What is Cognitive Linguistics?

Language is the tip of an enormous cognitive iceberg. Linguistic expressions usually underspecify the meaning involved so we draw upon incredible stores of background knowledge in our memories. For example, if someone says “We never open ours until the morning” the audience has to construct meaning. The expression does not mention Christmas but those with this background are able to put the meaning together. Thus, words serve as points of access to prompt or trigger access to meaning. Cognitive linguistics investigates the mental tools humans use to make sense of our experiences in the world. Our bodies have specific types of sensory and motor capacities such as vision and grasping. We use these same basic mental tools to understand other types of experiences. For example, we might say “I see what you mean” in which we use vision to mean that we understand the point of the other person. My current research applies the field of cognitive linguistics to explore how we create meaning when we read biblical texts or think about moral issues or God.

More About Cognitive Linguistics…

Much of my work uses conceptual metaphor theory which holds that metaphors are primarily used to reason about topics, they are not merely rhetorical or flowery language. For example, when we say “Our relationship has come a long ways” we use our knowledge of what we experience on journeys to frame the way we understand a relationship between people. On journeys we have goals and a destination, we make choices about routes to take and sometimes encounter difficulties. In this metaphor we apply these aspects of journeys in order to think about relationships. So we think that our relationship has gone a great distance when we may have never literally left town. Figurative language is thinking of conceptual domain A in terms of another domain B. What difference does this make? Well, many theological disagreements are due to people using different source domains for topics such as sin or salvation.

Figurative language is regularly used to reason about pretty much every theological topic including God. A few biblical metaphors for God are father, mother, husband, friend, shepherd, rock, and hen. Each of these metaphors has inferences that tell us about features of God and how God relates to us. For instance, thinking of God as a spouse involves different ways of relating to God than understanding God as a shepherd and yourself as a sheep. People have developed different spiritual practices, in part, due to the use of different metaphors.

“I am deeply interested in the embodied nature of human reasoning and, in particular, conceptual metaphor theory.”

Cultures play a key role in meaning construction. Sometimes different languages and cultures have divergent ways of understanding a topic. It is not surprising that Christians in different cultures sometimes read passages of the Bible quite differently. For instance, 1 Timothy 2.9 says women should dress “modestly.” This word prompts American readers to construct the meaning of clothing that covers breasts and thighs. However, the verse specifically talks about modesty as not wearing expensive clothing to church. In American culture, it is acceptable for women to wear expensive clothing to church but not sexually immodest clothing.

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