Is Cognitive Linguistics growing “dominant”?

Short answer: I don’t think so. Or at least, I’m not sure. For the backstory and my reasoning for saying so read on.

Today I read a review of Constantine Campbell’s Advances in the Studies of Greek by Nicholas Ellis and Mike Aubrey over at Themelios. Lest I give any of those who know me any misconceptions, I didn’t do so because I care at all about GrEEK. I did so because Mike is a friend and an outstanding linguist. Any time he writes or posts something about linguistics online I try to take a look. Sadly, I think I mostly comment when I disagree with something so I can engage in longer discussions about linguistics (it’s lonely being a linguist in South Louisiana sometimes).

With that said, I had a quibble with the review, really over mostly one word. Mike may disagree with me in the comments here or elsewhere. But, that’s okay because I promise in advance to buy him a beer next time I’m in Bellingham (Kris may disagree with me too because on a Facebook thread he expressed similar sentiments to those I’m about to quibble with concerning the overlooking of cognitive linguistics. Kris, however, doesn’t drink beer so I’m not sure how we’ll get past this). Nicholas and Mike state:

Campbell seems to have attributed to Chomsky the definition of deep structure as argued by one of Chomsky’s opponents, Charles Fillmore in the so-called “Linguistic Wars.” Fillmore (e.g. his article, “The Case for Case,” in Universals in Linguistic Theory, ed. E. Bach and R. Harms [New York: Holt, Rinehalt and Winston]) and those with him eventually developed their own ideas into what is cognitive linguistics today, a set of principles and frameworks that are growing more and more dominant in the field at large.

A few lines later they indicate that Campbell gives short shrift to cognitive linguistics in his book and that this “is disappointing.”

But, is cognitive linguistics really growing more “dominant” in the field of linguistics at large? Here is an excerpt from Vyvyan Evan’s The Language Myth (a book I don’t highly recommend, but here it is any way):

Alas, this is not the case. The views that I classify as myths are presented as established fact in many of the linguistics textbooks currently in use in many of the stellar universities throughout the English-speaking world. I was trained using these textbooks, and they are still compulsory reading for today’s undergraduate and graduate students – tomorrow’s researchers, educators and language professionals – even at the university where I teach and work. University students are regularly told that there is a Universal Grammar, that language is innate, that language is incommensurable with non-human communication systems, and that all languages are essentially English-like. For instance, the world’s best-selling university textbook on language is An Introduction to Language, written by Professor Victoria Fromkin and colleagues. This book, now in its tenth revised edition, proclaims the following in its very first chapter:

This business is just what the linguist attempts – to find out the laws of a language, and the laws of all languages. Those laws that pertain to all human languages, representing the universal properties of language, constitute a Universal Grammar … To discover the nature of this Universal Grammar whose principles characterize all human languages is a major aim of linguistic theory… the more we investigate this question, the more evidence accumulates to support Chomsky’s view that there is a universal grammar that is part of the human biologically endowed language faculty.

A recently published textbook introduction to the English language, The Structure of Modern English, by Professor Laurel Brinton, makes the following claims in its introductory chapter:

Language is rule-governed, creative, universal, innate and learned, all at the same time … A more general set of constraints on language is known as language universals. These are features of language that are not language specific … Inherent in the notion of universals is the belief that language is innate, that we are born with an inborn capacity for language acquisition.

As we shall see, the claims made in both these representative textbooks are wrong – they fly in the face of, now, several decades of evidence-based research …

He goes on to bemoan the fact that Steven Pinker is the most widely known popular level linguistics writer in the world.

If all of the talk of Universal Grammar has thrown anyone off the trail a bit, this is a concept associated with Chomskyan, or generative, linguistics. So, here one of the better known practitioners of cognitive linguistics appears to be asserting the dominance of generative linguistics in undergraduate and graduate level classrooms and in the public at large. What I gather from Evans is that he is arguing throughout his book: even though the preponderance of evidence argues against generative linguistics, generative linguistics is still the dominant linguistic framework in the field of linguistics at large and generative linguistics needs to be overthrown.

Evans could, of course, be wrong about this. In fact, I think he probably overstates his case in many parts of his book since much of what I see is collaboration in my own area of work. I’m thinking of cross-talk between WordNet, a project founded by George Miller who is often mentioned as one of the co-founders of the “cognitive revolution” with Chomsky and who offers gushing praise of Chomsky in places like the book Language and Thought, and FrameNet, a project founded by the same Charles Fillmore that Nicholas and Mike mention as an opponent of Chomsky. All that aside, I think Evans’ perspective does at least give me pause about claiming that cognitive linguistics is growing “dominant.” Maybe more “prominent”? But, I’m not sure even that cognitive linguistics is “dominant” or “prominent” such that I think someone approaching linguistics from the outside would necessarily know very much about it.

But again, this is mostly a matter of word choice. At any rate, I’d be interested to hear what Mike and other interested linguists might think. At least my question would be, if cognitive linguistics is becoming “dominant,” how is it asserting that dominance?


  • This will be a fun discussion. I can already tell (mainly due to the beer taunting). A quick thought for starters: I like and can easily agree with Mike and Nick’s qualification that CL is growing “more and more” dominant in the field “at large”. Isn’t it true that the presence of CL in linguistic scholarship is not declining? I see a refinement of ideas, a plethora of new publications, and even a broadening of what is considered “cognitive” linguistic research. CL it seems is cross-contaminating with more disciplines as its theory of language requires it to do so (e.g. neuroscience, corpus linguistics, well I can’t think of a good third example). 😉 But anyways, you get my point: I don’t see CL’s presence declining or remaining static—so I guess it’s forging ahead, even though they may be seen as too slowly for some (i.e. Evans, you, you).

    • I guess this something we’d have to agree on terms on, but I don’t equate “not declining” or “forging ahead” as necessarily “growing dominant”. I’d agree that there is growth, but I’m not sure about the “dominance” yet, even in light of Mike’s responses so far. But it’s possible I’ve also misunderstood the context of his comments.

      • This is taken from a book review of the recent Bloomsbury Companion to Cognitive Linguistics (2014),

        “As Phil Bennett points out in his chapter on Cognitive Grammar, Langacker
        (1986: 1) began an early sketch of Cognitive Grammar with the words: “What
        follows is a minority report.” To this day, cognitive linguists like to
        construe themselves as a minority arguing against the “mainstream” view of
        generative grammar. However, things have changed. While generative grammar
        remains influential, Cognitive Linguistics is no longer a minority view, as is
        witnessed, for example, by the growing number of textbooks, journals, and book
        series dedicated to Cognitive Linguistics. In addition, numerous handbooks try
        to give an overview of the quite diverse and heterogeneous research conducted
        within the framework.”

        #totaldomination #oneday

        • Maybe one day… But, I think there are some problems with this quote that dovetail with some of what Mike and I have talked about. The author glosses over the problem of self-identification. But, it seems more serious than that. Perhaps some cognitive linguists construe themselves as a minority because many of them take the small tent approach that Mike mentioned. The author of the quote may be taking a big tent approach. If that’s the case, it’s possible that for some cognitive linguists some of the publications included in the proliferation the author mentions don’t really count. If some of the heterogeneity mentioned at the end involves heterogeneity in deciding who is and who is not doing cognitive linguistics, that’s a problem, especially for an outsider.

          Also, I don’t think the proliferation of publications is a good metric. Having walked through book exhibits at academic conferences, it’s hard to get a grasp on what the proliferation of publications really means comparatively speaking. I’m not sure what a good metric would be. But, like Mike doesn’t think the popular level is where decisions like that are made (though I might give some credence to what’s in use in the undergraduate and graduate classrooms that Evans mentions), I’m not sure numbers of publications is a good place for making that decision either.

  • I’d question Fromkin’s word choice. All I can give is my opinion of the literature. None of us are objective observers.

    As for Evans is, I would say, too obsessed with what the popular audience. That’s not where decisions are made about what is and what isn’t growing or shrinking. Evans also has a tendency to argue with things that don’t need to be argued with. He’s trying to make a name for himself. Laura Brinton hardly needs to be treated as if she’s on some opposing side from him–if so, then I’m probably not on his side any more either. I like a good amount of his earlier work. His book with Melanie Green, for instance, but I care little for what he’s been doing lately–if only because it’s more than a little frustrating.

    My push back would be from a book that I view as a better survey of the field: Jackendoff and Culicover’s /Simpler Syntax/. Their survey of the history in chapters 1-3 and then their view of where things are headed in chapter 15 is, I think, much more level headed and much more compelling in terms of what the history actually looks like.

    The question is, I think, whether you want to take a big tent or small tent view of what cognitive linguistics is. Evans seems to want to keep things as exclusive and us-vs.-them as he can. I don’t take that view. I take the view that those who subscribe to a non-mainstream generativism are beginning to come together more and more. HPSG has adopted the principles and underpinings of Construction Grammar, for example.

    Newmeyer noted in the 1990’s that mainstream generativism was technically never a majority at all–that they were simply just the loudest. And what we’re seeing in lingusitic theory now is that many of the approaches that independently arose in response to Chomsky are looking more and more similar every day.

    On the other hand, dominance also seems to be a question of sub-field. Syntax differs from morphology. Morphology from Phonology, Phonology from language acquisition, acquisition from language typology, etc. Some of that has to do with historical issues with how each field relates to generativism (e.g. Phonology is historically the most generative, but on the other hand, generative phonologists also tend to be the most willing to work with and build off of the ideas of non-generativists).

    • I think you and I largely agree on our approach to linguistics, but i think the question if you take a big tent approach is then: for the outsider, how do you then know you’re reading “cognitive linguistics”? Or what “cognitive linguistics” even is in any cohesive sense to talk about it in, say, an introduction to linguistic theories?

      In my own mind, even Chomskyan linguistics is “cognitive” linguistics only of a highly rationalist sort. I don’t know many generativists who would say they’re not working on cognition. Gregory Hickok in particular deals with this terminological difficulty. “Cognitive linguistics” I view as a of “cognitive” linguistics of a more empiricist sort. And I don’t see the rationalist or empiricist versions either necessarily rising to dominance, but as a back and forth that will always be with us (to paraphrase a certain possible Greek speaker 😉 )

  • Typo’s:
    *with the popular audience (no ‘what’)
    *Laurel Brinton (not ‘Laura’)

    There are probably others…

  • I see what you’re saying (a la Chomsky’s claim that child language acquisition is a “logical problem” rather than a “empirical problem” (not to mention the high value he places of Descartes). I’m just not sure that the philosophical and theoretical assumptions that ground such a claim don’t necessarily require one or the other. And certainly none of us are behaviorists today (or…very few of us).

    Still, you could make the case that arguments from iconicity (very un-Chomskyan) are extremely rationalist in as much as such claims are not based on empirical data, but on a logical flow of thought from a particular set of theoretical assumptions. I would probably say that much of it goes back to the same old question: Is semantics solely interpretive or does it feed and influence syntactic structure? But I also think Geeraert’s summary from the Handbook of Pragmatics is a pretty good one:

    “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” (Geeraerts 1995: 111-112).

    Now with all of that said…

    The intent of the original statement in the review should really only bee read in the context of descriptive grammar. And in that context, the statement is indisputably true. There was a time in the 1970’s through the early 1990’s where writing a descriptive grammar using generative theory was the dominant approach. But regardless of theoretical assumptions it was a highly flawed approach because the research questions of generative theory were never designed for describing a language (with an article, specific), but for describing language (without an article, as a human ability). The very idea of a generative grammar of Greek or a generative grammar of Hebrew has always been an incoherent thing, but that didn’t stop people from trying. That trend is certainly disappearing and it is being replaced by various forms of cognitive-functionalism. And that’s a develop that arises primarily from practical value and the usefulness of particular research questions to a particular goal.

    • Wow. The typos were abounding tonight for me also. I shouldn’t try to fire off comments when I’m supposed to meet someone to run.

      At any rate, I think Chomsky might say cognitive linguists are all behaviorists in a way since there’s a shared assumption with behaviorists that language is shaped by experience, but maybe that’s too much more of a digression. 😉

      But, to come back to the main point, you said that the original statement in the review was in the context of descriptive grammar. My understanding was that it was in the context of providing a history of linguistics in general. Perhaps I misunderstood.

      But if I didn’t, my main concern in my last comment was: in describing the history of linguistics, if one takes a big tent view of “cognitive linguistics”, how does someone write that history if many of the non-mainstream-generativists don’t identify as “cognitive linguists”? And if you don’t include all of the non-mainstream-generativists among “cognitive linguists” is what’s left of the movement really prominent (or dominant) enough that you’d expect someone approaching from the outside to notice and mention them in their history of the field?