Linguistics 750X: Embodied Construction Grammar
Introduction to the course
August 26, 2008
What is Embodied Construction Grammar?
a type of grammar
based on constructions
1. What’s a grammar?
One idea of what a grammar is is a Generative (notice the
capital ‘G’) grammar:
data is nothing more than an infinite set of sentence forms (meaning just
words and morphemes in some order) that are grammatical, contrasted with
an infinite number of sentences are not grammatical.
human language capacity is centrally a grammar, which is an engine that
produces all and only the grammatical utterances and none of the
this is what we think a grammar is, its character is pretty much
unconstrained. It could be made up of a bunch of ordered rules, like in
logical proofs. Or it could be a bunch of constraints that are ordered
relative to one another. Or it could be any other type of production
type of grammar is inherently dis-embodied – it has nothing to do
with the human body or human experience in the world. This is in line with
the Cartesian notion of dualism where the mind and the body have nothing
to do with each other.
Generative grammar is usually assumed to be shared by all members of a
meanings of words and sentences, the contexts in which they are used, the
influence of context on interpretation, and individual linguistic
differences are usually not part of Generative grammars.
Another idea of a grammar is a descriptive grammar, which is
a description of the language of a language community, used by linguists or
ECG is a type of grammar different from these two. It
doesn't focus just on utterances, and whether they're grammatical or not.
Instead, it focus on the knowledge and processes that actual human language
users bring to bear on the processes of language use. In this way it is
cognitively oriented - it aims to capture what's going on inside people's heads
when they produce and process language.
A grammar is all the knowledge that an
individual language user has about how to produce and understand
meaningful language, including meaning, interpretation, context,
speaker-specific details, etc.
One Big Assumption of ECG: It assumes
that linguistic knowledge is comprised of pairings of form and meaning, in
the form of words, morphemes, idioms, and potentially, sequences of
multiple words or classes of word.
2. What’s a construction?
A construction is any
pairing of form and meaning.
- Some people
(e.g. Langacker in his Cognitive Grammar) call these symbolic
are obviously constructions – they have some meaning, and a
are constructions for the same reason.
are constructions, too, because like words and morphemes, they pair some
form with some meaning, except that the form may include phonological and
patterns, such as the English ditransitive and dative, are constructions,
because the pair some form (purely syntactic) with some meaning (like a
transfer event or a motion event). Think about sentences like
gave a cake to his brother versus
John gave his brother a cake.
willed her daughter a fortune vs.
Mary willed a fortune to her daughter.
These sentences have
slightly different meanings - the ditransitive includes the intent on the part
of the agent of transferring possession of the patient to the recipient, and
the recipient must be able to take possession.
She brought a book to the
storeroom. But not ?She brought
the storeroom a book.
That is unless, of course, “the
storeroom” is standing not for the physical location but rather for some
people or an organization located there. The differences in meaning and
grammaticality, and the possible interpretation of the last sentence can be
attributed to the meaning of the different phrasal constructions.
Some people, including many Generative grammarians, do not
believe that constructions are actually part of language. For example, Chomsky
[…] within syntax […]
there are no rules for particular languages and no construction-specific
principles. A language […] is not, then, a system of rules, but a set of
specifications for parameters in an invariant system of principles of UG, and
traditional grammatical constructions are perhaps best regarded as taxonomic
epiphenomena—collections of structures with properties resulting from the
interaction of fixed principles with parameters set one way or another.
But these people are talking about a Generative grammar.
that if all a grammar is is an engine for producing grammatical sentences,
then it is relatively unconstrained. So you decide exactly how you want
your grammar to look.
Generative grammarians want their grammars to be minimal, so anything
syntactic pattern that can be predicted on the basis of other stuff is not
is a very different notion of grammar from the one we are adopting –
which aims to document not just syntactic behavior but a broader base of
can see that in order to account for the constructional behavior we saw
above - where syntactic
differences correlate with semantic ones - constructions, or something
like them, must be operating in the human language user’s grammar.
3. What is embodiment?
Disembodied notions of language, like disembodied approaches
to other aspects of cognition, treat language as completely independent of the
organisms that produce it. Embodied approaches to language, by contrast, allow
for the possibility that the particularities of the organism producing,
learning, and understanding language may have an effect on the character of
embodiment: How the brain is
structured may have an effect on language.
embodiment: The particular experiences
an individual has had may have an effect on language.
embodiment: The social purposes to
which language is put and the social contexts in which it is used may have
an effect on it.
embodiment: Characteristics of the
human body may have an effect on language.
ECG is embodied in these four ways:
embodiment: Its formalism can be
mapped down to neural architectures (though we won't talk much about this).
embodiment: It can demonstrably be
learned on the basis of simple exposure to language in a given social and
embodiment: It interfaces with
representations of the speaker’s and interlocutor’s beliefs,
desires, and previous utterances.
embodiment: It is built to be realized
in a computational systems that perform actual language tasks, like
understanding, production, and translation, using internal mechanisms
similar to those in the human body.
4. The big picture
ECG can be best seen from the following depiction of the
language understanding process.
users have knowledge of constructions, which are pairings of form
knowledge and meaning knowledge.
knowledge is used to form an analysis of an incoming utterance, which is compared
with (combinations of) the constructions in the constructicon for both form and meaning.
communicative context is also accessed during the formation of an
product of an analysis is a parameterized meaning of the utterance, which
is the input to a simulation mechanism.
simulation is run, and the results serve to update the language
user’s knowledge of the context and the world (and possibly also the
constructicon – arrow not shown).
These constructions are specified formally, in a notation
that is not dissimilar to the programming language java. Some examples:
5. What are we going to do in this class?
The goals of this class are twofold:
encourage students to think critically about issues in grammar like
constructions and embodiment
students to gain fluency in ECG, such that they can apply it to their own
To these ends, the course will proceed as follows
we’ll to look at the foundations for ECG: Construction Grammar and
Cognitive Grammar, spending a week on each.
we’ll to get into the nitty-gritty of how ECG works, looking at a
number of topics, including how constructions combine, how they are
learned, the relation between morphological and lexical constructions, how
agreement is done, how ECG allows us to capture subtle cross-linguistic
differences, among others.
students will present their own research, conducted through the course of