Why Cognitive Linguists Should Care More About Empirical Methods

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1. Introduction

Linguistics and psychology have always had a curious relationship. Ever since the early days of generative linguistics when Chomsky started to argue that linguistics was a subfield of cognitive psychology, there has always been intense debate as to whether linguistic theories are “psychologically real.” In the early and mid 1960s, for example, psychologists were quite enthusiastic about transformational grammar being part of the underlying principles organizing sentence processing. But a vast body of experimental research showed by the early 1970s that this was simply not the case (Fodor, Bever, & Garrett 1974). Since that time, psychologists have struggled to apply various linguistic theories to explain language acquisition, production, and comprehension, with many psychologists expressing significant skepticism toward any theory of language use that is not based on objective scientific experiments.

My aim in this chapter is to present the case for why cognitive linguists should care more about empirical methods given the skepticism from people outside their field. First, I outline in a bit more detail some of the reasons for why the skilled intuitions of cognitive linguists may be useful, but not at all conclusive, in arguing for the specific influences of thought and embodied experience in everyday language use. Second, I suggest several principles that cognitive linguists should adopt in articulating psychologically plausible theories of mind and language. At the same time, I urge cognitive linguists to more fully explain the methods they use in analyzing linguistic phenomena and in making claims about human conceptual systems. I do not believe, contrary to some of my colleagues in psychology, that cognitive linguists must do experiments to have their ideas be considered as psychological theories.
Nonetheless, there are various empirical, experimental techniques that are part of the arsenal of “indirect methods” used in psycholinguistics that have proven to be quite useful in providing support formany of cognitive linguists’ claims aboutmind and language. I briefly outline several of these in the third part of this chapter. My overall goal is to provide ways of drawing cognitive linguists and psychologists closer together, while simultaneously respecting these scholars’ different theoretical goals and empirical methods.

2. The problem with introspection

Despite their differences with generative linguists, cognitive linguists mostly employ traditional linguistic methods of examining native speakers’ intuitions about the grammaticality and meaningfulness of linguistic expressions in order to uncover idealized speaker/hearer linguistic knowledge. In most cases, the linguistic expressions examined are made-up (i.e., not derived from actual spoken and written discourse), and the intuitions studied are those of the scholar actually conducting the work. Many linguists argue that their own intuitions about linguistic matters should count for something more than asking ordinary speakers who lack linguistic training.Within cognitive linguistics particularly, a scholar’s trained intuitions seem essential in being able to uncover language-mind links, such as the mental spaces, the image schemas, the conceptual metaphors, and so on that have now become a major foundation for cognitive linguistic theories of human conceptual systems.
I personally have a split view about the kinds of practices that cognitive linguists engage in when doing their work. On the one hand, I continue to be impressed with the different systematic analyses of linguistic patterns that point to different underlying conceptual structures that may provide partial motivation for the existence of words, utterances, and discourse structures within contemporary language. Psychologists should not ignore these findings simply because they are not the products of experiments. Many of my own experimental studies within cognitive psychology and psycholinguistics suggest that cognitive linguistic conclusions about the nature of human conceptual systems may indeed be correct and thus psychologically real (Gibbs 1994, 2006; Gibbs, Lima, & Francuzo 2004). In thismanner, the trained intuitions of cognitive linguists have provided detailed insights into possible language-mind-body interactions that serve as the source of experimental hypotheses on the workings of the cognitive unconscious.

3. Do cognitive linguists use empirical methods?

When asked, cognitive linguists will typically have strong responses to these important questions, and frequently explain, on a case-by-case basis, the reason for why, for example, a set of conventional expressions may be motivated by some underlying conceptual metaphor (or primary metaphor). Cognitive linguistics go on to argue that these methods are reliable, are taught regularly in linguistic classes, and have successfully illuminated many facets of language and mind that were undiscoverable by other linguistic methods. However, the remarkable fact is that there are very few published writings on methods in cognitive linguists (see Kövecses 2002 for an exception). For example, there is virtually no set of reliable, replicable methods that can be employed to identify words as metaphorical, or for relating systematic patterns of entire expressions to underlying conceptual metaphors. I am not claiming that cognitive linguists do not have empirical methods. But they really should place far more effort toward explicating their methods, and strive to show that themethods they employ are reliable, and replicable. On a personal note, the need for such explications is perhaps the singlemain complaint I encounter from metaphor scholars in many disciplines, ranging from applied linguistics to experimental psychology. Cognitive linguistics, as a discipline, would have much greater status within the cognitive sciences if they paidmore attention to explicating the methods they use, and demonstrate that these provide for consistent, replicable research results.

4. Challenges for cognitive linguistics

Even if cognitive linguists do not conduct experiments, their work would significantly benefit from adherence to several general principles in framing their theories and research implications (Gibbs 2000).
First, different hypotheses must be falsifiable! Thus, each hypothesis must be stated in such a way that it can be experimentally/empirically examined and shown to be possibly false (and if not shown to be false, then one can reject the null hypothesis and conclude that there is evidence in support of the hypothesis). The problem of falsifying theories/ideas from cognitive linguistics is a big problem, and leads me to remain somewhat skeptical about certain claims (e.g., from conceptual blending theory). Ideas are very appealing, but it is unclear how one would go out and test this as compared to reasonable alternative hypotheses.
This point leads to the second recommendation- consider alternative explanations. For instance, might there be alternative reasons for the apparent systematicity among con ventional expressions? Might systematicity just be a historical product, but have no role at all in how contemporary speakers think and use language?Might the systematicity among various words and expressions be amatter of polysemy, instead of conceptualmetaphor, as some psychologists have claimed, incorrectly inmy view (Glucksberg 2001;Murphy 1996).
Finally, cognitive linguists must realize that language understanding is not a single kind of mental process. Thus, the kind of mental activity used when a person listens to real speech, or reads a text in real-time, is quite different from the processes involved when a person reflects on what one is hearing or reading. This too is a major concern and perhaps the main reason why many cognitive scientists, especially in psychology, are deeply skeptical of ideas from cognitive linguistics.
What is needed, then, is a more detailed set of specific hypotheses that can be individually examined using, perhaps, different experimental techniques. Among the possible hypotheses are (see Gibbs 1994; Katz, Cacciari, Gibbs, & Turner 1999):
  1. Conceptual metaphors motivate why certain words and expressions have acquired their various figurative/metaphorical meanings over time (i.e., diachronically), but play no role in how contemporary speakers use and understand conventional and novel metaphorical expressions.
  2. Conceptual metaphors motivate why certain words and expressions have their specific figurative meanings within linguistic communities and contemporary speakers can under the right circumstances, determine these motivations.
  3. Conceptual metaphors motivate why certain words and expressions have their specific figurative meanings and these metaphors underlie why contemporary speakers tacitly recognize why these words and phrases have the particular meanings they do.
  4. Conceptual metaphors motivate why certain words and expressions have the meanings they do, are part of speakers’ conceptual systems and enable people to recognize something of why these words and phrases have the meanings they do AND are employed automatically each and every time when people use and understand language.
These different hypotheses must be examined by appropriate empirical methods. Thus, 1 and 2 are surely within the domain of cognitive linguistics research. But 3 and 4 require the “indirect methods” of cognitive psychology/psycholinguistics. These methods are, again, “indirect” in that they do not require people to introspect about their own, mostly unconscious, mental processes. Rather, the right method will provide data that enables the researchers to draw inferences about underlying mental processes (e.g., people automatically accessing tacit conceptualmetaphors during on-line metaphor comprehension).

5. Examples of relevant methods

Let me now briefly describe some methods that experimental psycholinguists have successfully
employed in testing various implications of cognitive linguistic ideas, primarily about conceptual metaphors, as described above. These various techniques are aimed at examining hypotheses 3 and 4 above.

a. Mental imagery

The first method for examining hypothesis 3 is to investigate people’s mental imagery for conventional phrases. For instance, do people know why the expression “spill the beans” has the figurative meaning, “reveal the secret.” People are poor at answering this question, but one can elicit people’s mostly unconscious knowledge about, in this case, conceptual metaphors, using a more indirect method by having people form mental images for linguistic expressions (Gibbs & O’Brien 1990; Gibbs, Strom, & Spivey-Knowlton 1997).

b. Context-sensitive judgments about metaphorical meaning

A differentmethod for examining hypothesis 3 is to assess people’s judgments of similarity between idioms and different discourse contexts. Nayak and Gibbs (1990) hypothesized that contexts provide information about specific metaphoric mappings that cue readers to the specific figurative meanings of idioms. These findings provide experimental evidence in support of hypothesis 3 that conceptual metaphors influence people’s interpretation of why idioms mean what they do and are used in specific discourse contexts.

c. Embodied intuitions and metaphorical inferences

Participants gave highly consistent responses to these questions. Thus, people responded that the cause of a sealed container exploding its contents out is the internal pressure caused by the increase in the heat of the fluid inside the container, that this explosion is unintentional because containers and fluid have no intentional agency, and that the explosion occurs in a violent manner. This provides a rough, nonlinguistic profile of people’s understanding of a particular source domain concept (i.e., “image-schematic structures”) of the source domains.

d. Not all methods work!

McGlone’s data are interesting in many respects, although they are not especially surprising. First, it is not clear that having people verbally paraphrase a metaphor is the best method for tapping into different types of, possibly metaphorical, knowledge that might be used when people interpret, or make sense of, verbal metaphors. After all, various others empirical methods have shown some influence of conceptual metaphors on comprehension of, at least, idiomatic and proverbial phrases. One shouldn’t imply that the failure to find effects using one task invalidates the positive evidence in favor of hypothesis 3 using different tasks unless some principled reasons are given for preferring one task over another. Paraphrase tasks are notoriously insensitive asmeasures of people’s, especially children, ability to understand metaphors.

6. Bodily movement and metaphor comprehension

Analysis of the speeded sensibility judgments showed that participants responded more quickly to the metaphorical phrases that matched the preceding action (e.g., the motor action grasp was followed by “grasp the concept”), than to the phrases that did not match the earlier movement (e. g, the motor action kick was followed by “grasp the concept”). People were also faster in responding to the metaphor phrases having performed a relevant body moment than when they did not move at all. In short, performing an action facilitates understanding of a figurative phrase containing that action word, just as it does for literal phrases. A second study showed that same pattern of bodily priming effects when participants were asked to imagine performing the actions before they made their speeded responses to word strings. This result reveals that real movement is not required to facilitate metaphor comprehension, only that people mentally simulate such action.

7. Conclusion: Cognitive linguists need not do experiments

Cognitive linguistics is firmly embedded within the cognitive sciences, and as such is both a disciplinary and interdisciplinary endeavor. The interdisciplinary side of cognitive linguistics is evident in the increasing body of research in which linguists have collaborated with scholars from other disciplines, or have started to engage in research utilizing experimental and computational methods. I now talk with many younger cognitive linguistics students who are quite interested in doing informal experiments to test their ideas as part of their dissertation projects, in some cases using some of the methods described above, such as mental imagery and context-matching tasks. This is obviously a good thing for the field of cognitive linguistics overall, and for our understanding of human thought and language more generally.
Finally, I have focused in this chapter on why cognitive linguists should care more about empirical methods, and suggested some of the ways that they could alter their work to better situate their findings within cognitive science. Yet psychologists, at the same time, would greatly benefit from learning more about cognitive linguistics, and learning to conduct some of the systematic analysis of linguistic expressions that is critical to understanding the conceptual/ embodiedmotivation for linguistic meaning. Doing cognitive linguistics is, of course, hard work also. But the best way to appreciate the insights from cognitive linguistics, and apply these ideas to experimental tests, is to do cognitive linguistics. Some of us need help in doing such work, and my hope is that cognitive linguists will put more effort into sharing their knowledge and working methods with scholars from other disciplines.
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