case western reserve university



Laboratory for Applied Research in Cognitive SEMIOTICS


As language users we monitor our own writing, speech, reading, and oral reception of sentences as shaped by grammatical relations. We, in fact, cognize language as such in the act of using it, and we intuitively understand that the content of sentences is a semantic whole that forms a part of a larger whole of thought. The grammatical structure of a sentence—the assembly of its constructions, its syntax—is cognized as integrated in a whole of thought or meaning precisely by its relations. Syntax is therefore a meaningful ”instance” in the architecture of language. Its structures are accessible to the language user, and they are projected into and extracted from the structures of the ”instance” of phonetics. A similar process of projection and extraction connects it to the ”instance” of thinking we usually call semantics.

Stemmatic representations of the grammatical relations shaping a sentence as a network of variably interdependent components—words and phrases that are networks of words in the same sense—are graphic models that reflect our intuitive understanding of grammatical relations.

Cognitive approaches to language and linguistic theory often reduce their models of linguistic organization to an arbitrary binary association of entirely isolated and autonomous linear ”forms” and mental ”meanings.” These phonetico–semantic ”form–meaning pairings” are then called ”constructions.” The stemmatic view of language is that projection and extraction are essential processes at work between all three basic ”instances”—phonetics, syntax, and semantics.

This view has received decisive support from the recent preliminary finding that there is a formalizable syntactic format such that:

  • (1) An unlimited number of reportable grammatical sentence and phrase constructions in a wide range of languages can be relevantly analysed in this format to form a canonical complement cascade—a so-called stemma—whose nodes are stably linked to a finite set of semantic types of complementation (in fact, a set of proto-case types) that stays the same across different constructions and even different languages.
  • (2) The canonical cascade of complements in this syntactic format creates a semantic whole—an elementary predicative and scenarial representation. This whole is a plausible candidate for a minimal cognitive unit of thought, whether verbal or not.
  • (3) Sentence structures described within the stemmatic, non-linear format can be linked to the linear format of phonetic strings by a set of language-specific projection rules that account for word order and certain features of intonation and prosody.

If this finding is confirmed, it will make possible a new and significantly more systematic project of comparative syntax. Grammatical parsing can be automated in a totally new key so that meaning can be extracted from text through parsing automats, thus improving data-mining, search machines, and bibliographic search techniques.  Dialogue simulation based on stemmatic strategies would substantially improve human-machine interaction (HMI), since natural semantics of various kinds can be identified in texts and built into simulated texts. Language teaching would be improved by a technology that is much more sensitive to relations between phonetics, semantics, and syntax than existing learning tools.

In conclusion, the stemmatic analysis of language is a cognitive enterprise, constituting a new branch of cognitive linguistics, or cognitive grammar. It is also a semiotic enterprise in so far as it recognizes the primarily non-referential character of signified meaning and therefore recognizes the ”instance” of linguistic semantics as grounded in the human imaginary and in human acts of communication, including gesture, prosody, and the production and exchange of lexicalized utterances. Cognitive semiotics is a field of research on sign-based meaning production and communication in general, an all-important aspect of human cognition. From the perspective of this Laboratory, stemmatic syntax is an important part of the applied and the theoretical programs in cognitive semiotics. A new publication has been issued by the Center for Cognition and Culture on this topic, the   Journal COGNITIVE SEMIOTICS.