Liane Ströbel

Sensorimotor-based Concepts in Grammar

According to Bybee, Perkins, and Pagliuca (1994), the goal of linguistics is

not just to study pathways of change and make predictions about them; it is rather to uncover the actual mechanisms of change that operate in everyday language use that eventually give rise to grammatical categories. (Bybee, Perkins, and Pagliuca 1994: 24, emphasis in original)

The grammar of a language can be seen as a cognitive achievement and as the result of “problem solving strategies” that generations of speakers of a speech community have used in order to structure their thoughts and to communicate with each other.

“Equivalence in difference” (Jakobson 1959: 262) still remains the cardinal problem of linguistics.

A cognitive usage-based approach to grammar focuses therefore on the motivation underlying grammatical structures and tries to detect the mechanism(s) at work in a language and, comparatively, across different languages (Bybee, Perkins, and Pagliuca 1994: 1).

The grammar of a language “reflects an essential feature of human cognition” (Langacker 2008: 540).

The fact that grammar has generally a “bad reputation”, is due to the fact that it is often perceived as a “system of arbitrary forms based on abstract principles unrelated to other aspects of cognition or human endeavor” (Langacker 2008:3).

As complex and opaque as the grammatical inventory may appear, the word “system” already evokes that grammar is not arbitrary but a conglomeration of functional elements, which are all linked and interact with each other.

Its opacity is due to the fact that grammatical changes take place on the diachronic axis, while the results of grammaticalization surface only on the synchronic axis.

Nevertheless, grammatical morphemes are meaningful, too (Langacker 2008:3), but in comparison to the lexicon, the original motivation for a certain grammatical morpheme is often lost with its rise in frequency.

Still, behind every grammatical structure, behind every form that turned from a lexical and semantically free and autonomous form into a grammatically functional and often bound element, there is a hidden strategy that needs to be discovered.

This website will  concentrate on the motivation and hidden strategy that gave rise to grammatical changes in many languages. As Langacker (1991:508) points out:

„[o]nly sound waves actually travel from the speaker to the hearer. Words are not containers for meaning but serve instead to elicit knowledge systems of indefinite expanse, in a flexible and open ended manner.“