mid term questions and answers

for Dan Sanford’s 490/590 seminar: Formulaic Language.

i had to pick two out of these four:

  • What is formulaic language, what is the lexicon, and what does formulaic language tell us about the lexicon?
  • What are some aspects of language that are difficult to account for in a model of language that makes a clear distinction between the lexicon and grammar?
  • Some people have argued that formulaic language exists in order to save on processing effort. Does this view hold up?
  • Compare the Conceptual Metaphor Theory (Lakoff) and Conceptual Blending/Mental Spaces Theory (Fauconnier) approaches to metaphor. How are these two approaches different, and how are they similar? Which, in your opinion, provides a better account of metaphor?

i chose to answer questions 2 & 3. following are my responses:

  1. Like most generalizations about language, making a clear distinction between th lexicon and grammar fails to take into account an important interaction between the two. Even though we have tens of thousands of words individually stored in our lexicons, it’s been discovered that we do not use the lexicon on a one plus one basis all the time. Instead, there are parts of the lexicon that we use in very grammatical-like fashions, to function in a pragmatic way in the utterance while, most often, still maintaining a lexical meaning. In fact, formulaic language, due to its predictable qualities, can index more than one content meaning, giving way to the use of metaphor in our everyday use of language. Without a clear distinction between grammar and the lexicon, categories of words that used to be “exceptions” or were somehow outside the realm of categorization suddenly have a home. Politeness and greeting terms, idioms, catch phrases and children’s rhymes, before relegated to the fringes of language use for a lack of understanding of their nature and function, are now understood to be fundamental and intrinsic to our use of language. It has been estimated that formulaic language can account for almost half of a discourse. The inevitable change in the meaning of a word by way of frequency of use and context deeply influences the way such a word will be used in the future, and when factoring in the rest of the variables that affect language use, it’s easy to see how certain meanings become quickly conventionalized for the sake of mutual understanding. This type of pattern in human behavior is seen in other aspects of language and culture. Ritualized behavior has both cognitive and social roots and expressions. Analyzed language must be looked at like most aspects of human behavior: as a gradient with far-ranging ends of the spectrum.


  1. I don’t have a problem with any of the words in the sentence “[F]ormulaic language exists in order to save on processing effort.” except for “in order to.” I respectfully disagree with this view, and I don’t think that under scrutiny it can be successfully defended. Human behavior is hardly ever motivated on a purely cognitive level. It’s not accurate to view language as some self-fulfilling means and ends. Instead, language is a tool and vehicle by which to acquire, achieve, and exchange other things in the greater reality, and within the social groups we create and belong to in that greater context. In order to achieve and acquire that which prolongs our survival, we must establish a common ground and set of shared experiences with those around us, also social creatures with similar tools to achieve similar ends. It is by this process of establishing mutually beneficial relationships that we use and reuse language. We use language so much, so often, in such similar contexts, that our cognition, the web of interrelated and highly complex mental processes that allow us to mechanize other behaviors such as breathing, blinking, and even more immediately complex sets of actions like drive a car, also mechanizes the gestures necessary to produce certain words and chunks of language. No doubt we save on processing time when we use formulaic language. And no doubt it’s a strategy actively exploited by our cognition to fulfill our greater goals. Human behavior is quickly regularized and ritualized, and meaning is attached to not only the original action or words but to the formulaic versions as well. My repertoire for greetings is large, yet I don’t automatically use the quickest or most used way in just any context. A fully realized “good morning,” one type of chunk, is best when dealing with my boss, whereas “morning” an even more established piece of formulaic language, is appropriate when greeting my peers. The consideration of boss vs. peer dictates a choice that negates efficiency. Ultimately, saying that the conscious motivation of formulaic language is to the end of efficient processing reflects a partial and imbalanced view of the entirety that is the motivation, necessity, and desire to use language.

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This entry was written by transmitter , posted on Wednesday March 26 2008at 09:03 pm , filed under formulaic language, functionalism, grammar, language, lexicon, linguistics . Bookmark the permalink . Post a comment below or leave a trackback: Trackback URL.

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