Does Cognitive Linguistics live up to its name?

Bert Peeters

Although the label cognitive linguistics has been with us for almost thirty years (it was first proposed in 1971 by Sydney Lamb), its consistent use to refer to a reasonably well-defined paradigm with a very respectable following in contemporary linguistics is much more recent. Whereas Lamb intended - and still intends - the label to be taken quite literally, it appears as though a lot of Cognitive Linguists do not attribute and never have attributed any firm meaning to what, in their eyes, has no other status than that of a name used to identify a particular theoretical approach.

Interestingly, nothing of the sort seems to have occurred in the other cognitive sciences: whereas, for instance, cognitive psychology, cognitive anthropology, "cognitive philosophy" (a.k.a. philosophy of the mind) are clearly recognizable components of psychology, anthropology and philosophy, there is a lot of cognitive linguistics going on outside the movement called Cognitive Linguistics, and not enough - or so it would seem - within. In other words, for many, Cognitive Linguistics has become a mere label, in the weakest possible meaning of the word. It has an identifying function, not a descriptive one.

The observation that, in broad terms, Cognitive Linguistics as a movement is a far cry from real cognitive linguistics (I continue to use upper case to refer to the movement and therefore to its ideological base, and lower case to refer to any form of linguistics which is genuinely cognitive in its nature and outlook) is lent further credence when one inspects the contents of the most commonly used introductions to and readers in cognitive science: some ignore linguistics altogether, others mainly refer to work which, within the Cognitive Linguistics movement, is readily dismissed as ill-conceived (e.g. generative grammar, truth-conditional semantics).

The relative lack of "cognitive depth" in Cognitive Linguistics, on the one hand, and the scarcity of coverage of Cognitive Linguistics in broadly based introductions and readers, on the other hand, provide powerful arguments for a soul-searching exercise. The time has come to take stock, not only of the achievements (e.g. research in terms of prototypes, research on conceptual metaphors, on frames, etc.) but also of the failures of Cognitive Linguistics. It is reassuring to see that some Cognitive Linguists, and several onlookers, have been increasingly vocal in this respect. In my paper, I will quote from a number of private responses to my review article "Cognitive Musings", published in 1998 in the journal Word, withholding if necessary details which might enable identification of the individuals involved. The matter is a very sensitive one, and I have every intention of treating it as such. I will also summarize the main points made in the review article itself, and reproduce the deliberately provocative statement drafted by one of the many linguists who read the article and tried to encapsulate its main message in a few sentences. The statement was released on the "Cogling" e-mail list, together with a call of papers for the subtheme on "Ideology in Cognitive Linguistics". It was also submitted for comment to several of the figureheads of the Cognitive Linguistics movement.

Reactions were very mixed (a sample will be reproduced in my paper, again with protection of individuals' identity if required). Clearly, there is a problem here, and there is no point in trying to ignore it. The worst Cognitive Linguists can do is put their heads in the sand and hope for the clamours and murmurs to go away. They won't. What is needed is a clarification of the adjective cognitive: more specifically, the question to be asked is what the adjective means when used as a qualifier to the noun linguistics.

My own impression is that there are rougly two interpretations that have more or less openly been attributed to the label cognitive. The first is 'neurocognitive', the second 'perceptual'. The first links linguistics with anatomy, neurology, and the brain sciences; the second underscores that language is one way humans use among several others to interact with the world, using mechanisms which are shared to a certain extent. I would like to suggest that a terminological distinction be made to reflect the interpretive split and to improve the standing of Cognitive Linguistics both among linguists and in the cognitive science arena as a whole. I propose that the term neurocognitive (borrowed from Sydney Lamb) be used to refer to cognitive linguistics as defined by linguists such as Lamb, Powers, Schnelle - and as defined in aspects of their work by Cognitive Linguists such as Lakoff and Deane. For most research currently going on in Cognitive Linguistics (research on prototypes, metaphors, frames, etc.), I propose the term applied cognitive.

What is at stake here is the credibility of an important movement in contemporary linguistics. It is not just a matter of semantics, of pointing fingers at a label that appears to create false expectations. There has to be a clear recognition that Neurocognitive Linguistics and Applied Cognitive Linguistics are both valid forms of Cognitive Linguistics, but that, in the interest of outside recognition, more research activity than is currently being undertaken by Cognitive Linguists is needed in the neurocognitive arena. Only then will we be able to truthfully state that Cognitive Linguistics does indeed live up to its name.