What Is Cognitivism?

As we previously discussed, the field of linguistics can be separated into four general schools of thought: Functionalism, Structuralism, Generativism, and Cognitivism. Today I’d like to discuss Cognitivism, an offspring of Generativism.

Cognitive Linguistics was founded sometime in the 1970s by linguists who thought the idea of an inherent universal grammar that all humans possess was implausible. Instead, they believed that language could be better defined by meaning and cognitive principles than by a syntactic structure. Followers of the school believe that because meaning is the central point of language, it must also be the focal point of good linguistics study. Linguistic structures convey meaning, and thus the connection between form and meaning must be key to understanding structures. In other words, Cognitive Linguistics focuses on analyzing semantic units in order to better understand language.

The ideas of Cognitive Linguistics emerged as major participants in linguistics theory in the 1970s due to work by Wallace Chafe, Charles Fillmore, George Lakoff, Ronald Langacker, and Leonard Talmy. Each linguist focused on their own approach to language description and linguistic theory centered on a particular set of phenomena and concerns. Their work contrasted sharply with Chomskyan linguistics (Generativism), as Chomsky believed meaning was interpretive and not a central part of the study of language, choosing instead to focus almost entirely on syntax. Generativists believed language was driven by principles essentially independent of meaning, indicating that morphosyntactic structures did not need to be studied.

By the mid-1990s, the studies of Cognitive Linguistics were summarized in the Handbook of Pragmatics. The paper indicated that the field sees language as embedded in the cognitive capacities of man, leading the field’s members to focus on structural characteristics of natural language categorization, functional principles of linguistic organization, the conceptual interface between syntax and semantics, the experiential and pragmatic background of language-in-use, and the relationship between language and thought.

While reading these last two focus areas of research, I was reminded of Steven Pinker’s words on conceptual semantics (see my previous post for more information), and I’d like to leave you with them again today, as I think they perfectly summarize the idea at the heart of Cognitive Linguistics. “The meaning of a word, then, seems to consist of information stored in the heads of the people who know the word: the elementary concepts that define it and, for a concrete word, an image of what it refers to.” In other words, without cognition, there is no meaning, and without meaning, there is no point to language.


“About Cognitive Linguistics.” Cognitive Linguistics, ICLA, http://www.cognitivelinguistics.org/en/about-cognitive-linguistics. Accessed 10 Apr.2022.

Pinker, Steven. The Stuff of Thought.

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