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Cognitive Linguistic and Idioms

General considerations about cognitive linguistics


Cognitive linguistics is a new approach to the study of language which emerged in the
late seventies and early eighties and interprets linguistic knowledge as part of general
cognition and thinking. This new contemporary study that argues that language is governed
by general cognitive principles, rather than by a special purpose language module, is
therefore associated with semantics, but is distinct from psycholinguistics, which draws upon
empirical findings from cognitive psychology in order to explain the mental processes that
underlie the acuisition and storage of speech.
The most influential linguists working along these lines and focusing on cognitive
principles were Charles !illmore, "allace Chafe, #eorge Lakoff, $irk #eeraerts, %oland
Langacker and Leonard Talmy. The most important assumption shared by all these
researchers is that meaning is so central to language that it must be a primary focus of study.
Linguistic structures serve the function of expressing meanings and thus, the mapping
between meaning and form are a prime sub&ect of linguistic analysis.
In The Oxford Handbook of Cognitive Linguistics, $irk #eerates stated ' ( Cognitive
Linguistics is the study of language in its cognitive function, where cognitive refers to the
crucial role of intermediate informational structures in our encounters with the world.
Cognitive Linguistics is cognitive in the same way that cognitive sychology is! by assuming
that our interaction with the world is mediated through informational structures in the mind.
"t is more secific than cognitive sychology, however, by focusing on natural language as a
means for organi#ing, rocessing, and conveying that information. Language, then, is seen
as a reository of world knowledge, a structured collection of meaningful categories that
hel us deal with new exeriences and store information about the old one.
)spect of language and expression that had been consigned to the periphery of
language, such as metaphor and metonymy, are redeemed and rehabilitated within Cognitive
Linguistics. They are understood to be powerful conceptual mappings at the very core of
human thought and in everyday speaking and thinking.
Cognitive linguistics deny that the mind has any module for language*acuisition that
is uniue and autonomus. Important researchers in linguistics +%osch ,-./, 0ervis and
%osch ,-.12 argued that features of language and our ability to learn and use them are
accounted for by general cognitive abilities, our visual and sensimotor skills and our human
categori3ation strategies, together with our cultural and functional parameters. The storage
and retrieval of linguistic data is not significantly different from the storage and retrieval of
other knowledge, and that use of language in understanding employs similar cognitive
abilities to those used in other non*linguistic tasks.
The most important keyword in Cognitive Linguistics is embodiment +4honson ,-5.,
Lakoff ,-5., Lakoff and 4honson ,---2. Cognitive linguistics seek to understand how
memory, categori3ation and imagery affect language. It is believed that mental and linguistic
categories are not abstract disembodied and human independent categories6 we create them
on the basis of our concrete experiences and under the constraints imposed by our bodies.
7uman conceptual categories, the meaning of words and sentences and the meaning of
linguistic structures at any level are not a set of universal abstract features or uninterpreted
symbols. They are motivated and grounded directly in experience, in our physical, social and
cultural experiences.
Cognitive linguists study and theori3e about the functional principles of linguistic
organi3ation. The cognitive abilities that organi3e language are not exclusive to language.
These capacities include viewpoint, perspective, conceptual integration and analogy.
Cognitive linguists focus on conceptual categories like' motion and location, force and
causation ,entities and processes. #rammar is based on conceptual abilities, including the
ability to look at a situation in abstract ways, understand the connections between different
concepts and organi3e ideas on multiple levels.
The idea that language and language production is a cognitive ability is a basic idea
around which the field of cognitive linguistics is centered. 8ecause important cognitive
researchers see language as embedded in the overall cognitive capacities of man, topics of
special interest for cognitive linguistics include' the structural characteristics of natural
language categori3ation +such as systematic polysemy, prototypicality, cognitive models,
mental imagery and metaphor 26 the functional principles of linguistic organi3ation6 the
conceptual interface between syntax and semantics +as explored by cognitive grammar26 the
experimental and pragmatic background of language*in*use and the relationship between
language and thought. !or many cognitive linguists, the main interest in Cognitive
Linguistics lies in its provision of a better*grounded approach to and set of theoretical
assumptions for syntactic and semantic theory than generative linguistics provides.
!or others, however, an important starting point in cognitive research is represented by the
opportunity to link the study of language and the mind to the study of the brain.
The cognitive approach of idioms
Idioms are characteristic of almost any language in the world and are freuently used
in daily speech by natives. Traditionally, idioms are believed to be non*compositional. This
means that the meaning of each constituent word from an idiom is unable to capture the
overall meaning of that idiomatic expressio
)ccording to the cognitive view, many idioms are products of our conceptual system
not simply a matter of language. There is a tendency among current approaches of idiomatic
expressions to underline the idea that the relation between the idiomatic meaning and the
linguistic form of most idioms is often not completely arbitrary. 9unberg claims that
idiomaticity is a semantic rather than a syntactic phenomenon. 7e proposed a typology of
idioms regarding their degree of compositionality.
Oa$ue idioms are those idiomatic expressions in which the constituent parts of the
expression do not contribute to the idiomatic meaning, like in the well*known
expression 'kick the bucket. If the individual constituents in the string contribute to the
figurative interpretation, the idiom is considered to be decomosable, exactly like in the
expression ( sill the beans% +where &sill' refers to the &act of revealing' and :the bean'
emphasi3e the idea of a &secret'(.
#ibbs and ;<8rien +,--='/.2 try to infirm the traditional approaches according to which
idioms are non*compositional expressions from semantic point of view. They claim that
language use is constrained and motivated by pre*existing metaphorical schemas in people<s
mind, which are grounded in their bodily experience. 9ative speakers prove a remarkable
consistency concerning the mental images which underlie the idioms, sometimes different in
form, but with similar figurative meaning.
%egarding to the cognitive perspective of idioms, idiomatic expressions cannot
merely be described as lexical items. They seem to occupy a position between the productive
and reproductive aspects of linguistic competence. Idiom variation is claimed to underline
intelligent creative behaviour that exploits basic knowledge*resources and the information
processing capacities of the human mind.
>hraseological researches have demonstrated that idioms show a greater degree of
formal and semantic flexibility than was traditionally conceded. 7owever we will speculate
and discuss this aspect, the debate about the precise linguistic and mental uality of idioms is
still undecided.
Idioms are generally considered not to follow the principle of compositionality which
suggest that ( ?@A the meaning of a complex expression is a function of the meaning of its
constituent parts and the way these are syntactically combinedB+van der Linden, ,--/'C2.
#ibbs +,--D'C./2 argues that the reason why idioms are often considered to be ( dead
metaphorsB is given by the confusion that linguists usually makes between dead metaphors
and conventional ones. 8ecause people generally have little knowledge of the original
metaphorical roots of an idiom +for example ( (to be soft heartedB 2 , it is believed that the
comprehension of idioms is the same as knowing the meaning of individual words, which is
based on convention.
)lmost in the same way that literal and other figurative aspects of language + e.g. metonymy
or metaphor2 are comprehended, the compositional approach to idioms representation is
based on the idea that idiomatic meanings are simultaneously composed and processing out
of literal word meanings and the specific interpretation of these word meanings within a
particular context.
Eovecses and F3abo +,--G'//52 consider that metonymy involves a stand for
conceptual relationship between two entities within a single domain, while metaphor is
understood as a relationship between two conceptual domains such as anger and fire. They
suggested that the meaning of many idioms depends on the following factors'
source*target relationship which determines the general meaning idioms6
systematic mappings between the source and target domains which provide more
specific meaning of idioms6
particular knowledge structures of inferences associated with the source domain, i.e
the general knowledge of the world6
cognitive mechanisms such as metaphor and metonymy6
Language is perceived as a continuum from simple to more complex units and not as
grammar dichotomy. In cognitive semantics, it has been considered that many figurative
expressions such as idioms are motivated rather than arbitrary. In others words, while their
figurative meaning cannot be completely predictable from literal meanings of their parts, the
connection between their figurative and literal meanings may be possible.
Traditional methods of teaching and learning idioms focus on memori3ation. Fuch
rigid process can be time and effort consuming as learners picked up discretely without
associations between forms and meanings. To bridge the methodological gaps, an alternative
method which integrates metaphoric mappings in the learning process had been proposed
among the time. 0any linguists believe that the metaphoric mappings build correspondences
between source and target concepts of idioms and thus facilitate english foreign learners to
understand the motivations.
)ccording to EHvecses +C==C2, when an idiomatic expression is motivated by
metaphor, the more general meaning of the string is based on the target domain that is
applicable to the idiom in uestion. %egarding the comprehension of idioms, two basic
theoretical approaches have been proposed' one interpretation refers to the lexical
reresentation hyothesis , which suggests that they are mentally represented and processed
as lexical items, the idiomatic phrase being &ust a large word*like unit. )n alternative
interpretation is expressed by the configurational hyothesis which claims that idioms may be
mentally represented or processed not as words, but as configurations of words whose
meaning become activated whenever ( sufficient input has rendered the configurations
recogni3ableB +>apagno I Jallar, C===, p.1,G2. #ibbs and ;<8rian +,--=, p. ,D.2 assumed
that the consistency of the idiom images is due to the ( constraining influence of conceptual
metaphorsB according to which the underlying nature of our thought process is metaphorical.
In other words, people use metaphor to make sense of our experience. Conseuently
when the speakers of a language come across a verbal metaphor the corresponding
conceptual metaphor will be automatically activated.
;paue idioms should be considered as special cases of idiomatic expressions which
assimilate to individual words in the sense that their syntactic properties and meanings are
exclusively related to the form that comprise them. 7owever, this view should be restricted to
a limited number of idioms. )nother group of idioms is made up of idioms whose parts
convey information that can be interpreted in one way or another with the aid of cognitive
operations, but may still be learned as a whole. ) representative example for this situation
can be )sill the beans% . This expression is too much conventionali3ed, and its meaning
cannot be recovered from the literal interpretation of its constituents. Fomehow , contrary to
the expectations, metaphorical correspondences can be established between (spill ( and
(revealB , and between ( beansB and ( secretsB and in one way or another the individual
components of the expression aid in the overall interpretation , but the structure of the
expression can be altered in some contexts and for several purpose. !or example, someone
who is aware of the fact that sKhe should have not revealed certain information and who
intends to apologi3e in an informal way may say ' (;oops , I may have spilled some of the
beansLB. 9evertheless, it is not clear whether speakers of a language have access to this
interpretation on the basis of a direct form*meaning connection or by taking into account the
individual parts of the idiom.
)ccording to the "diom *ecomosition Hyothesis +#ibbs, ,--=2, idiomatic
expressions are represented in the mental lexicon in different ways depending on the
semantic analysability of its individual components. If we assume that idioms have only one
semantic representation, there is no way of explaining the syntactic flexibility of some groups
of idioms. The model mentioned above claims that speakers analyse idioms from a
compositional perspective because they acknowledge the metaphoric mapping from a source
to a target domain.
Idioms based on 0etaphor
In contradiction with non*compositional idioms, decomposable idioms are able to
undergo certain syntactic operations that lead us to the conclusion that ( pieces of an idiom
typically have identifiable meanings which combine to produce the meaning of the whole'.
+"asow,,-5C2.*parising decomposable idioms.
%eccent researches in the field of cognitive linguistics have shown that the meaning of an
idiom is not arbitrary, as the meaning of a word is, and its overall meaning can be derived
from the meaning of its components. >eople should have strong conventional images for
many idiomatic
strings. Their figurative meanings can be very well motivated by people<s conceptual
knowledge that has a metaphoric basis. There are many differences in the processing of literal
and idiomatic expressions, because of the metaphoric nature of idioms.
$uring the processing and comprehension of idioms, people<s assumptions about the
way in which the individual components of this idiomatic strings refers to the metaphorical
concepts underlying their figurative referents, differ greatly from the perceptions obtained
when literal language is used. !or example, the idiomatic expression +nn silled the beans,
maps the speaker<s knowledge of someone<s tipping over a container of beans* the source
domain* into a person revealing a secret* the target domain. !or native speakers (sill the
beans% means :reveal a secret' because there are underlying conceptual metaphors, such as
TH, -".* "/ + CO.T+".,0, and "*,+/ +0, 1H2/"C+L ,.T"T",/, that structure their
conceptions of minds, secrets and disclosure +Lakoff I 4ohnson, ,-5=2 .
Linguists have proved that idiomatic strings do not exist as separate semantic units
within the lexicon, they are actually conventional expressions which reflect coherent systems
of metaphorical concepts. 0etaphor and metonymy, are considered to be in the last twenty
years, as mechanisms that relate a domain+or domanins2 of knowledge to an idiomatic
meaning in an indirect way. Conceptual metaphors bring two domains of knowledge into a
direct relationship of correspondence. ;ne is a familiar physical domain and the other is less
familiar, an abstract domain. Mmotion concepts and concepts denoting personal relationship
are normally susceptible to metaphorical understanding.
There are more than one hundred emotion idioms in Mnglish, used to express anger.
!or example, in the expression (sit fire% , the domain of fire is used to understand the
domain of anger , or, in other words, anger is comprehended throw the concept of fire. Thus,
we can call the +.G,0 "/ 3"0, conceptual metaphor +where the capital letters indicate
concepts rather than words2. In the case of the sentence (The fire between them finally went
out%, the conceptual metaphor underlying the idiom LO4, "/ 3"0,, or in (The painting set
fire to the composer<s imaginationB , the "-+G".+T"O. "/ 3"0,.
9ow we are in the position to provide a specific illustration for the idiomatic
expression ( to sit fire% used above, illustration which emphasi3e the conceptual motivation
for this idiom.
Fpecial idiomatic meaning : be very angry<
Cognitive mechanism 0etaphor ' (anger is fireB