The scientific study of language, or
more precisely of grammar, has gone forward through different models such as
structuralism, generativism and models based on language use among which cognitive
linguistics is specially relevant. Each of these models has focused in different ways on
what, according to Geeraerts (2003), can be viewed as three complementary perspectives on
language: language as a social system, as an individual system and as an individual
Language is a social system to the extent that languages are means of socialisation and
develop in collective environments.
Language is an individual system because we all have our own knowledge of the social
system identifed as a specific language.
Language is an individual activity because any language is an abstraction resulting from
the integration of the individual activities of all its speakers, and the concept of
speaker has an inherently social dimension, since human communication presupposes more
than one person.
perspective explains the interdisciplinary nature of the study of language and helps
understand the different approaches in Linguistics. Ferdinand de Saussures
structuralist model, which is considered strictly speaking the first scientific approach
to linguistics, is based on the dichotomy between language and speech.
Language is a set
of collectively codified conventions (a social system), while speech is the ensemble of
combinations effectively produced through the code (and thus, an individual psychological
activity). For structuralists, linguistics can only concern itself with the system; as a
consequence, what we have is a divided model of grammar, in which the system as an
activity is ignored, and the individual system (the individual knowledge of the social
system) is neglected.
generativist point of view, the faculty of language can be identified with linguistic
competence, that is, the innate ability of the speaker-hearer to understand and produce a
theoretically infinite number of linguistic strings. A finite number of elements
(grammatical categories: noun, verb, adjective, etc.) combine according with generative
and interpretative rules resulting in grammatical sentences.
2. Generative grammar
corresponds to the individual system, is opposed to performance, the actual realisation of
competence in specific linguistic outputs, which can contain errors and features not
obviously derivable from the system. The mind is seen as a computer which, among other
modules, has one devoted to language. It combines categories according to generative rules
for well-formedness and gives rise to sentences which take on physical substance by means
of phonetic and semantic interpretative rules. This leads to the isolation of grammar,
which is considered to be a separate module from the rest of the cognitive capacities and
is studied at the individual level as a system, leaving aside the linguistic activity
(performance) as unsystematic. Similarly, the social side of language - its inherent
social nature - is also ignored.
appearance on the scene of generativism, by the end of the fifties, different disciplines
filled the spaces left empty by this model: the social context (sociolinguistics), the
situational context (language use) and the cognitive context (the relation between meaning
and experience). The bases of the theories of language use emerged, seeking to
"recontextualise" grammar and link it to the social setting in which it is
developed and realised, to the world and to experience of the world. In this category we
find, variously, the functionalism, formal semantics, pragmatics and discourse analysis,
sociolinguistics and cognitive linguistics, amongst others.
Theories of language use
Linguistics can be considered the most comprehensive theory of use because it aims at
studying and interrelating the three aspects of language. Some of the basic principles of
Cognitive Linguistics will serve to show the importance given to context:
Language is not an autonomous faculty, but rather is related to other human cognitive
abilities. Thus, the philosophy that inspires this theory is what George Lakoff calls
experientialism, in opposition to objectivism, which regards language as a faculty which
is separate from the other cognitive faculties or capacities and so to speak disconnected
from the world.
main object of study is not system, but language use. Therefore, the system is conceived
in a dynamic way, interrelating linguistic structure (syntax), meaning (semantics),
language use (pragmatics) and conceptual structure (cognition).
Grammar is the result of structuring and symbolising a semantic content through a
Meaning is not seen from a purely denotative point of view, but includes connotative
aspects, so that semantics and pragmatics cannot be separated.
Semantico-pragmatic structure in many cases motivates grammatical structure and,
therefore, syntax cannot be treated as autonomous.
dynamic view of language breaks down the divisions between the different linguistic levels
of language (semantics and pragmatics, semantics and grammar, grammar and lexicon) and
shows the weakness of dichotomies such as dichrony and synchrony, competence and
performance, denotation and connotation.
Some examples can
illustrate this conception of language and linguistics. From the contrastive point of
view, it can be noted that a common concept may be expressed by different linguistic forms
in three relatively closely related languages. For instance, what in Catalan is called oficina
dobjectes trobats (literally, the office of found objects), in
Spanish is oficina de objetos perdidos (literally, the office of lost
objects) while in English this is called lost and found. Obviously, the
meaning is the same in all cases, i.e., a place where lost objects are stored, and where
people who have lost objects go to get them back. However, each of the languages focuses
on an aspect of this reality: in Catalan the term expresses the place (office) and the end
of this process (finding), in Spanish the place and the origin are focused upon (losing),
and in English the two parts of the process (losing and finding) are highlighted. The
reality behind the three expressions is the same, but the conceptualisation is not. The
other ways of expressing it could be valid in the respective languages (oficina
dobjectes perduts i trobats in Catalan, oficina de objetos encontrados in
Spanish, found objects office in English), but, simply, these are not the terms
used. In each language the former expressions and not the latter have been
conventionalised. This difference cannot be explained by means of a linguistic theory that
limits itself to the linguistic system or to competence and does not take into account
pragmatics and cognition.
Turning now from
lexicon to syntax, we can now review some examples of constructions that, from a logicist
point of view, have the same basic meaning:
a) Joan va trobar lerror / John found the mistake.
b) Lerror ha estat trobat per Joan / The mistake was found by John.
c) Lerror ha estat trobat / The mistake was found.
passives (1b) have been considered a transformation of the corresponding active
sentences (1a): the subject of the active has become an agent complement and may be
left out as in (1c). This analysis, which constitutes one of the basic examples of
transformations in generative grammar, raises a number of questions. If actives and
passives are purely structural variants: Why do both structural options exist (one form
would have been enough)? And why, if we analyse any Catalan corpus, the passive with an
explicit agent turns out to be unfrequent? And under what conditions is one structure used
rather than the other?
By looking at the
conditions on use, at the context, answers to these questions can be found. Passive
constructions are means of relegating the subject of an agentive construction to a second
place or eliminating it altogether, and, as a consequence, highlighting the object. The
latter is shifted to the prominent position in the sentence, that of grammatical subject.
In line with this
perspective, it is clearer why the agent tends not to appear: in this way the object is
fully highlighted. So, though actives and passives are related, they do not comply with
the mathematical principle that "the order of the factors does not alter the
product". There might be a correspondence between the two structures, but they are
not equivalent, since they exhibit differences in meaning and in discourse conditions on
use. It can easily be shown that periphrastic passives are little used in informal
conversation, and in the case of Catalan, these passives only occur in formal registers,
such as academic or legal language.
agent is not a exclusive property of the passive. The same or similar function is carried
out by reflexive constructions (middle voice forms) (2a), or by impersonals with a
generic interpretation (2b-c).
a) Sha trobat lerror / Se (REFLEX) has found the mistake.
b) Hom ha trobat lerror / One (INDET) has found the mistake.
c) Han trobat lerror / they (INDET, elliptic) have found the mistake.
The sentences in
(2) are almost equivalent to the passive Lerror ha estat trobat (the
mistake has been found); however, they differ in not highlighting the object of the
action, because the agent is still implicit (someone has found the mistake).
It is an indeterminate agent, whose specification is, for whatever reason, of no interest
in the context of the discourse. Thus, the action is focused upon. The concept of
construction gives an adequate account of examples as the previous ones since it shows
that form and meaning are not related in a totally arbitrary, nor totally predictable way.
It can be concluded that certain aspects of the form or the meaning of a construction
cannot be derived from its components but are effects of the construction itself, which
conveys pragmatic aspects that speakers know.
On the other hand,
it is evident that Catalan uses the periphrastic passive much less than English, and this
may be due to the existence of reflexive constructions, which occupy the space taken up by
the passive in English - a language that lacks reflexive structures to express passive
conceptualisations. Just as in the case of the "lost and found" languages
conceptualise situations in a different way and codify them with structures which in turn
imply differentiated discourse effects. Thus, grammar is not independent from cognition
and conditions of use, but rather a constant interrelation is set up between the three
levels: cognition, pragmatics and grammar.
between pragmatics and grammar is pointed out by the research carried out within
grammaticalisation theory by cognitive linguists like Sweetser, as well as functionalists
like Traugott, Hopper, Thompson or Heine. Grammaticalisation theory has its roots in the
work of Meillet or the structuralist Kurylowicz, who define grammaticalisation as the
process by which "a lexical unit or structure takes on a grammatical function, or
] a grammatical unit takes on a more grammatical function" (Heine et al.
1991: 2). The modern version of this line of research argues that grammaticalisation is
more than a process of turning lexical elements into grammatical ones; it is a more
complex phenomenon that entails modifications in the discourse function and syntactic
structure of languages.