Dynamicity Fictivity and Scanning

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The Imaginative Basis of Logic and Linguistic Meaning

Ronald W. Langacker cognitive semantics

The last quarter century has seen the emergence of what has come to be known as cognitive semantics. This collective endeavor has vastly expanded and profoundly altered our view of both meaning and its relation to grammar. It offers new solutions to classic problems. More fundamentally, it reshapes the entire conceptual landscape within which the problems themselves are posed and formulated.1

The most basic development is simply the unequivocal identification of meaning with conceptualization, i.e., the cognitive activity constituting our apprehension of the world (Langacker, 1987a, 2000; Talmy, 2000a, 2000b). Since the mind is part of the loop, linguistic semantics does not just reflect the external situations described, but inescapably incorporates particular ways of construing those situations and portraying them for linguistic purposes. It thus involves the full range of our mental capacities, as well as the elaborate conceptual structures we construct and manipulate. Included - being absolutely fundamental to cognition and language -are capacities reasonably called imaginative: metaphor (Lakoff & Johnson, 1980, 1999), metonymy (Kovecses & Radden, 1998), fictivity (Matsumoto, 1996a, 1996b; Talmy, 1996; Langacker, 1999b), mental space construction (Fauconnier, 1985; Fauconnier & Sweetser, 1996), and conceptual blending (Fauconnier, 1997; Fauconnier & Turner, 1998a, 1998b, 2002). These capacities are however grounded in everyday bodily experience: motion, perception, muscular exertion, etc. Basic experience of this sort is projected metaphorically onto other domains, and in abstracted form provides the skeletal organization of conceptual structure in general. This of course is embodiment (Johnson, 1987; Lakoff, 1987).

1 An earlier version of this paper (Langacker, 2003) appeared in the journal Korean Linguistics.

It is reprinted with the kind permission of the Association for Korean Linguistics.

The expressions in (1), for instance, represent four alternate construals of the same event, effected by the imaginative capacities of metaphor and metonymy.

(1)(a) She read Hillerman's new novel in a single evening. [neutral]

(b) She devoured Hillerman's new novel in a single evening. [metaphor]

(c) She read the new Hillerman in a single evening. [metonymy]

(d) She devoured the new Hillerman in a single evening. [metaphor and metonymy]

The examples in (2)-(3) illustrate embodiment. Physical motion through space provides a means of apprehending change:

(ii) The situation went from bad to worse. (b)(i) She turned to face him. (ii) The weather turned cold.

Modals are based on force dynamics (Talmy, 1988; Sweetser, 1982; Langacker, 1991: 6.3). For instance, must evokes an irresistible force, should a lesser force, and may the absence of a barrier, with respect to either social interaction ("root modals") or judgments of likelihood ("epistemic modals"):

(3)(a) You {must/should/may} attend this protest rally. [root modals] (b) She {must/should/may} be home by now. [epistemic modals]

Later, I will describe some abstract manifestations of such basic activities as perceptual scanning, putting objects into a group, matching one object against another, and selecting randomly from a set of objects.

An example of how cognitive semantics transforms the consideration of classic problems is Fauconnier's account of the specific/nonspecific contrast for indefinite articles (1985). The indefinite article in (4)(a) is ambiguous between a specific and a nonspecific interpretation, depending on whether a particular individual is being referred to. This ambiguity is resolved in (4)(b) and (4)(c) by adding certain, to force a specific reading, or shifting to any, for a nonspecific reading.

(4)(a) Joe wants to meet an actress. [ambiguous]

(b) Joe wants to meet a certain actress. [specific]

(c) Joe wants to meet an actress - any actress. [nonspecific]

Rather than positing two different senses for the indefinite article,2 Fauconnier ascribes the semantic contrast to a difference in mental space configuration. Starting from the space representing the speaker's conception

2 Positing two different senses would be inelegant if only because comparable pairs of meanings would be needed for other indefinite determiners.

figure 8.1. Specificity contrast.

of reality, the verb want (a space builder) sets up a space incorporating the content of Joe's desire, as shown in Figure 8.1. Joe (J) plays a role in both spaces, and on both interpretations an actress (A) occurs in the desire space. The semantic contrast resides in whether this actress corresponds to one in reality (dotted lines indicate correspondences). She does on the specific interpretation. The nonspecific interpretation is merely the case where the actress referred to is "conjured up" just to characterize the nature of Joe's desire, and has no status outside the mental space created for this purpose. It is thus a fictive entity, an imagined instance of the \ rather than an actual individual.

The fictive nature of the actress referred to in (4)(c) is not a matter of the nominal expression being nonreferential, in a linguistically relevant sense. On both readings, the phrase an actress designates an instance of the actress type. And as shown in (5), in both cases a discourse referent is established which can subsequently be referred to by means of an anaphoric pronoun:

(5)(a) Joe wants to meet an actress. She is very talented. [specific]

(b) Joe wants to meet an actress. She has to be very talented, though. [nonspecific]

The contrast instead resides in the position of the nominal referent with respect to the mental space configuration assumed, i.e., which mental space(s) it occupies. The referents of the pronoun and the antecedent must occupy the same mental space (Langacker, 1996a). In (5)(a), that space is reality. In (5)(b), have to signals that the desire space continues to be the focus of discussion.

In what follows, I will suggest the fundamental importance to linguistic meaning of two basic notions of cognitive semantics: dynamicity, pertaining to the time course of a conceptualization, and fictivity, just illustrated. I will then apply these notions to the characterization of certain elements considered "logical" in nature, with special reference to quantifiers. It turns out that conceptual and imaginative phenomena are especially crucial for problems traditionally dealt with in logic and formal semantics.


Because it resides in neurological activity, conceptualization is necessarily dynamic (Langacker 1997a, 1999a: ch. 12, 2001a). By this I mean that it emerges and develops through processing time. Moreover, this temporal dimension proves to be inherent and essential to the characterization of conceptual structure, with important and pervasive linguistic ramifications.

The most obvious cases of dynamicity are those correlated with word order. Due to the temporality of the speech stream, we can hardly avoid accessing facets of a complex conception in the order given by the sequencing of the words that symbolize them. Dynamicity is not however limited to this dimension. It is essential that we not oversimplify the manifest complexity of language processing by assuming that a single "left-to-right" pass through a sentence is all there is. Instead, we can reasonably presume that sequenced processing occurs simultaneously in multiple dimensions and on different time scales. Simultaneously, for example, we have to keep track of discourse strategies, clause structure, and the conceptions evoked by individual lexical items, as well as the fine details of articulatory phonetics. In addition to following the order of presentation, we are able -by means of short-term memory - to backtrack and thus to reexamine and reanalyze material already encountered (e.g. in processing "garden-path" sentences). We can further hold analysis in abeyance until a sufficient amount of material has accumulated and is available for resolution within a single window of attention. Moreover, sequential processing is not invariably in the focus of attention and may not even be subject to conscious awareness, especially at smaller time scales. We are more likely to be aware of it at the level of discourse or clause structure than, say, as part of the internal semantics of a lexical item.

Word order is of course exploited for grammatical purposes, e.g. to identify subject and object. It can also be used iconically, as in (6), to suggest the sequence of events:

(6)(a) She quit her job and got married. (b) She got married and quit her job.

My concern, though, is with another class of examples, where the sequence of expression induces a conceptual ordering which actually constitutes the meaning conveyed. I have in mind, for instance, the contrasting variants of the "nested locative" construction, exemplified in (7):

(7)(a) Your camera is upstairs, in the bedroom, in the closet, on the top shelf. (b) Your camera is on the top shelf, in the closet, in the bedroom, upstairs.

The "zooming in" and "zooming out" varieties are conceptually quite distinct, despite containing the same elements and describing the same complex spatial configuration. The alternative sequences of mental access afforded by the constructional variants are pivotal to the expressions' semantic value.

Presenting an especially clear example of dynamicity are pairs of expressions like those in (8), which describe the same objective situation. Their semantic contrast resides exclusively in the conceptualizer's direction of mental scanning in building up to a full apprehension of the spatial configuration. It is not a difference in conceptual content, but rather of the order in which the configuration is mentally accessed.

(8)(a) A scar extends from his ankle to his knee. (b) A scar extends from his knee to his ankle.

In this case the conceptual ordering is not just a function of word order, but reflects the lexical meanings of from and to. The two motivations coincide: in (8)(a), for instance, we are prompted by word order to start our mental scanning at the ankle, thus reinforcing the instruction given lexically by the phrase from his ankle. This is the first of many cases we will see where a conceptual sequencing is established independently of word order (which is only one factor inducing it, albeit an important and pervasive one). What happens when word order and lexical meaning are in conflict, instead of reinforcing one another? Though generally considered grammatical, sentences like (9) present a certain awkwardness. Based on their meanings, the prepositional phrases are telling us to trace a mental path starting at the ankle, yet on the basis of linear order we must first evoke the knee.

(9) ?A scar extends to his knee from his ankle.

We can handle this noncongruence, but it does require extra processing effort. Let me suggest that it requires an additional processing step, amounting to a reconceptualization of the configuration being described. Through linear processing, we first encounter to his knee, which induces us to construct a partial configuration comprising only what is being portrayed as the endpoint of the spatial path. This is the first transition depicted in Figure 8.2, where a dashed arrow indicates direction of mental scanning, and the solid arrow labeled T represents processing time. We then encounter the phrase from his ankle, which focuses on the origin of the spatial path. The final transition in Figure 8.2 comprises the mental scanning required to complete the path, i.e., to conceptualize its extension from beginning to end. I believe that we do have to reconceptualize the path, by starting over and tracing through it in proper sequence from beginning to end, in order to properly apprehend it and establish it as a coherent conception. With the order in (9) the path is, if you like, a kind of garden path, since after focusing on its termination we have to back up and scan through it again in the proper sequence. With the order in (8)(a) this extra

figure 8.2. Scanning and reconceptualization.

step is not required. Nor in (8)(b), where we scan only once along the path but in the opposite direction. But in all cases the scar itself is static - the spatial path reflects our dynamic construal of the static situation.

Directed mental scanning of this sort is not limited to spatial configurations. In precisely analogous fashion we scan through time, or along any kind of scale.3 The same effects are observed when the order of expression forces us to reconceptualize the situation to fully apprehend it:

(io)(a) The rainy season starts in December and runs through March.

(b) ??The rainy season runs through March and starts in December.

(c) They raised tuition from $15,000 to $20,000.

A linguistically important manifestation of dynamicity, one not inherently tied to word order, are phenomena involving the use of conceptual reference points (Langacker, 1993). We commonly invoke the conception of one entity as a reference point in order to establish mental contact with another, i.e., to mentally access one entity via another. A case in point is the ubiquitous phenomenon called metonymy, where the entity an expression would normally designate - which in cognitive grammar is called its profile - is used instead as a reference point providing mental access to what it is actually understood as referring to. For instance, the name for a place is often used to evoke an associated event (as in Chernobyl was a great tragedy). Other phenomena best analyzed in reference point terms include possessives (Langacker, 1995) and topic constructions (Langacker, 1999c; Kumashiro, 2000). Van Hoek (1995, 1997) provides a detailed reference point account of pronominal anaphora. I have further argued extensively for a reference point characterization of subject and object (Langacker, i999d, 2001b).

3 This is not to deny that spatial metaphor may be involved.


Language has long been viewed primarily as a vehicle for describing the world around us. Canonically, therefore, nominal expressions would be used for the direct description of actual individuals, and sentences for the direct description of actual events and situations they participate in. Yet this view may not be accurate. Departures from the supposed canon are so varied and prevalent as to suggest a fundamental revision in how we think about language and the functions it serves. Such cases are not limited to the kinds of nonactuality involved in making false statements, in describing future events (which might not actually eventuate), or in creating fictitious worlds (as in a novel). Indeed, one has to be struck by how very common it is that fictitious entities are invoked and directly described even when our concern is with actuality. Surprisingly often, our characterization of actual situations is effected only indirectly, through the mediation of fictive or virtual entities conjured up for that purpose.

Note first that, by itself, a lexical noun (e.g., cat, oxygen) merely specifies a type of thing, not any particular instance of that type. Likewise, a lexical verb (e.g., chase, love) merely specifies a type of event or situation - i.e., it profiles what I call a process - not any particular process instance. The entity (thing or process) designated by a type specification is fictive in nature; it does not per se refer to an actual individual or an actual process. It is only at the level of a full noun phrase (e.g., this cat, some oxygen), or a full finite clause (e.g., I chased it, She may love him), that reference is made to particular instances of a thing or process type. A noun phrase or finite clause incorporates what I call a grounding element, which singles out an instance of a type and locates it with respect to the ground, i.e., the speech event and its participants. Nominal grounding elements include articles, demonstratives, and certain quantifiers. Modals and tense are the clausal grounding elements of English (Langacker, 1991: Chapter 6).

A type is a fictive entity, not an actual individual. It represents an abstraction from actuality which captures the commonality inherent across a set of actual instances. Using the metaphor of planes to indicate abstraction (equivalently, we could speak of tiers or mental spaces), the relation between a type (t) and instances of a type (ti> jk) is depicted in Figure 8.3. A thing or process type corresponds to any number of instances of that type, distinguished by their position in the instance plane (which I also refer to as the domain of instantiation - see Langacker, 1991). But while the type projects to all its instances, per se it does not occupy any particular position in that plane. It is important to keep in mind how types (and other kinds of virtual entities) are connected to actuality, as well as how they arise from it. Types arise as a kind of generalization over actual occurrences, such that sets of occurrences are perceived as being alike in significant respects.

Thus every lexical noun or verb evokes a fictive entity, the thing or process type it designates. It is only in the context of a larger syntactic

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