Construction grammar

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The term construction grammar ( English construction grammar , CxG) refers to a socio-biological "family" of grammatical theories or models that start from the idea that the basic units of grammar not atomic syntactic units and their combination rules are, but so-called constructions . The entire grammar of a language consists of taxonomic hierarchies of such units. Constructions correspond to replicators or memes in memetics .

The term "construction" replaces a number of concepts from linguistics, including words ( aardvark , avocado ), morphemes (in English , ‒isch ), fixed expressions and idioms ( by and large , require an extra sausage ) and abstract grammatical rules such as the passive ( the cat was hit by a car ) and so on. Any speech pattern is considered a construction as long as some aspect of its shape or meaning cannot be predicted from its constituent parts or from other constructions whose existence is recognized. In construction grammar, every utterance is understood as a combination of several different constructions that together specify their exact meaning and form.

Proponents of construction grammar argue that language and culture are not designed by humans but are "emergent" or that they are automatically constructed in a process comparable to the natural selection of species ; or the formation of natural structures such as nests of social insects . Construction grammar is associated with concepts from cognitive linguistics that are designed to demonstrate in various ways why human rational and creative behavior is automatic and not planned.

About history

CxG was developed in the 1980s by linguists such as Charles J. Fillmore , Paul Kay and George Lakoff as a reaction to the, in their opinion, unsatisfactory handling of Noam Chomsky's generative grammar with semantic phenomena - u. a. idiomatic and idiosyncratic expressions - developed, which they saw as rooted in the atomistic and reductionistic nature of the component model of Generative Grammar (see below under: Lakoff versus Chomsky ). In this model, grammar is divided into a number of autonomous modules such as phonology , syntax , semantics, and lexicon .

Despite a number of earlier publications, the 1988 article by Fillmore et al. on the English let-alone construction as a trend-setting publication that established the starting point for construction grammar theory formation.

Grammatical constructions in CxG

In CxG, the grammatical construction, as in general in semiotics, is a combination of form and meaning ( form-meaning pair ). The formal part of the construction indicates how the construction is implemented in the sentence. It is often referred to as a syntactic pattern or scheme, but in addition to pure syntax also includes phonological aspects such as prosody and intonation . The meaning part contains both the semantic and the pragmatic meaning of the construction. It consists of conceptual structures of various kinds and is often expressed using the conceptual means of frame semantics . In the manner represented by Langacker , form and meaning are linked through symbolic relationships . This means that the relationship between form and content is arbitrary, i.e. H. through the formation of conventions (it is arbitrary ). As with words, it is not possible to infer the form from knowledge of the content or vice versa.

A construction is therefore understood like a linguistic sign or symbol , i.e. all structural aspects that are relevant to the use of the sign are contained in the sign itself and not - as in the component model - distributed over a large number of modules. As a consequence, there are not only lexicalized constructions, such as fixed idiomatic expressions, but also more abstract grammatical constructions , such as argument structures , links between form and (conventionalized) meaning. For example, one assumes that the ditransitive schema [SV IO DO] (ie [Subject Verb IndirectObject DirectObject]) has the meaning “X MAKES YZ RECEIVE”, just like X has bumblebees in X's butt “X is impatient and nervous ”means and X kills Y “ X MAKES Y DIE ”. In CxG, all constructions, regardless of their formal or semantic complexity and characteristics, are links between form and meaning and are therefore built up exactly like words. Some proponents of construction grammar would go even further and claim that all linguistic units that can be determined both in terms of their form and their meaning are constructions, such as phrase structures , idiomatic expressions, words and even morphemes .

The syntax-lexicon continuum

Rejecting a strict separation of syntax and lexicon as in the component model of Generative Grammar , the CxG proposes a continuous transition between the two areas. This arises from the assumption that both words and complex grammatical constructions consist of form and meaning and differ only in their degree of internal complexity and abstractness. Syntax and lexicon do not represent two discrete modules, each with their own, very different processes, but rather form the two extreme points of a continuum: syntax > subcategorization frame > syntactic category > word / lexicon (attention: these are traditional terms and not those used in the Construction grammar.)

Grammar as an “inventory” of constructions

According to the CxG, the grammar of any language consists of taxonomic networks of construction families. The structure of these networks is analogous to that of the networks of conceptual categories of cognitive linguistics according to principles such as inheritance, prototypicity, extension and multiple parenting .

With regard to the way in which information is stored in this network, four different models can be identified:

Full-entry model

In full-entry models, information is stored redundantly on all relevant levels of the taxonomy. As a result, there is very little, if any, generalization.

Usage-based models

The usage-based model is based on the idea that linguistic knowledge is acquired through an inductive , bottom-up learning process. In addition to redundant storage of grammatical information, generalizations are also permitted that result from generalizations made by the learner about repetitive usage events .

Default inheritance model

In the default inheritance model, each network has a central, as generally specified ( default ) form-meaning unit, which inherits its characteristics by default to all subordinate entities. This model therefore works to a large extent with generalizations, but also allows redundancy insofar as various extensions of the instances are allowed.

Complete inheritance model

In this model, information is only stored at the highest possible level and passed on to the respective subordinate units. The mechanism of complete inheritance completely rules out redundancy.

Usage-based models are increasingly preferred

There have been supporters of construction grammar for all four models, but since the late 1990s there has been an increasing preference for the usage-based model . This was ultimately responsible for the development of corpus-based approaches to the investigation of grammatical constructions.

Synonymy and monotony

Since CxG is based on the application of schemes and taxonomies , dynamic derivation rules do not play a role. Construction grammar approaches are therefore monotonous. The construction grammar rejects the concept of constructional polysemy , since in CxG approaches no surface structures are derived from deep structures, and represents - as explained by Adele Goldberg - the principle of no synonymy of the functionalist Dwight Bolinger . In the context of construction grammar, for example, one would say that the active and the passive variant of a proposition are not derived from the same deep structure, but are both instances of their own construction. Since constructions consist of form and meaning, the active and passive versions of the proposition are not synonymous , but differ in their - in this case pragmatic - meaning.

Individual construction grammars

As mentioned above, CxG is less a single grammar than a whole “family” of theories. The elaborated, formalized construction grammars include the following:

Construction grammar

Construction Grammar (with uppercase letters) focuses primarily on the formal aspects of construction. A unification grammatical system is used, comparable to that of the Head-Driven Phrase Structure Grammar . The representatives or developers of Construction Grammar are Charles J. Fillmore , Paul Kay , Laura Michaelis and, to a certain extent, Ivan Sag .

Construction grammar according to Goldberg / Lakoff

Construction grammars, as proposed by linguists such as Adele Goldberg and George Lakoff , are primarily oriented towards the mutual external relationships of the constructions and the structure of the overall network. A strong consideration of cognitive aspects can also be observed insofar as a large number of principles are adopted from cognitive linguistics.

Cognitive Grammar

The Cognitive Grammar ( Cognitive Grammar ) by Ronald Langacker is sometimes perceived as a kind of construction grammar. The Cognitive Grammar mainly deals with the meaning component of grammatical constructions. The central assumption of the CG is that the formal aspects of a construction are in a certain sense a reflection of its semantics or are motivated by them. Langacker even assumes that supposedly abstract grammatical concepts such as part of speech classes are semantically motivated and can be traced back to certain conceptualizations.

Radical Construction Grammar

The Radical Construction Grammar (RCG) by William Croft , with a view to their application in the language typology developed and considered in particularly the voice comparison. She focuses on the analysis of the internal structure of constructions.

Radical Construction Grammar is completely non-reductionist . Constructions cannot be defined by their components (syntactic categories, semantic roles), but conversely, the components are defined by their appearance in a certain construction.

As a result, constructions in the RCG have the character of shapes . The Radical Construction Grammar can thus reject the conception of the universal validity of semantic roles and relations as well as syntactic categories, since these are not only viewed as language-specific, but also as construction-specific. So there are no universals in the RCG that relate to the formal properties of constructions. Universal properties are, however, in the field of imaging ( mapping ) of form and meaning to the syntactic and conceptual space suspected.

In addition, the Radical Construction Grammar completely dispenses with syntactic relations, the properties of which are reduced to the relationships between semantic roles. Like the construction grammar according to Goldberg / Lakoff and the cognitive grammar, the RCG can be assigned to cognitive linguistics .

Embodied Construction Grammar

The Embodied Construction Grammar (ECG), as it is currently being developed by Benjamin Bergen and Nancy Chang , is based on the common definition of a grammatical construction, but places greater emphasis on the relationship between the meaning part of a construction and aspects of the embodiment of mental representations ( Embodiment ) and sensorimotor sensory data. A central assumption for the ECG is that the content of a linguistic sign is related to mental simulations and can ultimately be traced back to basic image schemas as described by Mark Johnson and George Lakoff . ECG is also a cognitive-linguistic theory and, like the Construction Grammar, is based on a representation model that is committed to standardization.

More grammars

In addition, there are other representatives of construction grammar theories that cannot be assigned to any particular direction. A growing interest in diachronic aspects of construction has led to the expansion of construction grammar to include studies of grammaticalization . The same applies to studies in the area of ​​pragmatics and pragmatic constructions, which in the end meant a strong increase in popularity for the usage-based model. Mainly due to the work of Michael Tomasello , an interest in construction-grammatical approaches to language acquisition has arisen. A construction grammar designed to be used for parsing spoken or written language is the Fluid Construction Grammar by Luc Steels .


Esa Itkonen, who defends humanistic linguistics and opposes Darwinian linguistics, questions the originality of the work of Adele Goldberg, Michael Tomasello, Gilles Fauconnier, William Croft, and George Lakoff. According to Itkonen, construction grammarians have taken old ideas in linguistics and added just a few false claims. For example, the construction type and conceptual blend or analogy and 'blend' correspond in the works of William Dwight Whitney , Leonard Bloomfield , Charles Hockett, and others.

On the other hand, the construction grammarians' claim that their research is a continuation of Saussurian linguistics has been viewed as misleading. The German philologist Elisabeth Leiss regards construction grammar as a step backwards and connects it with the social Darwinism of August Schleicher in the 19th century.


  • Bergen, Benjamin & Nancy Chang. Embodied Construction Grammar in Simulation-Based Language Understanding. (In print). J.-O. Östman & M. Fried (eds.). Construction Grammar (s): Cognitive and Cross-Language Dimensions . Amsterdam: John Benjamin.
  • Croft, William A. (2001). Radical Construction Grammar. Syntactic Theory in Typological Perspective . Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  • Croft, William A. & D. Alan Cruse (2004). Cognitive Linguistics . Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  • Feldman, Jerome A. (2006). From molecule to metaphor . Cambridge, MA: MIT Press. ISBN 0-262-06253-4
  • Fillmore, Charles, Paul Kay and Catherine O'Connor (1988). Regularity and idiomaticity in grammatical constructions: the case of let alone . Language 64: 501-38.
  • Fischer, Kerstin & Anatol Stefanowitsch (eds., 2006). Construction grammar. From application to theory . Tübingen: Stauffenburg. ISBN 3-86057-788-3
  • Goldberg, Adele (1995). Constructions: A Construction Grammar Approach to Argument Structure . Chicago: The University of Chicago Press. ISBN 0-226-30086-2
  • Hilpert, Martin (2014). Construction Grammar and its Application to English . Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press.
  • Lakoff, George (1987). Women, Fire, and Dangerous Things: What Categories Reveal about the Mind . Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.
  • Langacker, Ronald (1987). Foundations of Cognitive Grammar . Vol. 1. Theoretical Prerequisites . Stanford: Stanford University Press. ISBN 0-8047-3851-3
  • Langacker, Ronald (1991). Foundations of Cognitive Grammar . Vol. 2. Descriptive Application . Stanford: Stanford University Press. ISBN 0-8047-3852-1

Web links

Individual evidence

  1. ^ A b William Croft: Competing Models of Linguistic Change: Evolution and Beyond . Ed .: Ole Nedergaard Thomsen. John Benjamin, 2006, The relevance of an evolutionary model to historical linguistics, pp. 91-132 , doi : 10.1075 / cilt.279.08cro .
  2. ^ Simon Kirby: The Language Phenomenon . Ed .: Binder / Smith. Springer, 2013, Transitions: the evolution of linguistic replicators, p. 121-138 , doi : 10.1007 / 978-3-642-36086-2_6 ( online [PDF]).
  3. ^ Eva Zehentner: Competition in Language Change: the Rise of the English Dative Alternation . De Gruyter Mouton, 2019, ISBN 978-3-11-063385-6 .
  4. a b Brian MacWhinney: Handbook of Language Emergence . Ed .: Brian MacWhinney, William O'Grady. Wiley, 2015, ISBN 978-1-118-34613-6 , Introduction - language emergence, p. 1-31 .
  5. ^ Adele Goldberg: Constructions at Work: The Nature of Generalization in Language . Oxford University Press, New York 2006, ISBN 0-19-926852-5 , pp. 5-10 ( online ).
  6. Clay Beckner, Richard Blythe, Joan Bybee, Morten H. Christiansen, William Croft, Nick C. Ellis, John Holland, Jinyun Ke, Diane Larsen-Freeman, Tom Schoenemann: Language is a Complex Adaptive System: Position Paper . In: Language Learning . tape 59 , no. 1 , 2009, p. 1–26 , doi : 10.1111 / j.1467-9922.2009.00533.x ( online [PDF; accessed on July 5, 2020]).
  7. ^ Hannah Cornish, Monica Tamariz, Simon Kirby: Complex Adaptive Systems and the Origins of Adaptive Structure: What Experiments Can Tell Us . In: Language Learning . tape 59 , no. 1 , 2009, p. 187–205 , doi : 10.1111 / j.1467-9922.2009.00540.x ( online [PDF; accessed on July 5, 2020]).
  8. ^ A b Östen Dahl: The Growth and Maintenance of Linguistic Complexity . John Benjamin, 2004, ISBN 978-1-58811-554-6 .
  9. George Lakoff, Mark Johnson: Philosophy in the Flesh: the Embodied Mind and its Challenge to Western Thought . Basic Books, 1999, ISBN 0-465-05673-3 .
  10. Esa Itkonen: On Coseriu's legacy . In: Energeia . No. III , 2011, p. 1–29 ( online (PDF) ).
  11. Esa Itkonen: Konstruktiokielioppi yes analogy . In: Virittäjä . No. 4 , 2011, p. 81–117 (Finnish, online ): ”p. 600 “So what should be new? Mainly that 'argument structure constructions have their own meaning regardless of the lexical material' ... But this is not new, this is ancient. ”[Minkä siis pitäisi olla uutta? Lähinnä sen, että ”argumenttirakennekonstruktioilla on siis oma, leksikaalisesta aineistosta riippumaton merkityksensä” ... Mutta tämä ei ole uutta, tämä on ikivanhaa.] ”
  12. Esa Itkonen: Analogy as Structure and Process. Approaches in linguistics, cognitive psychology and philosophy of science . John Benjamin, 2005, ISBN 978-90-272-9401-2 .
  13. ^ Els Elffers: Saussurean structuralism and cognitive linguistics . In: Histoire épistemologique langage . tape 34 , no. 1 , 2012, p. 19-40 ( online ).
  14. ^ Elisabeth Leiss: Philosophy of Language . De Gruyter, 2009, ISBN 978-3-11-021700-1 .