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Religious Language and the Theory of Lexical Concepts, Cognitive Models and Meaning Construction

The Theory of Lexical Concepts, Cognitive Models and Meaning Construction (LCCM) attempts to update the work of researchers like Lakoff and Johnson in order to bring the concept of cognitive models in line with a new focus on a “usage-based” approach to language (Evans, 2006, 2009). This focus stresses the inherently situated nature of communication and argues that words or linguistic units should not be viewed as isolated packets of meaning that are sent back and forth between humans. Communication instead depends on complex interactions between the semantic meaning of a word, the meaning of the utterance, and the syntactical structure of the utterance.

The theory distinguishes between lexical concepts (as linguistic entities at the level of words and phrases) and cognitive models (as non-linguistic entities). Evans argues that meaning is achieved through highly schematic and impoverished lexical concepts (like god) giving access to semantically richer domains of cognitive models.

As Richardson (2013) has argued, religious language is full of examples of words or phrases that, believers will argue, have much deeper meaning than their everyday use might suggest. A Muslim testimonial, for example, might include the phrase Islam is the way to salvation. In this example, the “X is Y” construction is regarded as having its own schematic level of meaning, showing that feature Y is predicated on X. The subject slot must therefore be filled with a noun, which in LCCM theory is regarded as an “open-class lexical concept” that can provide access to a range of cognitive models. The noun phrase the way to salvation must undergo a two-step process to establish its meaning: first of all, the determiner, noun, preposition, and second noun need to be integrated; and, second, the fused meaning of the noun phrase needs to undergo further integration with Islam within the confines of the “X is Y” construction.

The phrase way to salvation provides a context for giving the definite article the meaning of there being only one possible thing (in this case a way to salvation) and not others. Prepositions such as to are closed-class lexical items in that they primarily signal functional relations. LCCM theory holds that such words are therefore incapable of providing access to cognitive models in and of themselves. However, they can indicate relationships between lexical concepts and provide schematic information as well as meaning once associated with an open-class lexical unit. In this case, the preposition to relates way with salvation by setting up a path schema with salvation as an end point.

In terms of meaning, this is as far as the lexical concepts can take us. They establish that there is an entity X which possesses the attribute of being a Y that has Z as an end point. This information is highly schematic, and while it marks out relations between the various parts of the utterance, it cannot provide detailed information.This information is supplied by the open-class lexical concepts Islam, way, and salvation, and these words provide access to cognitive models for the concepts.

In LCCM theory, lexical concepts first access primary cognitive models associated with the lexical concept. For example, way may have a primary cognitive model associated with a physical path (e.g., this way leads back to the house). However, this sense of way cannot be matched to the primary cognitive model associated with the abstract state of salvation. This incongruity is resolved by accessing secondary cognitive models, which in this case may include the figurative meaning of way as a means of achieving an abstract goal.

According to Evans (2009), if a term is used figuratively with sufficient frequency, its figurative meaning may become a “pre-assembled conception” referred to as a “concept collocation”, which may, through this process of conventionalization, become even more salient than literal primary cognitive models (p. 299). Once the cognitive models of way and salvation have been matched, it is then possible to complete the establishment of meaning by attributing way to salvation to Islam.

According to LCCM theory, a vast amount of rich conceptual information is accessed by lexical concepts.Terms like Islam and salvation and integrated sentences such as Islam is the way to salvation open up huge networks of extra-linguistic simulations and knowledge that will significantly vary from individual to individual as well as from one situated point to another in a single individual’s life. The primary and secondary cognitive models that can be related to any open-class lexical concept each consists of distinct frames comprised of individuals and types (relating to things) and situations and events. The principal distinction between these two types of information processing is that episodic memory focuses on specific incidents tied to a particular space and time, while semantic memory focuses on decontextualized facts and concepts (Ryan et al., 2008).

Evans’ use of individual and type as well as situation and event can be illustrated by returning to the term Islam. One may identify connected primary cognitive models that relate to Islam as episodic knowledge and Islam as abstracted semantic knowledge. The cognitive model based in episodic knowledge would consist of individuals that relate to Mosques one has visited, particular styles ofhijabs, burqas, and niqabs one has noticed, food one has seen in Muslim-majority countries, particular descriptions or definitions of specific doctrines, or any basic entity that one can remember experiencing at a particular time and place. When humans abstract across all those individuals, they arrive at types, such as the mosque or the hijab. Following LCCM theory, particular individuals—such as the Blue Mosque in Istanbul—or a particular definition or description of a doctrine might be identified, but a particular type—such as the mosque or the Muslim doctrine of the unity of God—cannot be identified, because it only exists as an abstraction across all the mosques or all the descriptions and definitions that one has seen and read about.

In contrast, according to Evans, situations consist of a sequence of images relating to what a particular individual has seen from a specific viewpoint, with events being coherently organized series of such situations. Just as there are individuals and types to encapsulate entities, there are also two types of situations: episodic and generic. Generic situations relate to types in that they are abstractions across a range of encountered episodic situations. An example of an episodic situation based on the primary cognitive model of Islam or Christianity as a belief system would be our memories of specific discussions with Muslims or Christians about Islam or Christianity. Our memories related to one of those discussions— including evaluative judgments, points of view, and perceptions regarding the content of the discussion and its outcome—could be regarded as one event for our cognitive model of Islam or Christianity as belief systems.

This cognitive model would also include a range of situations that one believes will be associated with Islam or Christianity as belief systems in the future (prospective situations) and ones that are believed to never be associated with Christianity or Islam as belief systems (counterfactual situations). Moreover, humans have a stored set of generic situations of a perceived common structure gleaned from, for example, discussions in the past about Islam with Muslims or about Christianity with Christians.

Needless to say, a nonbeliever’s current cognitive models for the lexical concepts of Islam or Christianity will be very different from the cognitive models of Islam or Christianity possessed by committed believers, and likewise our current cognitive models will differ from those held by our predecessors living in a different era. In other words, cognitive models are not static and may differ substantially among believers.

Another layer of conceptual meaning relates to attributes and values that are assigned to various frames. For Evans, frames involve attributes (an aspect of a given frame) and values (a specification of that aspect). The abstracted type frames that one would associate with the primary cognitive models of Islam as a theological belief system include beliefs about Allah, Mohammad, Jesus, the Qur’an, the desire for salvation, and so on. The attributes that one would associate, for example, with the type frame belief in Mohammad include the belief that he is the messenger of Allah, the belief that he dictated the Qur’an, and the belief that he is to be highly respected. The values associated with the attribute of the belief that Mohammad was instrumental in the writing of the Qur’an would include the specification that it was produced through divine inspiration, which would link to the attribute of Mohammad as the messenger of Allah while also leading to the further specification of the belief that the angel Gabriel relayed verses of the Qur’an to Mohammad.

In addition to this vast array of information that can be accessed when one uses or hears the term Islam, the location of the term in a particular sentence at a particular point in a text or discourse for a particular purpose impacts its meaning and highlights specific frames and attributes in that primary cognitive model over other frames and attributes. The views of Islam conveyed by the sentence Islam is the only true religion and by Islam, Christianity, and Judaism are considered Abrahamic religions are different because of how the word Islam appears in each sentence. These connections among the different elements that affect interpretation can be described as a “discourse model”—“a dynamic mental model constructed during ongoing discourse, to which information is continually added” (Evans, 2009, p. 276). LCCM theory thus views the meanings within discourse as highly dynamic and situated. The ever-expanding, -updating and -evolving network of individual, type, situation, and event frames combined with the shifting intentions and context of an addresser, along with the dynamic flow of discourse, ensure that no utterance can ever have the exact same meaning as another.

LCCM theory should not be viewed as opposed to Lakoff’s (1987a) theory of ICMs, but rather as a significantly nuanced update of it that attempts to integrate several key strands of cognitive linguistic theory. The key difference is that Lakoff is attempting to recover relatively stable cognitive models from a range of different lexical concepts, while Evans is attempting to map how a range of different usages and combinations of lexical concepts provide shifting levels of access to an even larger range of dynamically developing cognitive models.

Lakoff’s theory of ICMs is useful for investigating some believers’ tendencies, often reinforced through social institutions, to foreground particular models and perspectives and to perceive them as rigid and fixed. In contrast, Evans’ usage-based approach to cognitive models foregrounds how even the conservative religious believer’s view of the world is far from fixed and rigid. It suggests that variability is virtually infinite when belief is viewed through the prism of experience and the expression of that experience at a particular point in a text or point of time within unfolding discourse. The inevitable consequence of this is that cognitive model selection and expression are always, to some degree, dynamic and unique.

Richardson (2017) examines one such case of shifting descriptions of belief observed in a recorded discussion between a conservative Christian and a conservative Muslim who each held that their respective sacred texts represented the revelation of God. Within their discussion, the Muslim participant used the word message to describe the Qur’an 11 times, but at one point during their exchange, the Christian participant seemingly adopted a similar position that the Qur’an was a message and expanded on this by designating an originating location and purpose:

they’ll tell you that Jesus is the Word of God

and that is where the parallel with the Qur’an comes

because the Qur’an is sent from heaven to reveal God’s way.

The references to the Qur’an being parallel to Jesus as the “Word of God” and to how it was “sent” to “reveal God’s way” show how the Christian participant is temporarily accepting the language of the Muslim participant in order to exploit a comparison that emphasizes the importance of Jesus being the “Word of God”. This is therefore a case where the contingent, fluid demands of the discourse model produce fluid deviations from the Christian’s more stable idealized cognitive models of Christian belief. In a different context, the same participant might categorically reject the statement “the Qur’an is sent from heaven to reveal God’s way”.

Cognitive Linguistics is an interdisciplinary project with porous boundaries, and, therefore, it has inherited a plethora of largely overlapping terms such as category, concept, domain, schema, frame, and script. Scholars hold different views on how humans form categories using rules or through largely unconscious processes which may draw on exemplars or prototype representations. Even so, similarities can be seen among the various theoretical approaches. Both ICMs and LCCM theory, presented here, can serve as useful frameworks for describing how the mind functions when thinking and speaking about religious belief and practice. Human actions and thought are shaped by the fact that humans have bodies and are repeatedly engaged in specific human tasks for typical human purposes. Human conceptualization—and, by extension, language—should therefore reflect both basic human contexts and the myriad diverse contexts in which humans live and have lived. For this reason, when conducting analyses of religious language, consistencies in human language and cognition and differences emerging from varied situations and environments must both be taken into account.

Discussion Questions

  • 1. Do you think there are commonalities in how human beings think and talk about their religious experiences? Why or why not?
  • 2. What kinds of domains are used to convey abstract ideas in religion? Are they generally the same domains, or do they differ depending on the religion? What motivations are there for these particular domains?
  • 3. Using the LCCM description of individual and type, and situation and event frames, describe the different elements of a religious tradition you have experienced.


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