George Lakoff's Cognitive Theory and His Conceptual Metaphor Theory

Seminararbeit, 2012

28 Seiten, Note: 1,3


Table of Contents

1. Introduction

2. Modularity versus Holism
2.1 The Modular Approach
2.2 The Holistic Approach

3. Lakoff’s Cognitive Theory (1987)
3.1 Basic-Level Concepts and Kinesthetic Image Schemas
3.2 Idealized Cognitive Models (ICMs) and Embodiment

4. The Conceptual Metaphor Theory (CMT) by George Lakoff (1980)
4.1 Metaphorical Concepts
4.2 The Systematic Structure of Metaphorical Concepts

5. Conclusion

Bibliographic References

Language is called the Garment of Thought: however, it should rather be, Language is the Flesh-Garment, the Body, of Thought. I said that Imagination wove this Flesh-Garment; and does not she? Metaphors are her stuff: examine Language; what, if you except some few primitive elements (of natural sound), what is it all but Metaphors, recognized as such, or no longer recognized; still fluid and florid, or now solid-grown and colorless? If those same
primitive elements are the osseous fixtures in the Flesh-Garment, Language,
— then are Metaphors its muscles and tissues and living integuments.

THOMAS CARLYLE, Sartor Resartus
(“Prospective”, Book I, Chapter 11: 57])

1. Introduction

Language in general has always been an intricate matter for investigation and scientific research. Linguistics as a field of studies particularly dedicated to the task of exploring the language faculty and its features is divided into several subcategories caused most likely by the interactive nature this field of study presents. The presented paper will focus on the field of cognitive linguistics, thereby addressing and summarizing the main concepts and theories as well as demarcating such from generative approaches. Since the subject of cognitive linguistics proves to be extremely complex and extensive, the lion’s share of this work will concentrate on the cognitive theory (1987) and the corresponding theory of metaphor by George LAKOFF (1980).[1]

In the 1980s cognitive linguistics developed mainly in the United States as a new approach to the study of language and mind and how both entities are interrelated. According to cognitive linguist Gilles FAUCONNIER, “perhaps for the first time a genuine science of meaning construction and its dynamics has been launched” (Fauconnier 96). Language is considered to be one of the most significant and fundamental features constituting human cognition, even though it may be described as only the “tip of a spectacular cognitive iceberg” (ibid.), which consists of numerous “layers” of mental processes and internal structures, enabling us to function in our experienced world. The process of generating those internal structures is believed to be conceptually motivated and initiated by perceptual salience (cf. Glynn 89), implying that the “patterns of usage represent speakers’ knowledge of their language, including the conceptual structures that motivate language” (ibid.). Therefore, central to the concerns of cognitive linguistics is the idea of cognitive models, which are assumed to structure thought. The term is used mostly to express the notion that cognitive representations are stored in form of knowledge bases. Cognitive models are presumably involved in the process of reasoning and used for the development of categories (cf. Ungerer/Schmid 47, Geeraerts 2). When looking at the enormous interdisciplinary orientation cognitive linguistics and cognitive science in general employ, the complexity of attempting to analyze human cognition becomes apparent. By including results and methods from scientific disciplines such as psychology, (cognitive) neuroscience, sociology, philosophy, anthropology, computer science, and of course linguistics, it is hoped to be able to comprehend the internal processes and structures responsible for human cognition and information processing leading to a more holistic view on the subject matter (cf. Baldauf 29, Wolf/Polzenhagen 248, Geeraerts 2).

Cognitive linguistics focuses on investigating mental structures and processes which are considered to be pivotal aspects of human linguistic abilities (cf. Baldauf 30). Language itself is thereby no longer defined as a system of arbitrary signs as proposed by SAUSSURE, but includes functional as well as procedural patterns and structures which are associated with the respective linguistic manifestations and their communicative functions (cf. Dirven et al. 2003: 3, Fauconnier 95, Geeraerts 3 et seq.). Cognitive linguistics thereby does not focus on particular features of language or specific parts of grammar, but attempts to analyze and explain its interplay with the perception of the world, i.e. the reality which surrounds human beings (cf. Langacker 2009: 201)[2]. Thereby, grammar and lexis are viewed and analyzed as interdependent faculties, forming “a continuum fully describable as assembly of symbolic structures (form-meaning pairings)” (Langacker 2009: 38). In its characterization of language as part of the cognitive system, not as an autonomous phenomenon[3] (cf. Radden 534, Croft/ Cruse 1f, Sandra 362), this field of study stands in direct opposition to the generative approach postulated by Noam CHOMSKY (1965) and others, which describes language as well as its acquisition as innate ability to process incoming stimuli. According to CHOMSKY’s (1965) theory, the language faculty is modular existing individually and autonomously from other cognitive faculties (cf. Chomsky 1965: 51 et seq., Chomsky 1984: 16, Chomsky 1992: 23). In which way CHOMSKY’s modular approach differs from LAKOFF’s theory will be discussed more detailed in chapter 2.

Beyond merely linguistic aspects, the cognitive approach aims at discovering laws of structure of natural language categorization and conceptualization as well as the intricate connections between language use and thought as well as perception and experience (cf. Langacker 1987: 118f, Dirven/Verspoor 13, Schwarz 9). Cognitive linguistics “seeks to ground meaning not directly in the world, but in mental and perceptual representations of the world” (Regier 27), including motivational factors and functional explanations involved in the use of linguistic expressions (cf. Radden 513), and thereby targeting a new theory of categorization (cf. Lakoff 1987), imagination (cf. Johnson 1987:139ff), and, what may be regarded as a fundamental change in Western philosophy, meaning by the approach described as cognitive semantics [4] (cf. Johnson 1987: 173ff, Lakoff 1987: 269ff, Geeraerts 2 et seq.). Metaphor is one of the chief means by which these research objectives are analyzed and attempted to be explicated. This will be discussed further in chapter 4.

Before contrasting the modular approach as proposed by Chomsky (1965) and the holistic approach postulated by cognitive linguists, the basic hypotheses which most cognitive linguists agree on will be summarized.

First, language is not viewed as an autonomous cognitive faculty, but as one of many interrelating cognitive abilities (cf. Croft/ Cruse 1f, Sandra 362, Croft 396). The second major hypothesis of the cognitive linguistic approach is that natural language[5] is conceptually structured and therefore subject to construal, including category structuring as well as the collocation of knowledge (cf. Dirven/Verspoor 14f, Langacker 2009: 42, Dirven et al. 2003: 4, Croft/ Cruse 3, 40, Croft 396f). Third, cognitive linguistics claim that knowledge of language is usage-based, implying that structures and categories on all linguistic levels are constructed, abstracted, and/ or revised during actual language use (cf. Langacker 2009: 154, Croft/Cruse 3f, 291f, Schmid/Handl 1f, Geeraerts 5 et seq.).

2. Modularity versus Holism

Within the research field of cognitive linguistics two major opposing theoretical approaches are to be distinguished by the way they interpret and describe interpersonal communication through language, its structure, its organization, and its acquisition. In general, language may be viewed as a system which entails a certain internal organization, generally referred to as grammar. This internal structure is based on specific rules by which the correctness of language use is determined (cf. Engel 17). Grammar therefore may be said to be theory as well as description and amplification of language resulting in numerous, oftentimes complex structural as well as functional definitions (cf. Lewandowski 355). A similar diversity can be observed in the analytical orientation by which linguists attempt to describe, contrast, or advise grammatical phenomena. Theoretical approaches to research grammar may be diachronic or synchronic, descriptive or normative, ascending or descending, resulting in a wide spectrum of grammar models representing different perspectives from which language is observed and analyzed (cf. Engel 17 et seq.). In the context of this paper a precise explication which covers all important grammar models cannot be given. Yet, it is hoped to summarize and contrast the most important aspects of the two main opposing approaches.

2.1 The Modular Approach

The modular approach aims at an exact and detailed description of procedural and structural aspects of human language processing on a quite formal level and it claims the existence of a language-specific system as a subsystem within human cognition. Individual cognitive components, so-called modules, are involved in the process of language processing but are thought to function autonomously and framework-exclusive (cf. Chomsky 1992: 23, Müller 61). It is proposed that this hierarchically organized system includes one particular module for syntactical structures, one for semantics and so forth. Informational output is thereby transferred from one module to the next. Therefore, linguistic units are thought to be first decoded on the syntactic level, followed by the activation of their semantic content, which finally leads to the appropriate phonological realization of the unit (cf. Croft/Cruse 225). Undoubtedly, to a certain degree there is a relationship between the individual modules but they are not thought to interact bi-directionally.

The idea of the human brain being organized into different modules, each one with a different function, is the very basis of Noam CHOMSKY’s theory of an innate language module (cf. Chomsky 1992: 23). He proceeds on the assumption that there are specific competences which underlie human language ability. The main aim of his nativist theory is to explain how linguistic knowledge is represented in the human brain, thus finding specific answers to what a speaker actually knows and not what he may be able to report about his knowledge (cf. Chomsky 1965: 20, Helbig 2002: 178f, Müller 65). His claim of the existence of a universal grammar implies that there is an innate capability shared by all humans constituting the prerequisite of language acquisition in general. One of the main observations which led CHOMSKY to believe in an innate language device located in the human brain is that he noticed that some people seem to have a lot of knowledge despite the so-called “poverty of the stimulus” (Chomsky 1986: 7) and vice versa. In order to compensate for this lack of stimulus, a person must, according to CHOMSKY, be able to utilize other mechanisms or strategies of learning, or more specific of acquiring language, than simply by relying on outside stimuli. This leads to what may be considered the most important aspect of CHOMSKY’s theory: his concept of a universal grammar which, according to CHOMSKY, provides a basic set of fixed grammatical rules that are considered to be standard for all languages and on which language acquisition and interpretation is generally based (cf. Chomsky 1993: 4, Müller 71).

The hypothesis of the existence of a universal grammar forms the theoretical ground for what CHOMSKY originally referred to as “transformational grammar” and which is now often described as “generative grammar” (cf. Müller 61 et seq.). It is used to describe a system of grammar thought to be located in the human brain including all profound regularities considered to be linguistic universals, which ultimately enable us to understand an indefinite number of sentences (cf. Chomsky 1965: 17, 29). Thereby, this intuitive linguistic knowledge is considered to be innate and activated during the process of language acquisition (cf. Chomsky 1965: 43, 57 et seq.). According to CHOMSKY, this schematic framework can be analyzed and subdivided into three major “horizontal”, function-specific sections, i.e. syntactic, phonological, and semantic components (cf. Chomsky 1965: 15 et seq., Croft/Cruse 225). Important to note is that the lexicon as a forth component may be described as a “vertically” positioned linking device combining lexical items with information from each of the other horizontal components. Thus, the lexicon itself entails information about the phonological realization, the syntactic category, and the semantic meaning of a word (cf. Croft/Cruse 226f).[6]

Furthermore, CHOMSKY’s theory does not include idiosyncratic properties of grammar larger than a single lexical entity. Sentences and phrases are believed to be influenced by far more general rules. Thereby, words constitute an arbitrary and distinctive tie point between form, phonological as well as syntactic, and meaning, restricting the feature of arbitrariness in grammar solely to the lexical component (cf. Chomsky 1993: 3, 4). Consequently, the concept of syntactic construction in its traditional grammatical sense is abandoned:

UG provides a fixed system of principles and a finite array of finitely valued parameters. The language-particular rules reduce to choice of values for these parameters. The notion of grammatical construction is eliminated, and with it, construction-particular rules.
(Chomsky 1993: 4).

2.2 The Holistic Approach

In opposition to the modular approach as suggested by CHOMSKY, the holistic approach in cognitive linguistics proposes a more integrated model on which human cognition is assumed to be based. A separation or division of specific linguistic frameworks is thereby neglected. In fact, linguistic abilities are considered to be derived from general cognitive abilities, whereby the functional division in autonomously functioning modules is abandoned as well. It is assumed that there are basic cognitive principles which enable humans to fulfill diverse linguistic tasks (cf. Müller 35 et seq.).


[1] The textual extend of this paper is substantiated in the complexity of the subject itself, the amount of direct quotations, as well as in the sum of examples given. In due consideration of the requirements for this term paper and its textual extend, the inclusion of an empirical study concerned with the use of metaphors within a specific faculty was refrained from.

[2] LANGACKER (2009) describes this process as “reality conception” (Langacker 2009: 201f), whereby the conceived reality may be constantly changed and adjusted to one’s ongoing experiences made in the world (cf. ibid. 166, 201).

[3] The lack of autonomy refers to the hypothesis that language cannot be isolated from other cognitive faculties (cf. Sandra 362).

[4] Italics are used for emphasis.

[5] Including lexical, grammatical, phonological, and discourse frameworks (cf.Dirven/ Verspoor 2009, Langacker 2009:38f, Croft/Cruse 3)

[6] Cf. diagrams (2) and (3) in Croft/Cruse 226 et seq.

Ende der Leseprobe aus 28 Seiten


George Lakoff's Cognitive Theory and His Conceptual Metaphor Theory
Universität Koblenz-Landau  (Anglistik)
Cognitive Linguistics
ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Buch)
577 KB
modularity, holism, Johnson, Lakoff, Metaphor, cognitive linguistics, linguistics, mental concept, concept, kinesthetic image schemas, idealized cognitive models, embodiment, stereotypes, ICM, sociolinguistics, theory of metaphor, cognitive theory, language and thought
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Janine Lacombe (Autor), 2012, George Lakoff's Cognitive Theory and His Conceptual Metaphor Theory, München, GRIN Verlag,


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