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cognitive linguistics

The theoretical approach that has labelled itself 'cognitive linguistics' evolved from initial studies published around 1980. The initial studies in the field, such as George Lakoff and Mark Johnson's Metaphors We Live By (University of Chicago Press 1980) and Lakoff's Women, Fire and Dangerous Things: What categories reveal about the mind (University of Chicago Press 1987) can only be described as intense and rather indigestible. However, in recent years the ideas have been developed in detail and, simultaneously, become more 'applied' rather than merely 'rarefied theories'.

The essential character of cognitive linguistics (CL) is that we think about the world entirely through 'categories of thought' that are termed 'image schemas'. Image schemas are somewhere between metaphors and the 'literal truth'. As many of the schemas relate to concepts where there is no 'literal truth', it could be said that they are categories where the metaphor has, to all intents and purposes, become 'the literal truth' (although those within CL would dispute this over-simplification). More specifically, the metaphors we use to describe 'reality' are rooted in the way we experience the world through our bodies – this has created a sophisticated concept of the 'embodied mind', that is our more abstract thinking is ultimately based on the way our bodies experience 'reality'.

These 'frozen metaphors' become embedded in the lowest levels of our thought, such that more sophisticated thinking is best considered as more complex interplay between the underlying metaphors. For instance, we have no direct way of experiencing time. We think and speak of time as something we are 'in' or as a 'flow'. These are metaphors used throughout the world by different cultures (and indeed are seemingly the only two metaphors used to describe time) so have become deeply ingrained into our sense of 'reality'.

Any attempt to summarise CL in a short section can only result in severe oversimplification. Thankfully Mark Turner has written a lucid and easily-digested introduction: The Literary Mind: The origins of thought and language (Oxford UP 1996). He illustrates the ideas behind CL with examples from literature and folklore – the opening chapter is a discussion of one of the tales from A Thousand and One Nights. More importantly, his detailed exposition of the ideas behind CL offer an excellent approach to folk narratives (not least the 'otherness' of other cultures) and, by easy extension, to folk customs and other aspects of folk lore.

The two leading proponents of CL, George Lakoff and Mark Johnson, have recently developed an ambitiously wide-ranging 'philosophy of thought' based on the concepts of the 'embodied mind' with their book Philosophy in the Flesh: The embodied mind and its challenge to Western thought (Basic Books 1999). While this is unduly 'heavyweight' to be directly relevant to the study of folklore, it does indicate that CL is 'well-rooted' in philosophical principles.

While the nature of this overview of theory in folklore is largely 'descriptive' of other people's achievements rather than 'prescriptive', may I venture to suggest that cognitive linguistics deserves evaluation as an especially promising way of understanding the nested levels of metaphor in myths and folk narrative (and, by extension, other genres of folklore). Thankfully Turner's The Literary Mind provides an accessible introduction to this potent 'metatheory'. The 'image schemas' of CL add potency to the concept of 'context' developed by American folklorists. CL also adds additional 'nuances' to old-school notions of function. Indeed, there seem to be no underlying conflicts between these approaches. Indeed, perhaps we should be thinking of all aspects of culture as a CL schema.

Based on a section in Explore Folklore

copyright © Bob Trubshaw 2003


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