Linguistics Cognitive Linguistics
Vyvyan Evans
  • LAST REVIEWED: 11 July 2019
  • LAST MODIFIED: 28 October 2011
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199772810-0059


Cognitive linguistics is an interdisciplinary approach to the study of language, mind, and sociocultural experience that first emerged in the 1970s. Cognitive linguistics is characterized by a commitment to the inseparability of meaning and form in the study of language. It also takes the view that language reflects general aspects of cognition rather than adopting a modular view of mind. A further feature of the approach is the view that language is best studied in the context of use and indeed emerges from it. Cognitive linguists have predominantly focused on two general areas of inquiry: the study of language organization (cognitive approaches to grammar) and language as a means of studying aspects of conceptual structure (cognitive semantics). Cognitive linguistics is an increasingly influential approach in cognitive science, social science, and applied linguistics.

Foundational Works

Cognitive linguistics emerged from research conducted by prominent scholars working on the West Coast of the United States during the 1970s and 1980s. Most notable among these are Ronald W. Langacker (Langacker 1987–1991), who developed the theory of cognitive grammar (see Cognitive Grammar); George Lakoff (Lakoff 1987), who applied work on categorization to metaphor, lexical semantics, and grammar; and Leonard Talmy (Talmy 2000), who studied the conceptual basis of grammar. These three researchers are widely considered to be the founding fathers of the enterprise. Also foundational ware Lakoff and Johnson 1980, which developed conceptual metaphor theory (see Conceptual Metaphor Theory) and Johnson 1987, which developed the theory of image schema (see Image Schema Theory) that grew out of work on conceptual metaphors. Other important work that has proved to be foundational was developed in Fillmore 1982 on frame semantics (see Frame Semantics) and Fillmore, et al. 1988, which provided the basis for the theory of construction grammar (see Construction Grammar). Fauconnier 1994 developed the theory of mental spaces (see Mental Spaces Theory), which later gave rise to conceptual integration theory (see Conceptual Integration Theory).


There are several excellent introductory overview textbooks of cognitive linguistics. Ungerer and Schmid 2006 is now in its second edition. The most advanced is Croft and Cruse 2004, which reflects the authors’ own research foci and specialties. The most comprehensive is Evans and Green 2006, which provides a representative sampling of the state of the art. Lee 2001 is the most accessible textbook. There are also textbooks that introduce topics in language study presented from a cognitive linguistics perspective. Radden and Dirven 2007 is an introduction to English grammar, and Taylor 2003 deals with linguistic categorization. Taylor 2002 is a useful textbook that introduces Ronald W. Langacker’s theory of cognitive grammar (see Cognitive Grammar). Stockwell 2002 introduces cognitive poetics, and Kövecses 2002 introduces conceptual metaphor theory (see Conceptual Metaphor Theory).


The cognitive linguistics enterprise is rich in terminology. The field currently has one published glossary, Evans 2007.

Reference Resources

Encyclopedias devoted to the fields of linguistics and cognitive science have entries on cognitive linguistics as well as major topics of study within the paradigm. Among the most comprehensive are Brown 2006 and Nadel 2005. Good single-volume encyclopedias are Hogan 2010 and Wilson and Keil 1999.


Two electronic bibliographies are relevant for the paradigm of cognitive linguistics, one covering cognitive linguistics (Cognitive Linguistics Bibliography) and one covering metaphor and metonymy (Bibliography of Metaphor and Metonymy). Both are updated annually.

Edited Collections

There are several excellent edited volumes devoted to cognitive linguistics. The most comprehensive is Geeraerts and Cuyckens 2007. Other representative exemplars include Fauconnier and Sweetser 1996, Evans and Pourcel 2009, and Janssen and Redeker 1999. The field also boasts two collections of readings, Evans, et al. 2007 and Geeraerts 2006, and a volume dedicated to the methodological frameworks employed, Gonzalez-Marquez, et al. 2006.


There are two international journals devoted to cognitive linguistics. Cognitive Linguistics is the more established, and Review of Cognitive Linguistics is the more recent. The journal Language and Cognition is devoted to the relationship between language and cognition, much of which is concerned with cognitive linguistics. Three journals relate to major topics of study in the field: Metaphor and Symbol, Metaphor and the Social World, and Cognitive Semiotics.

Cognitive Grammar

Cognitive grammar is an approach to grammatical structure developed by Ronald W. Langacker. Langacker 2008 is the most recent and most authoritative overview of the theory. Cognitive grammar has been applied in particular to locative expressions, as exemplified in Lindner 1981. The relation between nominal and clausal structures and the speech event is referred to as “grounding” in cognitive grammar. An exemplar is Brisard 2002. Much work has also been conducted on possessive constructions, for instance, Taylor 2000. There has been a considerable amount of work on clause structure (e.g., Tuggy 1988), including transitivity (Rice 1987), voice (Maldonado 1992), and case markers (Janda 1993). Van Hoek 1997 is an important treatment of anaphora in cognitive grammar.

Construction Grammar

The original work on construction grammar was developed in Fillmore 1988 and Kay and Fillmore 1999. Another important contribution derives from Lambrecht and Michaelis 1996. However, since Charles Fillmore’s seminal work, a number of distinct constructional theories have emerged. These include cognitive construction grammar, as exemplified in Lakoff 1987, Goldberg 1995, and Goldberg 2006; radical construction grammar (Croft 2001); embodied construction grammar (Bergen and Chang 2005); and, most recently, sign-based construction grammar (Sag 2010).

Conceptual Integration Theory

Conceptual integration, or “blending,” is an account of dynamic meaning construction. The standard reference work is provided by the theory’s two architects in Fauconnier and Turner 2002. The role of frame structure in giving rise to blends is best exemplified in Coulson 2001. There is now also good event-related potentials (ERP) evidence for the role of conceptual integration in meaning construction (Coulson and van Petten 2002). The framework has been applied to literary texts and the staging of such texts (Cook 2010), to rhetoric (Oakley 1998), to grammar (Mandelblit 1997), and to sign language (Liddell 2000). The framework has also been applied to the development of material anchors that ground blends, for instance, in time telling (Williams 2005). The relationship between conceptual integration and figurative language, especially metaphor, has also been explored (Grady, et al. 1999).

Conceptual Metaphor Theory

Conceptual metaphor theory was developed by George Lakoff and Mark Johnson. The definitive treatment is Lakoff and Johnson 1999. An important theoretical advance concerns the theory of primary metaphors (Grady 1997) as well as the extension to work on conceptual metonymy (Kövecses and Radden 1998). It has been applied to an extremely wide range of areas, including the study of poetics (Lakoff and Turner 1989), language change (Sweetser 1990), political science (Lakoff 2002), discourse (Musolff and Zinken 2009), and gestural studies (Cienki and Müller 2008). An influential study examining the empirical foundation for the theory is Gibbs 1994.

Frame Semantics

Frame semantics evolved from Charles Fillmore’s original work on case theory (Fillmore 1968). While Fillmore worked on the theory of frame semantics in the 1970s, the two best-developed accounts appeared in the 1980s: Fillmore 1982 and Fillmore 1985. Since then the details of frame semantics have been worked out in a number of contexts, including from the perspective of lexicography (Fillmore and Atkins 1992) and more recently in terms of computational implementation under the guise of the FrameNet project. The architecture for FrameNet is presented in Boas 2005, its tagset is discussed in Johnson and Fillmore 2000, and the structure of its database is discussed in Baker, et al. 2003.

Image Schema Theory

The theoretical construct of the image schema was developed in Johnson 1987. The most detailed treatment of a single image schema is Cienki 1998, and there is empirical evidence for the existence of image schemata in Gibbs and Colston 1995. It has been claimed that image schemata form the basis for conceptual metaphors (Lakoff 1993) and that they underpin lexical categories (Lakoff 1987). Moreover, it is argued that they are foundational for conceptual development more generally (Mandler 2004). Clausner and Croft 1999 examines image schemata in relation to conceptual domains, while Palmer 1996 applies image schemata to cultural analysis. Hampe 2005 is an extremely useful collection that surveys perspectives on image schemata.

Theory of Lexical Concepts and Cognitive Models

The basis for lexical concepts and cognitive models (LCCM) theory lies in the methodological approach to lexical representation pioneered in spatial semantics in Tyler and Evans 2003 and in the domain of time in Evans 2003. The theoretical architecture of LCCM theory is developed in Evans 2009, and its application to figurative language and abstract thought is worked out in Evans 2010.

Mental Spaces Theory

The definitive statement on mental spaces theory is Fauconnier 1994. Dinsmore 1987 argues for the role of mental spaces in reasoning. Cutrer 1994 applies mental spaces theory to tense and aspect, while Dancygier and Sweetser 2005 applies it to conditionals. Fauconnier 1997 develops mental spaces theory in anticipation of the development of conceptual integration theory. Mok, et al. 2004 is a computerized implementation of mental spaces theory. Oakley and Hougaard 2008 is a collection of important papers relating to mental spaces theory by leading proponents.

Prototype Theory

Prototype theory arose during the 1970s from experimental findings associated with Rosch 1978. It is famously developed and applied to language science in Lakoff 1987. Geeraerts 1997 applies prototype theory to lexicography, while Tyler and Evans 2001 is a detailed application to lexical semantics. Lakoff and Kövecses 1987 applies the notion of prototypes to metaphor, while Peirsman and Geeraerts 2006 applies it to metonymy. Wierzbicka 1990 provides a critique of the way prototypes are used in language studies.

Usage-Based Approaches to Language Learning

Usage-based approaches to language learning have focused on the way mental grammar comes to be organized and structured (Langacker 2000) and the way language is acquired (Tomasello 2003). In terms of the former, Bybee 2006 provides evidence for the role of frequency, while Bybee and Hopper 2001 is an important collection of papers in this regard. Bybee 2010 presents a synthesis of the state of the art. Barlow and Kemmer 2000 is an influential collection relating to more general issues concerning mental grammar and usage. In terms of language acquisition, Langacker 2009 is a theoretical treatment, while Lieven, et al. 2003 is a classic case study in favor of a usage-based approach to first-language acquisition. Dąbrowska 2005 presents an influential review of the cognitive and neurological constraints on usage-based perspectives of grammar.

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