Possessives in English: An Exploration in Cognitive Grammar

Possessives in English: An Exploration in Cognitive Grammar

Possessives in English: An Exploration in Cognitive Grammar

Possessives in English: An Exploration in Cognitive Grammar


Taylor provides an in-depth analysis of possessive constructions in English in terms of Cognitive Grammar, as developed by Ronald Langacker and others. He also provides a wide-ranging critique of alternative analyses, especially those derived from the Chomskyan school.


In this chapter I introduce some basic concepts of cognitive grammar. For a fuller presentation of the theory, the reader is referred to Langacker (1987a, 1990a, 1991). A succinct overview may be found in the four chapters that Langacker contributed to Rudzka-Ostyn (1988), i.e. Langacker (1988a,b,c,d).

Cognitive grammar is characterized by extreme austerity with regard to the entities that it posits. In keeping with the thesis that language is essentially symbolic in nature, only three kinds of entity are recognized. These are (a) phonological structures, (b) semantic structures, and (c) symbolic units, each associating a phonological structure with a semantic structure.

Notable, in this ontology, is the absence of any strictly syntactic elements. A very strong claim of cognitive grammar is that syntactic organization is fully describable without recourse either to syntactic primitives, or to exclusively syntactic principles of organization. This is not to say that traditional syntactic categories such as noun, noun phrase, prepositional phrase, and so on, play no part in cognitive grammar. These categories, however, are not taken to be uniquely syntactic elements, axiomatically defined, but as symbolic units, each associating a phonological representation with a semantic representation. As we shall see in Chapter 4, notions of constituency, such as head, complement, and modifier, can also receive a natural interpretation in terms of the symbolic thesis.


Central to cognitive grammar is the notion of the symbolic unit. Langacker (1987a: 11) has characterized a language as simply an open-ended set of symbolic units. As he observes (p. 11), the symbolic unit of cognitive grammar is, in essence, nothing other than the familiar 'linguistic sign', which, for Saussure, had linked a 'mental concept' to an 'acoustic image'.

Traditionally, the Saussurian sign has been identified with the lexical items of a language (Saussure 1964: 98-9). Saussure himself illustrated the notion on the example of the word arbre "tree". But Saussure clearly intended the notion of linguistic sign to apply to a wider range of phenomena than just the lexical items of a language; for, as he stated, 'ce qui est dit des mots s'applique à, n'importe . . .

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