Geoffrey S. Nathan, Wayne State University


This paper will discuss the ways in which Cognitive Grammar (CG) has integrated the fundamental concepts of phonology. Phonology has traditionally been the neglected stepchild of CG, in part because the initial excitement of CG revolved around the insightful semantic analyses of what had previously been thought to be purely syntactic or arbitrary lexical puzzles, and phonology is, by definition, about meaningless units. Additionally, phonology deals with the coordination of motor activity and auditory perception, areas that initially didn’t seem to lend themselves to the conceptual tools of CG.

Unlike much work on syntax and semantics, research within several of the generative and functional traditions turns out to be adaptable to CG’s view of the nature of phonological processing. The primary source of useful insights is the work of the Natural Phonologists (Donegan and Stampe) who argued for non-modular cognitive realism and against Chomskyan innatism independently from CG theorists. Furthermore, some work by recent offshoots of Generative Phonology turn out to have useful things to say about how CG might understand the structure of sounds in language.

The earliest writing on the subject (Nathan) examined ways in which the core categorization concepts in early CG (radial prototype categories, image schema transformations, basic level categorization) could be utilized to explain traditional phonological concepts such as the phoneme, allophones and (natural) phonological processes. In more recent research, the conceptual tools of usage-based models have also been used to account for some aspects of phonological behavior, leading some researchers to question the relevance even of such traditional phonological constructs as the phoneme/allophone contrast (Bybee) or the distinction between abstract phonemic representation and representations of individual instances of particular utterances (Pierrehumbert).

Additionally, the question of the boundary between phonology and morphology has been raised, with some researchers (such as the present author) arguing for a sharp, functional boundary based on the varying cognitive and physiological resources involved, while others (Nesset, Kemmer) arguing for a more generalized schematization model covering all aspects of phonological as well as morphological and syntactic generalizations.

After reviewing relevant issues this paper argues that evidence from early aspects of child language acquisition, such as the onset and development of babbling (MacNeilage), the embodied nature of perception (Johnson), and other research on the acquisition and processing of complex motor skills, shows that phonology requires a more active conception of the storage and production of stored heard instances. Phonology is based upon speakers’ knowledge of the nature and capabilities of their vocal tracts and deals with how speakers actively construct utterances based on their knowledge of their individual language(s)’ conventionalized responses to those physiological and acoustic constraints.