Liane Ströbel

Sensorimotor-based Concepts & Interdisciplinary Benefits

SBC’s have been, are and will be used in order to illustrate that grammatical forms are meaningful, even if they have been deprived of their original semantic meaning. They are far more than “morphosyntactic ballast”, they fulfill important linguistic functions depending on the linguistic material they are combined with. They do not only strengthen the relationship between the subject and the utterance, but also anchor an action in the discourse situation. The flexibility of these constructions favors even functional extensions.

The example of SBC’s has illustrated that grammar emerges out of strategies speakers of a language use in order to emphasize a certain part of an utterance (e.g. the relationship between X, Y and the discourse situation). As a comparison of present and future development tendencies in European and non-European languages shows, even very different languages make similar choices because one universal strategy can be regarded as the source of SBC’s. This strategy is not restricted to empty verb constructions, but can also function as an explanation for the rise and the choice of the linguistic material of synthetic and analytic perfect and future markers, and can therefore make an important contribution to a better understanding of the similarities of even unrelated languages.

Besides the direct benefits that a cognitive approach to grammar represents, there are important indirect benefits to be drawn from the stimulation that it provides to neighboring disciplines, such as foreign language acquisition, pedagogy, and teaching. For these, the interface between language and thought, and with it intention-reading and pattern-finding, is becoming increasingly important. The existence of a pattern (e.g. from static to directed movement) and the fact that even slight variation in the choice of empty verb constructions can be explained by the same strategy, can change the way language and especially grammar is perceived and most importantly the way it is treated in these three disciplines. Realizing that grammar is not meaningless or arbitrarily based on abstract principles can not only lead towards new ways of teaching, but also to the reframing of certain pedagogical issues.

Furthermore, this topic can also be regarded as a fertile research ground for further neighboring disciplines of the cognitive endeavor, such as philosophy of mind and neurolinguistics. In both these disciplines, the focus is recently on the phenomenon that many concepts or products of linguistic change are grounded on sensory motor processes. Many philosophical approaches, based on “embodiment” and “grounded cognition“ theories, refer to the hypothesis, that primary sensory and motor areas are involved in language comprehension (Barsalou 2008; Martin 2007; Ito 2005; Vosgerau and Synofzik 2010; Vosgerau and Newen 2007; Wilson 2002). The raise of auxiliaries and empty verb constructions out of the arm/hand (and/or leg/foot) string can be used in order to better illustrate this tight link between high-level cognitive abilities and low-level, basal sensory-motor processes.

Neurological studies (using fMRI and EEG) have furthermore shown that premotor and motor areas are activated somatotopically when subjects read verbs referring to hand or foot actions (Boulenger, Hauk, and Pulvermüller 2009; Hauk, Johnsrude, and Pulvermüller 2004; Hauk and Pulvermüller 2004). Studies focusing on particular verbs or contrast pairs, such as e.g. German greifen ‘grasp’ vs. begreifen ‘comprehend’ [a prefixed form of greifen ‘grasp’], have detected that, in contrast to the non-prefixed (and non-figurative) use, the cortex activation in the prefixed (and figurative) use of these verbs diverges considerably or is even absent (Biermann-Ruben et al. 2008; Rüschemeyer et al. 2007). A similar neurolinguistic analysis of the figurative and non-figurative use of the (in both cases non-pre fixed) verbs, described in this chapter (e.g. direction inherent motion verbs, such as to take a book from the shelf, to go to town vs. to take a break, I am going to sing), could help to detect and clarify whether the fade of motor cortex activation is due to prefixation or simply due to the figurative use of these verbs. A transdisciplinary approach to the mechanism at work of language change (combining linguistic, neurolinguistic, and philosophic theories) could therefore lead to a better understanding about the way language is conceptualized, structured, and cognitively stored.