domain of Cognitive Linguistics: collect a number of expressions for an arbitrary target field in a given language, identify a common semantic denominator for them, and conclude that that is the way the target field is conceptualized in the language, in other words, that that is the way people think in that language.

The picture is perhaps slightly caricatural, but the restrictions on this type of work will be clear….

In other words, what is probably the most broadly attractive and most widely known form of research in Cognitive Linguistics is at the same time one of the most facile ones in methodological terms, in spite of the long-standing efforts of people like Ray Gibbs (and more recently, researchers like Lera Boroditsky, 2001) to provide empirical underpinnings for Conceptual Metaphor Theory. To the extent that this contributes to a certain image of what it involves to do interesting work in Cognitive Linguistics, this is not advantageous for the expansion of empirical methods in Cognitive Linguistics.

Cognitive linguistics: Current applications and future perspectives. Dirk Geeraerts's contributed the 1st chapter.
Cognitive linguistics: Current applications and future perspectives. Dirk Geeraerts’s contributed the 1st chapter.

The last sentence gets to the heart of this quote: for a long time Cognitive Linguistics has been rather weak on the empirical side of things when compared to other hard sciences. But within the past decade, a number of leading cognitive linguists have begun to own up to this state of affairs and been quite vocal about pushing the field forward into methods of analysis that are more empirical.

The primary means to accomplish this task it seems is through quantitative analysis. This can be achieved through either experimental (e.g., elicitation) or observational techniques—the latter of which is naturally suited for those of us interested in the closed corpus of the Hebrew Bible and Greek New Testament.

In light of this recent push, it’s hoped by leaders of the Cognitive enterprise that more empirical methods will begin to be implemented and that we’ll see less analyses whose primary filter is introspection and intuition. But what does this mean for biblical scholars who are interested in marrying modern linguistic advances to their field?

That’s a difficult question to answer.

The short version is easy enough: if the Cognitive program is becoming more empirical then the application of this model should reflect that.

The long version is a bit more complicated—mainly due to two factors: 1) the number of (biblical) scholars actually interested in linguistics and 2) the esteem attributed to biblical scholars who do linguistic work. Although distinct, both are related to answering the previous question. Let me explain.

#1 In my own circle, I only know a handful of people who are actually interested in a combination of both linguistics and, due to past educational experiences, are privy to the biblical text too. Most biblical scholars I think only wade in deep enough into linguistics to carry out some exegetical nugget. There’s no swimming in it just for fun.

Clearly this isn’t a “sin”, but for research purposes it can be dangerous.

Just as the serious biblical scholar who goes through seminary would caution his friends to be wary of listening to a preacher who discusses the “real meaning” of a Greek word, the biblical scholar should tread with due diligence when s/he attempts to do the same with linguistics. There is ample room for misunderstanding and misrepresentation all around.

Chances are if you’re reading this post you’re a self-identified biblical scholar who is interested in seeing how the insights from modern linguistics can bolster your hermeneutical approach. If that’s you, the safest bet is to read real linguists in addition to biblical scholars who attempt to represent the field. This is hardly to say that such scholars are inept, but that when one’s heart is not in it, it’s too easy to only mine for sexy exegetical stones and become sloppy with the connections one makes and conclusions one draws—which leads to my second point.

#2 Even when an acclaimed biblical scholar has made a name for themselves in marrying linguistics to biblical studies, it’s important to remember they are still only one voice. The field of linguistics is just as diverse and divisive as that of biblical studies. So why hold a biblical scholar as a demi-god/dess of linguistics because s/he holds the talking-stick?

I understand this may come off a bit harsh, but that’s not how I intend it. It’s simply a general and healthy observation to keep in mind when going about reading up on how to appropriate linguistic insights to biblical studies. In a different context, that’s probably more familiar for many, this principle makes perfect sense. For instance, no right-minded biblical scholar would hold all of Wright’s views on Paul as inerrant, or Moo or Schreiner, etc. The stature of each scholar is appreciated, but their words and views are weighed and sifted. Nothing is swallowed whole.

I’d like to think that a majority of scholars interested in applying linguistics are able to avoid doing this; but I know from personal experience that when you’re early on in the game, it’s easier to be stunned by a scholar and accept their word wholesale than to engage with the scholar’s opinions in a healthy critical fashion. So if you’re really invested in doing solid research, 1) go the extra mile and track down one or two of the major sources that the scholar relies on, 2) read the work they cite and see if you think they accurately represent the framework they’re intending to appropriate.

As I mentioned above, whether they’re dipping into linguistics for a payout or are known for swimming in it for fun, you’re still only looking at one person’s take on a primary source. So if you’re really a serious student of the biblical languages, chances are you didn’t go down this rabbit hole for fame and glory (though clearly you’ll get that)—you did it because you didn’t want to be in a position where you had to rely solely on secondary sources. You want to read the text first hand and be able to consult lexicons and grammars. So take this same impetus and channel it towards your desire to strengthen your hermeneutical skills with linguistics.

At the end of the day, the simplest solution is to make sure you’re looking to linguists if you want to learn about linguistics. Even if they’re biblical scholars, try to find ones that are linguists-first and bible-nerds second. There’s no hard and fast line of course. All boundaries are fuzzy. Some straddle the line with more skill than others. But if a program like Cognitive Linguistics is your thing, I’d recommend paying attention to this trend towards the empirical and to avoid settling for the facile methodologies of the past—no matter how attractive or easy they are to implement.

#note, this post was inspired by a piece of literature published almost ten years ago. In the time that’s past, it’s clear that cognitive linguistics is in the process of answering Geeraert’s call. Are you?