Linguistics 750X: Embodied Construction Grammar

Ben Bergen


Introduction to the course

August 26, 2008


What is Embodied Construction Grammar?

  1. It’s a type of grammar
  2. It’s based on constructions
  3. It’s embodied


1. What’s a grammar?


One idea of what a grammar is is a Generative (notice the capital ‘G’) grammar:


Another idea of a grammar is a descriptive grammar, which is a description of the language of a language community, used by linguists or language specialists.


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.

2. What’s a construction?


A construction is any pairing of form and meaning.


John gave a cake to his brother versus John gave his brother a cake.

                        Mary 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 (1989:43):


[…] 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.

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 language.



ECG is embodied in these four ways:


4. The big picture


ECG can be best seen from the following depiction of the language understanding process.



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:


To these ends, the course will proceed as follows