Grammatical meaning in cognitive-semiotic perspective

Katherine Hrisonopulo

    1. Preliminary remarks

    The problem of meaning has always aroused heated discussion throughout the history of linguistic and linguo-philosophical investigations. The emergence and development of cognitive paradigm in linguistics in the last decades has oriented linguistic research towards the study of epistemic foundations of linguistic meaning, that is, the relation of the latter to human knowledge, which, in its turn, has its roots in different kinds of human's experiential interaction with the environment (Seuren 1998, ch.6; Heine 1997; Clark 1997; Kubryakova 1999b). Linguistic meaning is being increasingly studied on the basis of the following closely related theoretical assumptions: a) language in general is anthropocentric in its nature (see review material in Alpatov 1993); b) pragmatics plays the leading role in relation to semantics and syntactics (see Nuyts 1987; Kravchenko 1997 inter alia).

    The study of meaning conveyed by grammatical units of language (which, as is traditionally assumed, include word-forms, word-forming morphemes (affixes), and "structural words" like prepositions, conjunctions, particles, etc.) is of no small relevance for cognitively oriented research - mainly, due to the following reasons.

    Firstly, grammatical units whose meanings are characterized by a high degree of generalization incorporate a lot of categorial features, thus providing substantial material for investigating the principles of categorization in natural language. As Talmy (1988:165) remarks, "the grammatical specifications in a sentence-provide a conceptual framework or, imagistically, a skeletal structure or scaffolding, for the conceptual material that is lexically specified."

    Secondly, the very fact that the expression of grammatical meanings is obligatory in standard communicative situations (cases of highly emotional, non-grammatical speech being not considered here) implies a high degree of their conceptual relevance.

    Thirdly, grammatical units may reveal the content of a number of knowledge-structures, because "the evolution of grammar must have involved a complex interaction between socio-cultural, communicative, and neuro-cognitive factors." (Givon 1995:435)

    The cognitive content of grammatical units becomes more or less apparent when the latter are viewed according to their ontological nature, that is, as sign entities. Any usage event involving linguistic signs presupposes, as Langacker (1988a:14) remarks, that "the speaker starts from the conceptualization and must arrive at the proper vocalization, while the addressee proceeds in the opposite direction (encoding vs. decoding)." In semiotic terms the phenomenon of using a linguistic sign (that may just as well be a grammatical unit) may be described as establishing a triadic relation between the sign as such (its material form), the object it represents, and the interpretant, that is, a mental entity associated with the sign (see Peirce 2000b).

    The subjective element of the semiotic relation is represented as interpretant in Peirce's model of the sign, as thought in Ogden/Richards's "semiotic triangle", the figures of sender and addressee in Buehler's "organon model", interpretant (thought) and the human interpreter of the sign in Morris's theory of signs (for more detailed treatment of different models of the sign and semiotic theories see Lipka 1992: 40ff; Keller 1998; Kravchenko 2001c). Thus, a number of philosophical and semiotic theories, though not always similar in their methodologies, have created certain grounds for treating linguistic signs both with reference to the way they represent the outside world and the way they reflect certain cognitive structures arising from human's interaction with the world.

    Nevertheless, most grammatical investigations reveal the tendency to analyze grammatical meanings in terms of their relation to outside (objective) rather than cognitive (subjective) reality. The existence of this tendency can't be clearly accounted for, especially in view of the fact that grammatical meanings, as is clearly emphasized in recent research (see Talmy 1988; Givon 1993; 1995 inter alia), are predetermined by different forms of human abstract thinking. But as it follows from many widely spread epistemological theories (see review material in Kravchenko 2001a) the function of human mind consists mainly in reflecting certain aspects of the outside world - the process going on independently of human mental and biological organization. An implicit assumption of this view often takes place in the practice of analyzing grammatical units. The theoretical consequence of such an approach is evident enough: grammatical meanings are represented as sets of features formulated in this or that way depending on a linguist's view of the corresponding denotational situations. Thus, according to the review materials provided in Bybee 1985, Bybee and Dahl 1989 (see also Vater 1994:55 ff) the semantic structures of some English verbal morphological forms are generally formulated in terms of the following features: the progressive form ('be + present participle') - "overt activity", "development", "temporal boundedness"; the perfect form ('have + past participle') - "resultative character of the action", "anteriority", "relevance of a described event at the moment of speech or another point of reference"; the future form ('shall/will + infinitive') - "prediction", "volition", "obligation", "intention".

    There is no denying the fact that all the features ascribed to the above mentioned morphological forms, though explicitly denotational in their nature, reflect certain generalizations about the corresponding referential events and hence, - certain subjective realities. So, there arises the question about the level of knowledge representation incorporated in the feature model of grammatical meaning, which in its turn is closely linked to the problem of meta-descriptional adequacy of this model, and, in case it appears to be theoretically ungrounded and inadequate, - to the problem of formulating a possible alternative model that would represent cognitive structures predetermining modus vivendi of grammatical units as specific forms of sign entities in natural language. These problems are treated in the second and the third parts of the present paper.

    2. Two levels of knowledge representation in grammar

    From the point of view of cognitive semantics "natural language operates on two levels of knowledge representation: the level of text (discourse), and the level of linguistic units that add up to produce a text. The resultant informative value of a text largely depends on the informative (in the cognitive sense) value of its constituents." (Kravchenko 2001b:43) It seems that "the features of grammatical meaning" discussed above could be related to the conceptual level of text (discourse) rather than to the level of textual constituents to which morphological forms as sign entities actually belong. To support this point it would be sufficient to give just a few comments on some examples and their interpretations from Bybee and Dahl (1989:67ff).

    The Present Progressive form of the verb "wash" in "She is washing the dishes" is understood as referring to an "overt activity" mainly due to the lexical meaning of the verb and its occurrence in the case frame whose subject and object slots are filled with words denoting an agent ("she") and material things ("the dishes") respectively. Put otherwise, the form "is washing" is perceived as conveying certain processual/dynamic implications due to the interpreter's knowledge of the proposition as a whole, not its part represented by the form as such. Similarly, the Future Indefinite form in "The ladder will fall" is associated with the "prediction sense" due to the speaker's/hearer's knowledge of the whole situation and the properties of its subject-element ("the ladder"). Then, the resultative sense of the Present Perfect in "John has gone to Paris (and is there now)" arises mainly owing to the speaker's knowledge of where John actually is at the moment of speaking and, partly, due to the deictic component incorporated in the lexical meaning of the verb "go" (the relevant inference being "if John has gone somewhere, then (as a result) he is not where the speaker is").

    The use of all the above mentioned forms (Present Progressive, Future Indefinite, Present Perfect) with verbs of a more general meaning as well as the reduction of the context to a certain informative minimum will inevitably reduce the explanatory value of the corresponding "semantic features". Thus, the Present Progressive form in "Tom is working" can be understood both as referring to an "overt activity" going on at the moment of speaking and as implying a regular activity (that may equally be of dynamic or non-dynamic nature) extending over a certain period of time. The sentence "Tom will do it" containing the verb "do" in the Future Indefinite form may be interpreted in three alternative ways: as someone's predictions about Tom's actions; as a statement about Tom's intentions; as a description of Tom's habit (inclination) to perform a certain action. Finally, the use of the Present Perfect form in "Tom has worked hard" can be associated both with the situation involving some visible results of the described event (like Tom's tired look after a hard working day) and with a reference to Tom's general working experience (that might as well have been accumulated throughout his whole life). Similar examples can be provided ad infinitum.

    It follows from what has been said that the content or epistemic foundation of grammatical meaning cannot be explicitly described in terms of text/discourse conceptual structures. The latter are derived from knowledge structures formed at the level of words (lexical meanings) and word-forms (grammatical meanings), that is, at the level of linguistic knowledge proper (vs. discourse knowledge). As Kubryakova remarks (sharing the opinion of F.Newmeyer on the issue of correlation of linguistic and discourse knowledge and differing on the same point from P.Hopper and S.Thompson) "knowledge of cognitive structures associated with the linguistic sign exists before discourse: if a person knows a linguistic sign he knows its categorial meaning, and in cases a sign is created it should be adjusted to fit into a certain category-" (Kubryakova 1997:180). This theoretical assumption (as well as the analysis of various linguistic phenomena like those discussed above) leads to the conclusion that grammatical (and, in particular, morphological) forms as such that function as constituent elements of discourse structures (thus correlating with the latter as parts and whole) represent the primary conceptual level on which natural language operates. Primary concepts in their turn cannot be formed on the basis of such abstract features as "development", "anteriority", "volition", "prediction" and the like. Rather, they take their roots in cognitive categorization of human mental and perceptual experience (cf. Givon's thesis (1995, ch.9) on the co-evolution of language, mind and brain) as well as in the experience of using linguistic signs (cf. Kravchenko 1999:11) that includes, among other things, instances of mental correlation and choice between the alternative members of grammatical oppositions (cf. the notion of "mental imagery" developed in Langacker 1983; 1988a; 1988b; etc.).

    A direct reference to human experience as part of the semiotic relation (realized on the level of linguistic units and therefore - on the primary level of knowledge representation in language) is to be found in Peirce (2000b:289), where experience is equalled to interpretant. The subjective element of the semiotic relation thus understood has its parallel in the interpretative model of grammatical meaning, suggested in cognitively oriented linguistic studies, and , specifically, - in the form of the figure of observer (sometimes, especially in Langacker's works, called viewer or conceptualizer), cf. Langacker 1983; 1988b; 1994; Svorou 1994; Apresyan 1995; Paducheva 1996; Kravchenko 1993; 1995. By contrast with the feature model of grammatical meaning revealing, in fact, no small discrepancy between the ontological formal status of grammatical units as text/discourse constituents and meaning ascribed to them "from above", i.e. from the domain of discourse conceptual structures, the descriptional model including the figure of observer helps to explicate the relation between 1) the grammatical form as a material sign entity; 2) the outside object/phenomenon it serves to represent; and 3) the subjective perceptual/mental structure by means of which - on the basis of experience (cf. Peirce 2000b:86,95) - an associative link between the first two entities is established. It is these three semiotic entities that a sign user has to deal with in the acts of primary categorization of his perceptual/mental experience, that is, in the process of selecting lexical and grammatical units for expressing his thoughts - the process that, by definition, precedes producing a text or a fragment of discourse. On this level of cognitive categorization, as is clearly shown on the basis of abundant material (including linguistic examples) in a number of Peirce's works (see Peirce 2000a; 2000b), signs can be used or interpreted as indices, icons, and symbols. Functionally, these three kinds of signs are different. Whereas indices function on the basis of some known or assumed connection between signs and their objects, iconicity is dependent upon some resemblance between the sign and its object, and one's use of symbols is based on the conventionality of the relationship between the sign and its signification (see Lyons 1977, ch. 4.2 on Peircean sign theory). Still, one and the same linguistic sign can be understood (probably, because of ever-changing cognitive states of the interpreter, see Maturana and Varela 1980) as an icon, index or symbol. Thus, as Peirce (2000b:218) points out, the sentence "It is raining" functions as an icon when associated with all the rainy days one has experienced; it is used as an index when one singles out that very day as located in his current experience; the sentence functions as a symbol when it refers to the mental operation by means of which the day is qualified as rainy.

    If what Peirce says about the semiotic functions of the above mentioned sentence (as well as some other linguistic and non-linguistic signs) holds true for the units of morphology, then different contextual uses of a grammatical form signify its functioning within the range of semiotic modalities ("icon - index - symbol") rather than actual realizations of its various "senses" or "meanings" as is traditionally assumed in functional linguistics.

    The hypothesis about the semiotic transformations of grammatical units thus understood seems to be all the more plausible because the latter - similar to other icons, indices and symbols (both linguistically and non-linguistically represented) and by contrast with discourse/text fragments incorporating more abstract "features of meaning" - belong to the primary level of knowledge representation (see above).

    The suggested hypothesis will be supported in the next part of the paper on the material of English non-finite verbal forms - present participle, past participle - and some analytical constructions in which they usually occur (progressive, perfect and perfect progressive forms).

    3. The semiotic functions of morphological forms

    It is generally believed that the epistemic sources of grammatical meaning are to be traced only in those languages that have the category of evidentiality, i.e. the category ?whose semantic-pragmatic content-is basically a reference to the source of information conveyed by the discourse.¦ (Lazard 2001:360) Morphological evidentials are typical of most languages spoken in South Eastern Europe, Middle East, Western Asia and some other regions, which (as is also assumed)) serves as a distinguishing feature of these languages in comparison with other widely spread European languages (including English and French) possessing for the most part ?purely conceptual categories¦ (Lazard 2001). Still, some recent studies show that an implicit or explicit reference to the origin of information conveyed by the discourse forms the cognitive foundation of grammatical meaning in many (including widely spread) languages (Kravchenko 1996:22ff; see also Toporova 2000 where the same issue is addressed in diachronic perspective).

    When viewed in cognitive-semiotic perspective the grammatical categories of tense and aspect appear to be intrinsically indexical in English as well as in a number of other languages (Kravchenko 1995; 1996; 2001c). It means that the verbal forms serving to express these categories (in particular, those involving participles v progressive, perfect and perfect progressive forms) contain an implicit indication to the observer as an epistemic source of the propositional content conveyed in speech.

    The indexical function of progressive and perfect progressive forms becomes apparent when the observer (the subject of perception) is formally expressed in the sentence and/or in contexts that contain verbs denoting sense perception or some other kind of empirical activity (?look¦, ?hear¦, ?see¦, ?feel¦, ?find¦, ?find out¦ and the like), cf.: ?(Ellie): -I am paying you a great compliment in condescending to make a convenience of you, as you call it¦ (B.Shaw) (here the observer is the speaker); ?Jud was mollified at once when he saw that I had not been dealing in allusions¦ (O.Henry) (the observer is Jud); ?She found, after a time, that her back was beginning to ache¦ (Th.Dreiser) (the observer is ?she¦).

    A certain transition from the indexical to the iconic function of the progressive form is to be observed in cases when its use implies not only a reference to the instance of sense perception but a ?description¦ (i.e. a kind of mental picture) of the observer-s perceptual and mental state. Thus, the future uses of the Present Progressive imply, among other things, that the actions described are mentally perceived by someone. A future situation forms a kind of mental space where the subject of perception mentally places himself (cf. Lapaire and McMichael 2000). For example, the utterance ? -I must be off; I-m meeting Brand at six.- ? (K.Mansfield) ?describes¦ the coming event (?meeting¦) through the speaker-s mentally construed picture. The use of the progressive form in ?Michael said -Has Sonny found out where Sollozzo is taking me?- -- (M.Puzo) seems to imply that the speaker (Michael) is trying to reconstruct the picture of the future event as viewed by someone else (Sollozzo). The example ? --What-s on the program?- -My daddy-s coming tomorrow on an airiplane, - Sybil said-¦ (J.D.Salinger) may also be regarded as an illustration of the causal link between someone-s (here: Sybil-s) mental vision of the future situation and the use of the Present Progressive.

    The sense ?mental perception¦ (or ?introspection¦), which is actually based on the iconic representation of the referential event in the form of the ?profile¦ (that is, in Langacker-s terms (1988b), the salient part of the mental picture), becomes more explicit when the progressive form refers not to the event as such (the latter may just as well be ?objectively¦ non-existent at the relevant moment) but to its perceptual image that is interpreted in one way or another by the subject of perception. Thus, the examples given below show that the use of the progressive form is predetermined, basically, by the following factors:1) making a reference to the very fact of mental perception (the indexical function of the form); 2) emphasizing the relevance (?profile¦-like representation) of the referential events in accordance with the observer-s point of view, or, in other words, representing (= ?picturing¦) his mental state (the iconic function of the form): ?(Higgins): -She-s incapable of understanding anything. Besides, do any of us understand what we are doing?-¦ (G.B.Shaw). (Shaw-s personage (Higgins) emphasizes the unconscious character (as he believes) of people-s actions); ? --I wish you were here now that I might thank you in person. You are doing a great thing. You are teaching the world to escape from life! -- -- (K.Mansfield) (the author of this written message emphasizes (= profiles) what she believes to be the positive aspect of her addressee-s actions).

    The iconic representation of someone-s mental picture of the described situation can also be observed in cases of using statives in the progressive form, cf.: ?For a moment it gave me a turn, I thought, I was seeing a ghost-¦ (J.Fowles); ? -Don-t be silly, said Louise to John.- -I-m not being.- he said. -I simply don-t believe you-- ¦ (M.Drabble). Compare also the use of the progressive infinitive in the imperative utterance, which actually turns the latter into a verbal mental picture of the action suggested by the speaker (here: a photographer): ?-You be petting the dog or something. Right there on the steps. It-ll be swell- You be petting that dog, he-s pawing up on you like he was glad to see you when you come home. See?-¦ (R.P.Warren) (see also the analysis of other peripheral uses of the progressive form in Hrisonopulo 2001).

    When the progressive form is combined v within a certain syntagmatic sequence v with the perfect form the resultant sentence as a whole or its relevant part functions as an iconic representation of the internal chain of visual or auditory impressions experienced by the subject of perception. Cf. the following two examples from J.Fowles-s ?Daniel Martin¦ where the use of both forms yields an expressive visual picture of the described events: ?He glanced back. She had turned away, as if out of boredom, and was walking slowly back across the sand toward the track they had left¦; ?They had walked for several hundred yards in silence and were nearing the Camp at the end of the plain. He felt petrified in sullenness. She was behaving like an inverted Phaedra, a tragedy queen.¦ The examples show that the combination of the forms ?have + past participle¦ and ?be + present participle¦ refers to the mental-perceptual picture of the described events (cf. Langacker-s (1994) notion of ?process-scanning¦) rather than to their ?objective¦ temporal sequence. Hence, the most natural question that could elicit the responses similar to the above mentioned sentences would be -What were your impressions of the events?- (but not -What was the sequence of events?-).

    The realization of indexical and iconic functions of English participles (present and past participles) often occurs in descriptions when the author tries to create certain visual effects, cf.: ?Near the gate the grass is trodden bare- We can hear sheep and we can see them, off to the left, dotted across the slope. They-re all staring at Vince as he walks across the field-¦ (G.Swift).

    In the last analysis, it is the conceptual structures underlying the use of the analyzed forms as indexical and iconic signs that predetermine (for the most part) the use of these forms "according to the rules", that is, as symbolic entities. Thus, the ?the features¦ in terms of which the progressive form is traditionally described can be represented in the form of the following correspondences: ?the concrete character of the action¦ v a reference to the definite source of information about the described event; ?the dynamic/processual nature of the action¦ v the iconic representation of the process as an internal (mental) sequence of perceptual images; ?polite effects¦ (?Were you wanting a room?¦; ?You are forgetting your things¦; etc.) v a mental construct of the situation and, hence, a less categorical representation of its content.

    In connection with what has been said above there naturally arises the question about the nature of mental processes ensuring mutual transformations of the semiotic functions (indexical, iconic, symbolic) performed by a morphological form. The question doesn-t fall within the range of problems covered in the present paper, but, in general, it can be hypothesized (following Peirce 2000a; 2000b) that the crucial part in these processes is played by the mental operations of inference (see Kubryakova 1999a where the issue is addressed on the material of word-building processes) as well as abduction (a form of subcognition), induction and deduction (see Melrose 1995 for the detailed treatment of the first notion).

    4. Conclusions

    Ontologically, grammatical units are sign entities which means that their formation and functions in speech are closely related to human cognitive-semiotic activities. It implies, in its turn, that grammatical meanings are intrinsically subjective, or, put otherwise, have epistemic foundations.

    As constituent elements of text/discourse structures grammatical forms represent the primary conceptual level on which natural language operates. Hence, the analysis of their meaning should be oriented towards the study of knowledge structures arising from human-s primary cognitive categorization of his mental and perceptual experience rather than towards the study of abstract ?semantic features¦ that can be deduced only from much larger units of text or discourse.

    The most efficient representation of subjective experiential mechanisms predetermining the use of grammatical forms in actual speech is to be found in the model of grammatical meaning suggested in cognitively oriented linguistic studies v the model incorporating the figure of observer as one of its elements.

    In the acts of primary categorization of reality the observer v depending on his current cognitive state v employs or interprets grammatical forms as representing the following three types of signs: indices, icons or symbols. So various contextual uses of a grammatical form signify its functioning within the range of the semiotic modalities: icon v index v symbol.

    The indexical and iconic functions of grammatical units predetermine (presumably) their conventional uses as symbolic sign entities.


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