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The term construction grammar (CxG) covers a "family" of theories, or models, of grammar that are based on the idea that the primary unit of grammar is the grammatical construction rather than the atomic syntactic unit and the rule that combines atomic units, and that the grammar of a language is made up of taxonomies of families of constructions.

CxG is typically associated with cognitive linguistics, partly because many of the linguists that are involved in CxG are also involved in cognitive linguistics, and partly because CxG and cognitive linguistics share many theoretical and philosophical foundations.

Some history Edit

Historically, the notion of construction grammar developed out of the ideas of "global rules" and "transderivational rules" in generative semantics, together with the generative semantic idea of a grammar as a constraint satisfaction system. With the publication of Lakoff's "Syntactic Amalgams" paper in 1974 (Chicago Linguistics Society, 1974), the idea of transformational derivation became untenable.

CxG was spurred on by the development of Cognitive Semantics, beginning in 1975 and extending through the 1980's. Lakoff's 1977 paper, Linguistic Gestalts (Chicago Linguistic Society, 1977) was an early version of CxG, arguing that the meaning of the whole was not a compositional function of the meaning of the parts put together locally. Instead, he suggested, constructions themselves must have meanings.

CxG was developed in the 1980s by linguists such as Charles Fillmore, Paul Kay, and George Lakoff. CxG was developed in order to handle cases that intrinsically went beyond the capacity of generative grammar.

The earliest study was "There-Constructions," which appeared as Case Study 3 in George Lakoff's WOMEN, FIRE, AND DANGEROUS THINGS (U. of Chicago Press, 1987). It argued that the meaning of the whole was not a function of the meanings of the parts, that odd grammatical properties of Deictic There-constructions followed from the pragmatic meaning of the construction, and that variations on the central construction could be seen as simple extensions using form-meaning pairs of the central construction.

Fillmore et al.'s (1988) paper on the English let alone construction was a second classic. These two papers propelled cognitive linguists into the study of CxG.

The grammatical construction in CxG Edit

In CxG, like in general semiotics the grammatical construction is a pairing of form and content. The formal aspect of a construction is typically described as a syntactic template, but the form covers more than just syntax, as it also involves phonological aspects, such as prosody and intonation. The content covers semantic as well as pragmatic meaning.

The semantics meaning of a grammatical construction is made up of conceptual structures postulated in cognitive semantics: Image-schemas, frames, conceptual metaphors, conceptual metonymies, prototypes of various kinds, mental spaces, and bindings across these (called "blends"). Pragmatics just becomes the cognitive semantics of communication — the modern version of the old Ross-Lakoff performative hypothesis from the 1960's.

The form and content are symbolically linked in the sense advocated by Langacker.

Thus a construction is treated like a sign in which all structural aspects are integrated parts and not distributed over different modules as they are in the componential model. Consequentially, not only constructions that are lexically fixed, like many idioms, but also more abstract ones like argument structure schemata, are pairings of form and conventionalized meaning. For instance, the ditransitive schema [S V IO DO] is said to express semantic content X CAUSES Y TO RECEIVE Z, just like X get ants in X's pants means X IS SHAKING WITH FEAR, and kill means X CAUSES Y TO DIE.

In CxG, a grammatical construction, regardless of its formal or semantic complexity and make up is a pairing of form and meaning. Thus words are instances of constructions . Indeed, construction grammarians argue that all pairings of form and meaning are constructions including phrase structures, idioms, words and even morphemes.

Syntax-lexicon continuum Edit

Unlike the componential model, CxG denies any strict distinction between the two and proposes a syntax-lexicon continuum. The argument goes that words and complex constructions are both pairs of form and meaning and differ only in internal symbolic complexity. Instead of being discrete modules and thus subject to very different processes they form the extremes of a continuum: syntax>subcategorization frame>idiom>morphology>syntactic category>word/lexicon (these are the traditional terms; construction grammars use a different terminology).

Grammar as an inventory of constructions Edit

In CxG the grammar of a language is made up of taxonomic networks of families of constructions, which are based on the same principles as those of the conceptual categories known from cognitive linguistics, such as inheritance, prototypicality, extensions, and multiple parenting.

Four different models are proposed in relation to how information is stored in the taxonomies.

Full-entry modelEdit

In the full-entry model information is stored redundantly at all relevant levels in the taxonomy, which means that it operates, if at all, with minimal generalization.

Usage-based modelEdit

The usage-based model is based on inductive learning, meaning that linguistic knowledge is acquired in a bottom-up manner through use. It allows for redundancy and generalizations, because the language user generalizes over recurring experiences of use.

Default inheritance modelEdit

According to the default inheritance model, each network has a default central form-meaning pairing from which all instances inherit their features. It thus operates with a fairly high level of generalization, but does also allow for some redundancy in that it recognizes extensions of different types.

Complete inheritance modelEdit

In the complete inheritance model, information is stored only once at the most superordinate level of the network. Instances at all other levels inherit features from the superordinate item. The complete inheritance does not allow for redundancy in the networks.

There is a general shift towards the usage-based modelEdit

All four models are advocated by different construction grammarians, but since the late nineties there has been a shift towards a general preference for the usage-based model. The shift towards the usage-based approach in CxG has inspired the development of several corpus-based methodologies of constructional analysis.

Synonymy and monotony Edit

Since CxG is based on schemas and taxonomies, it does not operate with dynamic rules of derivation. Rather, it is monotonic.

Since, CxG does not operate with surface derivations from underlying structures, it rejects constructional polysemy and adheres to functionalist linguist Dwight Bolinger's principle of no synonymy, on which Goldberg eleborates in her book.

This means that construction grammarians argue that, say, active and passive versions of the same proposition are not derived from an underlying structure, but are instances of two different constructions. As constructions are pairings of form and meaning, active and passive versions of the same proposition are not synonymous, but display differences in content (in this case the pragmatic content).

Some construction grammars Edit

As mentioned above, CxG is a "family" of theories rather than one unified theory. There are a number of formalized CxG frameworks. Some of these are:

Construction GrammarEdit

Construction Grammar (usually in upper case) focuses on the formal aspects of constructions and makes use of a unification-based framework for description of syntax, not unlike Head-Driven Phrase Structure Grammar. Some of its proponents/developers are Charles Fillmore, Paul Kay, Laura Michaelis, and to a certain extent Ivan Sag.

Goldbergian/Lakovian construction grammarEdit

The type of construction grammar associated with linguists like Goldberg and Lakoff looks mainly at the external relations of constructions and the structure of constructional networks. In terms of form and function, this type of construction grammar puts psychological plausibility as its highest desideratum. It emphasizes experimental results and parallels with general cognitive psychology. It also draws on certain principles of cognitive linguistics.

Cognitive GrammarEdit

Sometimes, Ronald Langacker's Cognitive grammar framework is described as a type of construction grammar. Cognitive grammar deals mainly with the semantic content of constructions, and its central argument is that conceptual semantics is primary to the degree that form mirrors, or is motivated by, content. Langacker argues that even abstract grammatical units like PoS classes are semantically motivated and involve certain conceptualizations.

Radical construction grammarEdit

William A. Croft's radical construction grammar is designed for typological purposes and takes into account cross-linguistic factors. It deals mainly with the internal structure of constructions. Radical Construction Grammar is totally non-reductionist, and Croft argues that constructions are not derived from their parts, but that the parts are derived from the constructions they appear in. Thus, in Radical Construction Grammar, constructions are likened to Gestalts. Radical Construction Grammar rejects the idea that syntactic categories, roles, and relations are universal and argues that they are, not only language-specific, but also construction specific. Thus, there are no universals that make reference to formal categories, since formal categories are language- and construction-specific. The only universals are to be found in the patterns concerning the mapping of meaning onto form. Radical Construction Grammar rejects the notion of syntactic relations altogether and replaces them with semantic relations. Like Goldbergian/Lakovian construction grammar and Cognitive Grammar, Radical Construction Grammar is closely related to cognitive linguistics, and like Cognitive Grammar, Radical Construction Grammar appears to be based on the idea that form is semantically motivated.

Embodied construction grammarEdit

Embodied constrution grammar, which is being developed by Benjamin Bergen and Nancy Chang, adopts the basic constructionist definition of a grammatical construction, but emphasizes the relation of constructional semantic content to embodiment and sensorimotor experiences. A central claim is that the content of all linguistic signs involve mental simulations and is ultimately dependent on basic image schemas of the kind advocated by Mark Johnson and George Lakoff and aligns itself with cognitive linguistics. Like Construction Grammar, Embodied Construction Grammar makes use of a unification-based model of representation.

Fluid Construction GrammarEdit

Fluid Construction Grammar (FCG) was designed by Luc Steels for doing experiments on the origins and development of language. FCG is a fully operational formalism for construction grammars and proposes a uniform mechanism for parsing and production. The Grammar integrates many notions from contemporary computational linguistics such as feature structures and unification-based language processing, but it uses them in a novel way: rules are considered bi-directional and hence usable both for parsing and production. Processing is flexible in the sense that it can even cope with partially ungrammatical or incomplete sentences. FCG is called 'fluid' because it acknowledges the premiss that language users constantly change and update their grammars. The research on FCG is conducted at Sony CSL in Paris and the AI Lab at the Free University of Brussels (VUB).


In addition there are several construction grammarians who operate within the general framework of CxG without affiliating themselves with any specific CxG program. There is a growing interest in the diachronic aspect of grammatical constructions and thus in the importation of methods and ideas from grammaticalization studies. Another area of growing interest is the pragmatics of pragmatic constructions. This is probably one of the reasons why the usage-based model is gaining popularity among construction grammarians. Another area of increasing interest among construction grammarians is that of language acquisition which is mainly due to Michael Tomasello's work.

References Edit

  • Bergen, Benjamin and Nancy Chang. Embodied Construction Grammar in Simulation-Based Language Understanding. In press. J.-O. Östman and M. Fried (eds.). Construction Grammar(s): Cognitive and Cross-Language Dimensions. Johns Benjamins.
  • Croft, William A. (2001). Radical Construction Grammar: Syntactic Theory in Typological Perspective. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  • Croft, William A. and D. Alan Cruse (2004). Cognitive Linguistics. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  • Fillmore, Charles, Paul Kay and Catherine O'Connor (1988). Regularity and Idiomaticity in Grammatical Constructions: The Case of let alone. Language 64: 501-38.
  • Goldberg, Adele. (1995) Constructions: A Construction Grammar Approach to Argument Structure. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
  • Goldberg, Adele (2006). Constructions at Work: The Nature of Generalization in Language<i>. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  • Lakoff, George (1987). <i>Women, Fire, and Dangerous Things: What Categories Reveal about the Mind. Chicago: CSLI.
  • Langacker, Ronald (1987, 1991). Foundations of Cognitive Grammar. 2 vols. Stanford: Stanford University Press.
  • Michaelis, Laura A. and Knud Lambrecht (1996). Toward a Construction-Based Model of Language Function: The Case of Nominal Extraposition. Language 72: 215-247.
  • Michaelis, Laura A. and Josef Ruppenhofer (2001). Beyond Alternations: A Construction-Based Account of the Applicative Construction in German. Stanford: CSLI Publications.
  • Michaelis, Laura A. (2004). Type Shifting in Construction Grammar: An Integrated Approach to Aspectual Coercion. Cognitive Linguistics 15: 1-67.

External linksEdit

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