Grammar in Your Nodes
some posts on language and cognition

Nov
04

Some weeks ago, I received the good news that Lancaster University had accepted my application for a position as a PhD student in Linguistics. Therefore, next January I will be leaving for the UK to join the Department of Linguistics and English Language at Lancaster. I will be working on a research project (provisionally entitled “Levels of Systematicity and Creativity in Idioms: a Socio-Cognitive Approach to Italian Data”), under the supervision of Professor Elena Semino. In principle, this project aims to empirically test the hypothesis that the cognitive status of idiomatic constructions is similar to that of more “regular” expressions, resulting from the interaction of domain-general cognitive principles and communicative routines (in a usage-based fashion). In particular, I would like to investigate the idiomatic systematicity and creativity in a large amount of data drawn from a giant web-based corpus of Italian (my mother-tongue language), adopting an approach similar to Langlotz’s (2006), but more concerned with the intersubjective dimension of language use and the cultural background of native Italian speakers. However, my project will take a more definite shape after getting to Lancaster and speaking to Prof. Semino. STAY TUNED!

References:

Langlotz, Andreas. 2006. Idiomatic Creativity. A Cognitive-Linguistic Model of Idiom-Representation and Idiom Variation in English. Amsterdam/Philadelphia: John Benjamins.

Jul
23

The cover of my book

 

On July 17, 2011 the following book (paperback edition) was released: (https://www.lap-publishing.com/catalog/details/store/gb/book/978-3-8454-1255-9/grounding-meaning-in-experience):

Torre, Enrico. 2011. Grounding Meaning in Experience. An Embodied Construction Grammar Analysis of Italian Caused-Motion Constructions. Saarbrücken: Lambert Academic Publishing.

As the title suggests, it is a (non-peer reviewed) published version of my M.A. thesis (see the post of April 16, 2011), without any substantial change with regard to its content, but some formal adaptations and the correction of several typos.

SHOULD YOU BE A JOURNALIST INTERESTED IN REVIEWING IT, YOU ARE INVITED TO CONTACT THE PUBLISHER AND ASK FOR A FREE COPY OF THE BOOK: https://www.lap-publishing.com/contact/new

If you are a student or a researcher or a layperson interested in Cognitive Linguistics and you think you might be interested in purchasing a copy of my book, you can order it at the following web addresses:

Morebooks:  https://www.morebooks.de/store/gb/book/grounding-meaning-in-experience/isbn/978-3-8454-1255-9

Amazon UK: http://www.amazon.co.uk/Grounding-Meaning-Experience-caused-motion-constructions/dp/3845412550/ref=sr_1_2?ie=UTF8&qid=1311417131&sr=8-2

Amazon USA: http://www.amazon.com/Grounding-Meaning-Experience-caused-motion-constructions/dp/3845412550/ref=sr_1_4?ie=UTF8&qid=1311417217&sr=8-4

Amazon Germany: http://www.amazon.de/Grounding-Meaning-Experience-caused-motion-constructions/dp/3845412550/ref=sr_1_2?ie=UTF8&qid=1311417288&sr=8-2

I know it is really expensive and probably most of you will not be interested in spending such an amount of money on a non-peer reviewed publication, but should  you have the possibility and be willing to help a recent graduate guy who is sincerely interested in the study of language and cognition, I will be eternally grateful to you.

In any case, I would really appreciate if you could simply pass the word to those who you think might be interested in my work. Thank you!

Jul
14

It’s 2011. Nowadays, it seems reasonable to assert that growing research programs such as Embodied Cognition and Cognitive Linguistics are by now well-established as challengers to mainstream frameworks such as Mainstream Cognitive Science and Generative Grammar. As a consequence, it seems suitable to make some observation on the path these distinct, but strongly intertwined enterprises have pursued during the last decades. In particular, in this post I want to point the reader’s attention to the evolution of the (all-important) notion of embodiment in these paradigms.

In the beginning, when these alternative frameworks in cognitive science began to develop and spread, their proponents highlighted the importance of bodily experience in shaping a person’s cognition, rejecting the Cartesian strict distinction between a “res cogitants” (the mind) and a “res extensa” (the body), claiming that the body and the mind should be studied as interdependent parts of the organism, a holistic living system.

Rather soon, scholars began also to recognize the fact that embodiment is not just related to physical experience in the world, but it is also constructed by the active participation in the life of a determined sociocultural system, which exerts a remarkable influence in shaping an individual cognitive processes and functions. As such, cognition is  not a purely intrapersonal affair. Rather, it is largely intersubjective.

Finally, it was recognized that embodied cognition is not just confined to the interaction between different organisms, but it is moulded by patterns of experience which involves embodied agents and the environment. The way human beings interact with the environment is all-important in the development of cognitive abilities. As such, cognition should be considered as a dynamic system which results from the bulk of situations an individual experience in their everyday life, which are embedded in a determined ecological niche. Thus, it is influenced by its cultural background, but also the physical environment they live in.  In a nutshell, in order to get a better picture of human (and also animal) cognition, we had better approach it taking into consideration the role of the cognitive niche which surrounds an individual in shaping the quality of their embodiment.

As a result, while organism and environment should still be viewed as distinct entities, they make part of a bigger, bio-cultural system: they constantly interact with and exert influence on each other.

Jun
13

I am dropping by to suggest that you read an insightful and thought-provoking paper of Prof. Anna Maria Borghi’s, a well-known Italian psychologist and an influential theorist of Embodied Cognition. Consider the first three or four lines of her contribution:

“Successful interaction with objects in the environment is the precondition for our survival and for the success of our attempts to improve life by using artifacts and technologies to transform our environment. Our ability to interact appropriately with objects depends on the capacity, fundamental for human beings, for categorizing objects and storing information about them, thus forming concept, and on the capacity to associate concepts with names.” (Borghi 2005: 8).

As you will have noticed, in a just a few lines, Borghi takes one of the basic tenets of Embodied Cognition, which also represents a foundational notion of Distributed Cognition, and puts it in an evolutionary perspective, getting us started to read her very interesting paper on the  importance of everyday experience in the environment in order to be able to create concepts and conceptual categories. I really suggest that you read this paper, and then go on with the rest of the chapters which make up the interesting book on the experiential basis of human cognition.

 

References:

Borghi, Anna M. (2005). Object Concepts and Action. In D. Pecher and R. Zwaan (eds.), Grounding Cognition. The Role of Perception and Action in Memory, Language, and Thinking. New York: Cambridge University Press. 8-34.

 

May
15

The present post is based on a part of my M.A. thesis (Torre 2011) and was inspired by an informal Skype chat I had with Dr Emanuele Bardone (Dept. of Philosophy, University of Pavia) last April 23, discussing the role of the concept of “mental representation” in cognitive science.

Basically, Dr Bardone’s point of view on this topic overlaps with mine: we conceive mental representations as having an inherently embodied, experienced-based nature. This means that, in agreement with most theoreticians of Embodied Cognition, we reject the perspective advocated in Mainstream Cognitive Science. The mainstream approach considers cognitive processes as computational activities which operate on amodal symbolic units. In other words, this approach sees cognitive functions as processes of manipulation of abstract symbols carried out by the mind, a formal device which happens to be physically implemented in the brain. This rationalist orientation adopts the so-called “mind as a computer” metaphor, according to which cognitive processes can be analyzed independently of their physical realization. On this view, representations are computational symbols in our mind which stand-in for objects and events in the external world. Among the most influential proponents of this approach, we can mention the American philosopher and psychologist Jerry Fodor (see Fodor 1975).

On the other hand, scholars who advocate for an embodied perspective on human cognition (see e.g. Varela et al. 1991; Lakoff and Johnson 1999, Clark 2008) refuse the view of the human mind as a piece of computational software, claiming instead that cognition emerges from the constant interplay of our brains, our bodies, and the environment. In other words, it is shaped by our daily experience as embodied agents in constant dynamic interaction with the physical as well as sociocultural setting we are situated in (e.g. Gibbs 2005). According to this point of view, mental representations are not amodal symbols, but experiential traces which are shaped by perception and action in our physico-biological as well as sociocultural environment. From this perspective, cognition is moulded by the bulk of situations experienced in everyday life by taking part in the functioning of a bio-cultural system. In the last decades, this assumption has come to be supported by a substantial body of empirical evidence from the various branches of cognitive science. According to this embodied approach, mental representations are not astract symbols; rather, they can be seen as “flexible patterns of organism-environment interaction” (Johnson and Lakoff 2002: 249-250), conceptual entities which represent the result of a process of generalization over events of perception and action (i.e. over patterns of embodied experience). As a consequence, according to this “experientially-driven” conception, mental representations are much less abstract than traditionally thought. Rather, they are inherently anchored in everyday life.

References:

Clark, Andy. 2008. Supersizing the Mind. Embodiment, Action, and Cognitive Extension. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Fodor, Jerry A. 1975. The Language of Thought. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Gibbs, Raymond W., Jr. 2005. Embodiment and Cognitive Science. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Johnson, Mark, and George Lakoff. (2002). Why Cognitive Linguistics Requires Embodied Realism. Cognitive Linguistics 13 (3): 245-263.

Lakoff, George, and Mark Johnson. 1999. Philosophy in the Flesh. The Embodied Mind and Its Challenge to Western Thought. New York: Basic Books.

Torre, Enrico. (2011). Grounding Meaning in Everyday Experience in the World. An Embodied Construction Grammar Analysis of Italian Caused-Motion Constructions. M.A. thesis. Università degli Studi di Pavia.

Varela, Francisco J., Evan Thompson, and Eleanor Rosch. 1991. The Embodied Mind. Cognitive Science and Human Experience. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Apr
16

On April 11, 2011 I successfully defended my M.A. thesis  and obtained my Master’s Degree (Laurea Specialistica) in Theoretical and Applied Linguistics from the University of Pavia (Italy) with a final mark of 110 out of 110, cum laude.

My thesis is entitled “Grounding Meaning in Everyday Experience in the World. An Embodied Construction Grammar Analysis of Italian Caused-Motion Constructions” and I wrote it under the supervision of Prof. Sonia Cristofaro (Dept. of Linguistics, Università degli Studi di Pavia) and Prof. Cristiano Broccias (DI.S.C.LI.C., Università degli Studi di Genova). Should you be interested in having a look at it, you can download it from either my  Academia profile or the e-library of the Cognitive Science Network. As an alternative, you can also  e-mail me (enricotorre.genova@libero.it) and ask for the PDF file: I will be more than happy to send it to you.  Here is the abstract of my piece of work: 

At a very general level, the present thesis may probably be better characterized as a two-folded enterprise: on the one hand, it is concerned with theoretical issues on the nature of language and cognition; on the other hand, its main goal is to carry out an empirical investigation of a circumscribed and clearly defined phenomenon in a specific language. With regard to the former, the starting point of the present study can be found in the conception of language as a cognitive function. Although mainstream paradigms in the fields of language and cognitive science tend to view language as an autonomous, innate faculty governed by domain-specific cognitive principles, we shall follow proponents of Embodied Cognition and Cognitive Linguistics and adopt the opposite starting point, according to which language is an emergent system shaped by the constant interplay of domain-general cognitive principles and embodied experience in the physical as well as sociocultural environment.

The more concrete goal of this piece of work is to illustrate an analysis of a class of (rather prototypical) Italian caused-motion constructions: we shall be investigating a small sample of homogeneous utterances to provide a characterization of the various constructions (i.e. form-meaning pairings which can vary in size and level of concreteness) they instantiate and the way these contribute to the overall meaning of the expressions, allowing the language understander to grasp the semantic content of a message correctly. This goal will be pursued adopting the Embodied Construction Grammar (ECG) model, a computational formalism developed within the Neural Theory of Language paradigm, which stands on notions inherited from theories linking language to cognition and, ultimately, the latter to the bodily and experiential nature of the organism continuously interacting with the world. This model, applied to Italian data for the first time, possesses formal structures which allow the analyst to develop computational grammars adequate to investigate linguistic phenomena at different levels, examining both their formal and semantic properties, in order to capture the mechanisms whereby the interaction between the lexical units and the syntactic patterns instantiated in an utterance drives the understander to grasp the correct meaning of the message being conveyed.

Overall, the application of the ECG approach to the Italian data analyzed in our case-study proves successful: the formalism can be easily extended to account for Italian data without requiring any substantial change, but just a few minor modifications. More generally, we can reasonably conclude that, due to its interdisciplinary roots which allow the model to include converging information from several different scientific disciplines, ECG proves suitable to exploit (and, possibly, elaborate) a number of notions inherited from the fields of Embodied Cognition and Cognitive Linguistics, endowing them with a rigorous computational dimension by means of its formalism. One of the main reasons of this model’s effectiveness rests on its capability to satisfy two requirements which are often difficult to reconcile: flexibility and precision. Being extremely flexible, the formalism adopted in the analysis of our data can be adapted to a number of different situations, favoring the construction of computational grammars adequate to carry out the analysis of a several distinct phenomena in various different languages. At the same time, the level of precision of the ECG formalism allows us to develop rigorous grammars suitable to carry out consistent and plausible analysis of linguistic phenomena, also permitting to test their level of efficiency in real time.

Keywords: Embodied Cognition; Cognitive Linguistics; Neural Theory of Language, Embodied Construction Grammar; simulation semantics; computational grammars; Italian language; caused-motion constructions.

 

 

 

Apr
14

Should you want to get in touch with me, you can now find me on Skype (constructionist.16011), besides my usual e-mail address: enricotorre.genova@libero.it. If you want me to add you to my Skype contacts, please specify how you knew about me (my blog or elsewhere).

Mar
01

Some months ago, I received an e-mail from a coursemate of mine, Ylenia, who asked me if I had ever thought about how we manage to recognize a “core meaning” in a polysemous word (thank you Yle for raising the point). Actually, she had almost finished her M.A. thesis (which she successfully defended on February 23), in which she carried out study of polysemy adopting a computational approach firmly rooted in the formal semantics tradition (see Pustejovsky 1995). From such an approach, polysemy is seen as an epiphenomenon, roughly “emerging from monosemy: a single relatively abstract meaning from which other sences (…) are derived on the basis of context, speaker intention, recognition of that intention by the hearer, and so on.” (Evans and Green 2006: 329). I replied to her message underlining the fact that the existence of a “core meaning” common to all the senses of a polysemous word should not be taken for granted. Indeed, from a cognitive / constructionist perspective, polysemy is approached in a rather different way, which I am going to introduce in the following few lines, partly based on a section of the M.A. thesis I am going to defend on April.

Several proponents of the Cognitive Linguistics framework (see e.g. Langacker 1987; Taylor 2003) adopt the so-called network model of polysemy, according to which the senses of a unit constitute the nodes of a network, linked horizontally by relations of similarity, and vertically by a sort of “subcase” relation1 (another model which is also widespread in the Cognitive Linguistics community is Lakoff’s 1987 radial category model, which is compatible with the network model). The lowest nodes of the network can be seen as the most specific senses of a unit, while the highest node can be seen as the most abstract representation of the meaning of that unit. Consistent with the usage-based theory of language acquisition (see e.g. Tomasello 2003; Goldberg 2006), specific senses of the item arise first, coming to light via entrenchment due to high token frequency; subsequently, the more schematic representation arises as a result of an operation of abstraction performed by the language user. It is not the case that the most abstract representation is necessarily invoked in the understanding of contextual variants; on the contrary, using a computer-related metaphor, we may say that each specific sense of a unit, in context, can be accessed randomly rather than sequentially by the language user, without having to examine all the possible senses of the unit2. From a constructionist point of view, we may use the notion of “core meaning” in the discussion of certain groups of verbs, but in a sense which is very different from Pustejovsky’s. Let us consider the case of Italian caused-motion constructions with force-exertion verbs, i.e. sentence-level constructions which express actions whereby an entity causes another entity’s movement through space by means of an act of force transmission. An active caused-motion construction will have the form illustrated in (1), the meaning captured in (2), and the argument structure depicted in (3) below:

(1) Subj V Obj Oblpath.

(2) X causes Y to move Zpath.

(3) CAUSE-MOVE (causer patient path)

Force-exertion verbs have at least one sense which describes the following situation: an agent participant exerting force on a patient: lanciare (“to throw”), gettare (“to toss”), spingere (“to push”), tirare (“to pull”), sollevare (“to lift up”), etc. With this sense, these verbs can appear in a caused-motion construction. We can label these senses of these verbs “lanciare1”, “gettare1”, “tirare1”, etc. They can be said to share a “core meaning”, which is the fact that all of them denote an act of force-exertion on the part of an agent whereby a patient is forced to move in the space. This core meaning may be labeled “Caused-Motion Action”. It captures the common property shared by a particular sense of a range of verbs. Nevertheless, it has nothing to do with the belief that a polysemous word is endowed with an abstract, underspecified meaning, with its various senses arising as the result of the application of lexical generative devices, as claimed by Pustejovsky and collaborators.

 

1See also Tuggy (2007) for an illustration of the practical use of the network model in the analysis of a number of grammatical issues.

2This argument is supported by experimental evidence (see. e.g. Klein and Murphy 2001).

 

References:

Evans, Vyvyan, and Melanie Green. 2006. Cognitive Linguistics. An Introduction. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press.

Goldberg, Adele E. 2006. Constructions at Work. On the Nature of Generalizations in Language. New York: Oxford University Press.

Klein, Devorah E., and Gregory L. Murphy. (2001). The Representation of Polysemous Words. Journal of Memory and Language 45: 259-282.

Langacker, Ronald W. 1987. Foundations of Cognitive Grammar. Vol. 1. Theoretical Prerequisites. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.

Pustejovsky, James. 1995. The Generative Lexicon. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Taylor, John R. 2003 (3rd ed.). Linguistic Categorization. Prototypes in Linguistic Theory. New York: Oxford University Press.

Tomasello, Michael. 2003. Constructing a Language. A Usage-based Theory of Language Acquisition. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Tuggy, David. (2007). Schematicity. In D. Geeraerts and H. Cuyckens (eds.), The Oxford Handbook of Cognitive Linguistics. Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press. 82-116.

 

 

Jan
22

In the following lines, I am going to quote a passage from a book I read some months ago (Chemero 2009), which makes the case for an approach (labeled “Radical Embodied Cognitive Science”) which is very different from the one generally held by scholars who approach cognition from an embodied perspective. Indeed, Chemero takes issue with these more “mainstream” viewpoints on human cognition. Even though, all in all,  I (often strongly) disagree with the approach supported in Chemero’s book, I think his point of view still deserves to be mentioned.

“Situated, embodied cognitive scientists typically reject the antirepresentationalism of Gibson, Barway and Perry, and Brooks, while antirepresentationalism (which implies anticomputationalism) is the core of radical embodied cognitive science. Radical embodied cognitive science is a form of eliminativism, one that has its historical roots in American naturalism (Gibsonian ecological psychology, remember, is a direct descendent of the work of James and Dewey). I would suggest, then, than radical embodied cognitive science is not a radicalization of embodied cognitive science.  Instead, embodied cognitive science should be seen as a watering down of radical embodied cognitive science, and an attempt to combine a theory that is ultimately American naturalist and eliminativist in origin with the computational theory of mind” (Chemero 2009: 30, italics original).

References:

Chemero, Anthony. 2009. Radical Embodied Cognitive Science. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Jan
09

I am dropping by just to provide the reader with an interesting (and, in my opinion, important) quotation:

“… homologues to both Broca’s and Wernicke’s areas have been identified in nonhuman primate brains (…) exactly what function they play in other species is not currently known, but an evolutionary perspective would predict that they likely process information in ways that are useful to language (…), consistent with the view of language adapting to the human brain by taking advantage of circuits that already existed. The presence of these areas in nonlinguistic animals is glaring anomaly for models that emphasize the evolution of completely new language-specific circuits in the human lineage.” (Schoenemann 2010: 172).

The above quotation is taken from a paper which supports the view of human language as an emergent system whose structure is shaped by processes of human interaction along with domain-general cognitive processes. This paper addresses the issue of language evolution from the viewpoint of neuroscience (see also e.g. Rizzolatti and Arbib 1998; Rizzolatti and Craighero 2007; Glenberg 2007), providing solid arguments against the standard position (according to which language would be an innate, domain-specific, rule-based system).

 

References:

Glenberg, Arthur M. (2007). Language and Action. Creating Sensible Combinations of Ideas. In M.G. Gaskell (ed.), The Oxford Handbook of Psycholinguistics. 361-370.

Rizzolatti, Giacomo, and Michael A. Arbib. (1998). Language within Our Grasp. Trends in Neuroscience 21 (5): 188-194.

Rizzolatti, Giacomo, and Laila Craighero. (2007). Language and Mirror Neurons. In M.G. Gaskell (ed.), The Oxford Handbook of Psycholinguistics. 771-786. 

Schonemann, P. Thomas. (2010). Evolution of Brain and Language. In N.C. Ellis and D. Larsen-Freeman (eds.), Language As a Complex Adaptive System. Chichester: Wiley. 162-186.

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