In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Cognitive Semantics

  • Introduction
  • Foundational Works
  • Journals
  • Lecture Series
  • Form and Meaning
  • Motion Event Typology
  • Attention
  • Causation and Force
  • Macro-Event
  • Space and Time
  • Closed-Class Semantics
  • Cognitive Mechanisms
  • Diachronic Cognitive Semantics
  • Neurocognitive Semantics
  • Cognitive Systems
  • Universals of Semantics

Linguistics Cognitive Semantics
Fuyin (Thomas) Li
  • LAST MODIFIED: 22 September 2021
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199772810-0279


Cognitive semantics is an interdisciplinary approach to the study of meaning and mind. It is a subfield of cognitive linguistics (see the separate Oxford Bibliographies in Linguistics article “Cognitive Linguistics”). In the most specific sense, it is the field that is defined by the research on conceptual structure conducted by Leonard Talmy. In a broader sense, the term also covers research in philosophy, psychology, neural science, artificial intelligence, and other subject fields in cognitive science that takes the relationship between meaning and mind as the main object of study. Cognitive semantics views language as one of the major cognitive systems and is best characterized at different levels and perspectives. Evolutionarily, cognitive semantics takes language among the most recent cognitive systems to evolve in the human lineage. Paralleled with language are culture, story, music, and dance; later cognitive systems include affect, forward simulation, and inferencing; the earliest systems are perception in general and motor control. Cognitively, cognitive semantics studies the many and varied aspects of human cognition through conceptual organization by analyzing a crucial set of fundamental conceptual domains including space and time, motion and location, causation and force interaction, attention and viewpoint, action and events, etc. Cross-linguistically, cognitive semantics studies the conceptual patterns, conceptual schemas, linguistic typologies, motivating mechanisms, etc. that are formed in conceptual structuring process. More specifically, cognitive semantics studies the cognitive process that is involved in the grammatical manipulation. For instance, the process of adding a plural form ‘s’ to ‘apple’ to form ‘apples’ involves the cognitive process of pluralizing. The process from representing the same conceptual content in two clauses to a representation in a single clause involves the cognitive process of integration of macro-event. Diachronically, cognitive semantics studies the mechanisms that motivate a semantic change, especially, change from an open-class form to a closed-class form, and the mechanisms that motivate the shift of conceptual patterns and typologies.

Foundational Works

Cognitive semantics was developed with cognitive linguistics. Lakoff contributed mostly to the philosophical foundation of the enterprise. Lakoff 1987 and Lakoff and Johnson 2003 are basically on cognitive semantics. The two-volume set Talmy 2003a and Talmy 2003b on conceptual structure lays the foundation of cognitive semantics. Langacker 1987 and Langacker 1991 develop the theory of cognitive grammar. Johnson 1987 develops the theory of image schema on the basis of embodied experiences. Rosch 1973 develops the theory of prototype, which plays an important role at all linguistic levels as explained in Taylor 2003. Fauconnier and Turner 1998 contributes to the online meaning construction in its theory of conceptual integration networks.

  • Fauconnier, Gilles, and Mark Turner. 1998. Conceptual integration networks. Cognitive Science 22.2: 133–187.

    DOI: 10.1207/s15516709cog2202_1

    This article argues that conceptual integration, or blending, is a general cognitive operation on a par with analogy, recursion, mental modeling, conceptual categorization, and framing. Conceptual integration serves a variety of cognitive purposes. It is an influential theory on meaning construction.

  • Johnson, Mark. 1987. The body in the mind: The bodily basis of meaning, imagination, and reason. Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press.

    DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226177847.001.0001

    This is one of the original works on the theory of image schema. Based on embodied experiences, several dozen image schemas are proposed that are responsible for the basic meaning construction. These image schemas include CONTAINER, BALANCE, BLOCKAGE, LINK, PATH, etc.

  • Lakoff, George. 1987. Woman, fire, and dangerous things: What categories reveal about the mind. Chicago and London: Univ. of Chicago Press.

    DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226471013.001.0001

    This book provides a detailed analysis of category structure and presents some stimulating ideas on mind and meaning.

  • Lakoff, George, and Mark Johnson. 2003. Metaphors we live by. 2d ed. Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press.

    DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226470993.001.0001

    This work is one of the earliest and one of the most influential books on cognitive metaphor study. It argues for an embodied conceptual basis for metaphor and metonymy. The conceptual metaphor theory links two conceptual domains, the concrete source domain and the abstract target domain. Originally published 1980.

  • Langacker, Ronald. 1987. Foundations of cognitive grammar. Vol. 1. Stanford, CA: Stanford Univ. Press.

    This is the foundational book on the theory of cognitive grammar. It lays the ground for cognitive grammar by illustrating the basic concepts, including cognitive abilities, domains, things, processes, and the symbolic nature of meaning and form.

  • Langacker, Ronald. 1991. Foundations of cognitive grammar. Vol. 2. Stanford, CA: Stanford Univ. Press.

    This is the foundational book on the theory of cognitive grammar. It provides the cognitive grammar explanation for nouns, nominals, nominal constructions, clauses, and complex sentences. This two-volume set is taken as the bible of cognitive grammar.

  • Rosch, Eleanor. 1973. Natural categories. Cognitive Psychology 4.3: 328–350.

    DOI: 10.1016/0010-0285(73)90017-0

    Eleanor Rosch proposed the prototype theory, which later became extremely influential in cognitive linguistics. Rosch has remained the most authoritative figure in prototype study. As the earliest article on prototype, it empirically examined how the category is structured around the natural prototypes.

  • Talmy, Leonard. 2003a. Toward a cognitive semantics. Vol. 1, Concept structuring systems. Cambridge, MA: Massachusetts Institute of Technology Press.

    This is the foundational work on cognitive semantics. Volume 1 illustrates the foundations of conceptual structuring in language. A detailed account of the influential theory of force dynamics can be found in this book.

  • Talmy, Leonard. 2003b. Toward a cognitive semantics. Vol. 2, Typology and process in concept structuring. Cambridge, MA: Massachusetts Institute of Technology Press.

    This is the foundational work on cognitive semantics. Volume 2 illustrates the typology and process in concept structuring. A detailed account of the two-way typology (verb-framed languages and satellite-framed languages) can be found in this book.

  • Taylor, John R. 2003. Linguistic categorization. 3d ed. Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press.

    This work explores the implication of prototype theory at all linguistic levels, thus extending the theory to lexical semantics, morphology, syntax, and phonology. It also functions as an introductory book to the field of cognitive linguistics.

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