Cognitive Approaches

Universals in cognitive linguistics

Cognitive Linguists argue against the view that language is pre-specified in the sense that grammatical organisation is mapped out by an innate blueprint for grammar. Instead of seeing language as the output of a set of cognitive universals that are specialised for language, CLs see language as a reflection of embodied cognition. This embodied cognition serves to constrain what is possible to experience, and thus what is possible to express in language.
In other words, embodied cognition constrains human conceptualisation and results, to some extent, in the existence of universal tendencies (rather than absolute universals): statements that may not be true for all languages, but nevertheless are too prominent to be the result of chance.
Let’s have a brief look at some of the ways in which human conceptualisation is constrained and what the consequences for language might be.

Since we share similar cognitive and neuro-anatomical architectures (minds, brains, bodies), the nature of human experience and of possible conceptual systems that relate to this experience, will be constrained. The range of concepts we can form is based on that experience.

The nature of the environment humans inhabit has a number of basic commonalities (e.g. gravity and the other physical laws are experienced by humans the same way all over the world). This should account for some basic universal tendencies, e.g. a general concept of balance for instance. However, as we will see later on, the environment can play a crucial role when it comes to cross-linguistic variation as well as how thought and language are interlinked.

There appears to be two broad categories of human experience. The first relates to Sensory experience, which describes experience derived from sensory perception (e.g. concepts relating to space, motion, temperature, etc.) The second category of experience is Introspective/subjective experience, including motion, consciousness, experiences of time (duration, simultaneity, etc.) One of the most fundamental properties of the human conceptualising capacity is its tendency to structure concepts or domains relating to introspective experience in terms of concepts that derive from sensory experience.

What we perceive is not necessarily the same as what we experience directly.

The perception mechanisms that facilitate our experience were formalised by the movement known as Gestalt psychology, which first emerged at the end of the 19th century. Gestalt psychologists are interested in the principles that allow unconscious perceptual mechanisms to construct wholes of “gestalts” out of incomplete perceptual input. The Gestalt principles provide structure and constrain experience. Some theorists argue that even our perception of the everyday world around us involves codes. Fredric Jameson declares that 'all perceptual systems are already languages in their own right' (Jameson 1972, 152). As Derrida would put it, perception is already representation. 'Perception depends on coding the world into iconic signs that can re-present it within our mind. The force of the apparent identity is enormous, however. We think that it is the world itself we see in our "mind's eye", rather than a coded picture of it' (Nichols 1981, 11-12). According to the Gestalt psychologists - notably Max Wertheimer (1880-1943), Wolfgang Köhler (1887-1967) and Kurt Koffka (1886-1941) - there are certain universal features in human visual perception, which in semiotic terms can be seen as constituting a perceptual code.
We owe the concept of 'figure' and 'ground' in perception to this group of psychologists. Confronted by a visual image, we feel the need to separate a dominant shape (a 'figure' with a definite contour) from what our current concerns relegate to 'background' (or 'ground'). Anillustration of this is the famous ambiguous vase/face figure devised by the Danish psychologist Edgar Rubin.


Do we think the way we speak?
Linguistic Relativity