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Cognitive semantics is part of the cognitive linguistics movement. Cognitive semantics is typically used as a tool for lexical studies such as those put forth by Leonard Talmy, George Lakoff, Dirk Geeraerts and Bruce Wayne Hawkins.
As part of the field of cognitive linguistics, the cognitive semantics approach rejects the formal traditions modularisation of linguistics into phonology, syntax, pragmatics, etc. Instead it divides semantics (meaning) into meaning-construction and knowledge representation. Therefore, cognitive semantics studies much of the area traditionally devoted to pragmatics as well as semantics.
Cognitive semantic theories are typically built on the argument that lexical meaning is conceptual. That is, the meaning of a lexeme is not reference to the entity or relation in the "real world" that the lexeme refers to, but to a concept in the mind based on experiences with that entity or relation. An implication of this is that semantics is not objective and also that semantic knowledge is not isolatable from encyclopaedic knowledge.
Moreover, cognitive semantic theories are also typically built upon the idea that semantics is amenable to the same mental processes as encyclopaedic knowledge. They thus involve many theories from cognitive psychology and cognitive anthropology such as prototypicality, which cognitive semanticists argue is the basic cause of polysemy.
Another trait of cognitive semantics is the recognition that lexical meaning is not fixed but a matter of construal and conventionalization. The processes of linguistic construal, it is argued, are the same psychological processes involved in the processing of encyclopaedic knowledge and in perception.
Many cognitive semantic frameworks, such as that developed by Leonard Talmy take into account syntactic structures as well, while others focus mainly on lexical entities.
The four tenets of cognitive semantics are:
- Semantic structure is conceptual structure
- Conceptual structure is embodied
- Meaning representation is encyclopaedic
- Meaning-construction is conceptualisation
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