The cognitive approach to language: Human language versus different languages

In chapter 1, I sketched out a cognitive approach to language that sees it as a cognitive faculty intimately connected with and ultimately derived from other cognitive faculties (cf. Feldman 2006) and not as an independent module of the mind. It is activated only in instances of social interaction—that is, emergently— and is in this sense subject to the immediate needs of the context of use, which is also in the process of being constructed during the course of the interaction.[1] Why, then, do we still talk in terms of individual languages rather than simply human language?

It is clear that we all need to function as “ratified” members of a social group, and to be ratified we are constrained to acquire the linguistic constructions that others use. In point of fact, we cannot do otherwise. The step from language to a language involves the projection of a blend from one mental space to another, in which the constructions we use and perceive others to use are mapped onto a cognitive frame that then becomes embedded in our long-term memory (see chap. 1 and Fauconnier & Turner 2002). The frame is then metaphorically projected as “the property” of the group: its “language”. So the shift from human language to a language is essentially the construction of a metaphorical blend in the minds of the members participating in the group’s activities.

If this account of how we cognitively construct the concept of a language in place of human language is feasible, it is hardly surprising that we accept the “truth” of the existence of languages. Nor is it surprising that the group or groups that perceive themselves to be using a language construct communal stories (myths) to explain, justify and ratify its existence. The myths themselves belong to the archetypal linguistic homogeneity myth, and they provide a means of distinguishing the group from other groups.

  • [1] This is also the case when we are talking to ourselves or when we are reading a book. We project ourselves or an imaginary partner as the person we are communicating with.
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