Linguistics 306, Spring 2006, Rice University

Introduction to the Course

"If the mind were simple enough for us to understand,
we would be too simple-minded to understand it."

This course considers language as a cognitive system and as an instrument for thinking. We investigate language as a means of figuring out how the mind works and as a means of understanding how language organizes thought processes. We also recognize that our linguistic systems are mental systems. We therefore explore language and mind in relation to each other. The exploration includes three concurrent endeavors:

  • Using a cognitive orientation to help understand how language works.
  • Using linguistic data to help understand the mind.
  • Using linguistic data to help understand thought processes.
  • Brain and Language. Investigation of language in relation to the brain as such, as a physical organ, is the focus of attention in Linguistics 411, Neurolinguistics. In Ling 306, although we will not treat in any detail how the brain represents our linguistic information, we will be cognizant of the requirement that theories of linguistic structure need to be compatible with what is known from neuroscience.

    Mind and Language. We will be talking about some models within the Cognitive Linguistics movement. These models are not designed to represent the exact way in which the brain functions. However, their claims are believed to be compatible with what we know about brain structure. Cognitive linguistics models make two claims that are central to this course.

  • Language ability represents a specialized use of general cognitive abilities, rather than some special "language faculty" of the brain.
  • Meaning is equated with conceptualization (to be explicated in terms of cognitive processing).
  • Since meaning is equated with our mental structurations of the world, we need to explore how these conceptualizations come about. Furthermore, since conceptualization (at least in some measure) is society specific, we need to explore its relation with language within specific individuals and cultures (linguistic relativity).

    Of course, the mental system is not directly observable. That is the basic challenge facing cognitive linguistics and all of cognitive science. But since our linguistic systems have their basis in our minds, we can find a lot of evidence for the workings of the mind in linguistic data. Language has often been viewed as the window of the mind not only for this reason, but also because it is richly connected to other cognitive systems, represented throughout the cerebral cortex. The evidence for this assertion is that we are able to use language to talk about an enormous range of different kinds and aspects of human experience. It must therefore occupy a central position in mental structure and must be connected to all those other cognitive systems.

    Topics to be Considered. Some of the topics to be considered are listed below, but not exactly in the order in which we will consider them. In fact, some of them we will come back to repeatedly.

  • The meaning of meaning: Semantic and conceptual structures.
  • How does the linguistic system interact with other subsystems of the mind, such as the visual, auditory, and conceptual subsystems?
  • What does a person's linguistic knowledge consist of?
  • Metaphors, mapping theory, blending.
  • The mind's internal world: Our personal models of reality.
  • The process of learning languages.
  • Linguistic relativity.
  • Cognitive styles in thinking.

  • Outline of the Course

    Course Schedule

    Class Notes

    Home Page for the Course

    This page last modified 13 February 2006.

    2006 Rice University