Many linguists use ideological-sounding labels to identify themselves (or their colleagues), and I keep wondering about the purpose and content of these labels – what exactly is a “cognitive linguist” , for example? Is it someone who shares Lakoff’s (1991) “cognitive commitment” (to make their account of human language accord with what is generally known about the mind and brain from other disciplines”)? But why “commitment” – isn’t this simply a general and uncontroversial principle of science? I have attended quite a few “cognitive linguistics” conferences (and have published in, and reviewed for, the journal Cognitive Linguistics). Clearly, there is a real-world community of practice that is associated with this label, where interesting work is happening. But science is by definition universal and should avoid additional ideologies, so what, if anything, is behind this label, other than a tradition going back to George Lakoff?
In this blogpost, I address a related (and somewhat simpler) question, namely what distinguishes constructionism. While this label has been used by Adele Goldberg in a broader sense (Goldberg 2013; see below), I am simply asking here whether constructions play an important part in some or all approaches to grammar. And as in the case of structuralism (see my 2020 blogpost “We are all structuralists”), my preliminary conclusion at this stage is that we are all constructionists.
Not everyone uses the label “construction”, but it seems to me that the Main Idea of constructionism is just as uncontroversial as the Main Idea of structuralism. I formulate it as follows here:
The Main Idea of constructionism
The relationship between grammatical forms and meanings is not necessarily one-to-one, so that we need additional mechanisms (constructions) that go beyond the basic mechanisms of morph combination and composition.
Goldberg & Jackendoff (2004: 533-534) put it as follows: “Constructions are like traditional idioms: they are listed in the lexicon with a syntactic structure, a meaning, and (where there is a special morpheme) a partial phonology.” In other words: It is not generally sufficient to have a list of morphs with their meanings and to combine (or merge) these morphs.
Now in many simple cases, complex expressions do indeed consist of transparent morph combinations whose semantic composition is straightforward, e.g. [freshA waterN]NP, child-hood, tree-s, [theyPRO openV [theD windowN]NM]CS. Textbooks tend to present such cases first, so the phenomena that go beyond these clear cases may appear to be unusual (especially to beginners), and it may seem that they present a deep theoretical problem. However, we have always known that simple morph combination is not enough, and linguists have always used additional mechanisms.
Here is a reminder of a few well-known phenomena that go beyond simple morph combination and require constructions: idiomatic expressions (e.g. once in a blue moon, to hit the nail on the head); meaningful inflectional zeroes (e.g. she hit-s vs. she hit-Ø); semi-productive combinations (e.g. arriv-al, *depart-al); non-compositional derivation (e.g. sheep-ish ‘sheep-like; embarrased’); discontinuous inflection (e.g. German ge-geb-en ‘given’); cumulative inflections and portmanteau elements (e.g. Russian stol-ov [table-GEN.PL] ‘of the tables’; French aux ‘to the PL’, instead of à les); non-existent bases (e.g. gorge-ous); directionality mismatches (e.g. assassin ‘someone who assassinates’, linguist ‘expert in linguistics’); sister derivatives (e.g. ambi-tion/ambiti-ous; but there is no *ambit)); meaningful word orders (e.g. Russian pjat’ knig ‘five books’; knig pjat’ ‘about five books’); meaningful valency constructions (e.g. English double object construction [V NP NP] with transfer meaning; Goldberg 1992; English resultative construction V NP Adj, e.g. hammer the metal flat ‘cause the metal to be flat by hammering’); morphomic stems (e.g. Latin lauda-t- [passive participle], as used in lauda-t-urus ‘who will praise (active, future)’); suppletive inflectional forms (e.g. good/bett-er); transfixing inflection of the Semitic type (e.g. Arabic kataba ‘wrote’; kutiba ‘was written’); empty elements (pure stem-forming elements in inflection; periphrasis forms in syntax).
In Berkeley Construction Grammar (Fillmore 2013), the focus has mostly been on syntactic patterns of English, and in morphological approaches (especially Booij 2010; Audring & Jackendoff 2020), a few more languages have been brought into play (see also Booij (ed.) 2018). However, the kinds of phenomena mentioned in the preceding paragraph are rampant in the world’s languages, so there is no reason why the idea of constructions should be restricted to English, Dutch and German departments. And in fact, when we look at the earlier morphological literature (e.g. Nida 1949; Robins 1959; Matthews 1974), these phenomena are discussed and theorized prominently. At the time, the term “construction” played no role, but these earlier linguists were fully aware that simple morph combination is not sufficient. The term that was long used was paradigm, or paradigmatic relationship, which is not really different from construction.
A paradigm is a set of semantically and formally related expressions. The term paradigm comes from inflectional paradigms, but it has been extended to derivational paradigms (Štekauer 2014), and if one makes no strict distinction between morphology and syntax, there are also syntactic paradigms. In fact, the relationships between related inflected forms (writ-es/writ-ing), derivational forms (organiz-er/organiz-ation), and syntactic forms (the tree/this tree/our tree) are completely parallel. Some paradigms can be eliminated by reducing them to morph combinations, but many cannot. Even a simple paradigm like English they play/they play-ed involves a complication: The form without the Past-tense marker -ed is a Present-tense form (they play), with a distinct Present-tense function that cannot simply be described as “non-past”. One could describe this by means of a “zero sign”, but this would be an assimilation to the simplistic morph combination mechanism – it would thus hide the fact that what we have here is a paradigmatic – or constructional – phenomenon (I have argued against “zero markers” here).
Morphologists have a fairly long history of discussing paradigmatic/constructional phenomena. In the 1980s, two widely cited books were Plank’s (1981) Morphologische (Ir-)Regularitäten, and van Marle’s (1984) On the paradigmatic dimension of morphological creativity (see also van Marle 2000). Both discussed paradigmatic/constructional phenomena in derivational morphology in great detail, and these ideas were never forgotten. Geert Booij was evidently influenced by them, and as late as in 2008, he called his approach “Paradigmatic morphology” (Booij 2008). There is no difference between these Dutch/German ideas and what is called “constructionist approaches” nowadays. In Britain and the United States, this way of thinking has been called “word and paradigm” (made prominent by Robins 1959; and especially by Matthews 1974), and has been applied especially to inflectional paradigms. Since Anderson (1992), it became more and more prominent, and after Stump (2001), the need for constructional/paradigmatic descriptions has come to be known as “realizational”. Works such as Spencer (2001), Anderson (2015) and Blevins (2016) kept pointing to the “problems with the morpheme theory” (Spencer 2001: 285), advocating a paradigmatic/constructional (or “abstractive”, in Blevins’s terms) alternative. (Likewise, Aronoff’s 1976 idea of “word-based” morphology also argied against “morpheme-based” morphology.)
But in fact, the so-called “morpheme theory” was never adopted by anyone, and while many linguists since the 1930s felt that a “morph(eme)” concept was useful, it was always (or at least since Hockett 1947) clear that morphological patterns are more complex than is suggested by simplistic morph concatenation. The idea of morphology as the “syntax of words” was promoted by some in the 1980s (e.g. Selkirk 1982), but again: it has always been clear that syntax requires constructions. In simplistic cases, syntactic phrases can be described as concatenative, but we quickly reach more complex phenomena where this is no longer possible. For example, just as Russian expresses numerical approximation by word order (e.g. pjat’ knig ‘five books’; knig pjat’ ‘about five books’), English expresses polar questions by word order (e.g. She is here vs. Is she here?). Clearly, the question meaning is associated with a construction here, not with a particular morph. If one wants to maintain the fiction of simplistic morph combination, one can of course introduce a “zero question morpheme” (as was done by Katz & Postal 1964; see Baker 1970), but this does not make the analysis any less constructional. The essence of constructionism is the recognition that “we need additional mechanisms (constructions) that go beyond the basic mechanisms of morph combination”, so any zero element is a constructional feature. (And for that matter, any transformational rule is constructional, too, because transformations are additional mechanisms.) Zero elements and constructional schemas (as in Booij 2010) are notationally different, but there does not seem to be any difference in substance.
At this point, some readers may wonder whether I have emptied the notion of a construction (and of constructionist analyses) of all useful content. Well, this view of constructionist analyses certainly does not make it possible to contrast “constructionist” with “generative” approaches, but that was part of the point here. If there is a deep contrast, I would like to know what it is, in a way that I understand and that goes beyond notation. Just as “structuralism” does not contrast well with “generativism” or with “functionalism”, I do not see “constructionism” contrasting transparently with “generativism”. A rich discussion of the relationship between construction grammar and various generative approaches (especially HPSG) is provided by Müller (2021), who summarizes: “HPSG is a Construction Grammar” (and points to Riehemann 1998 as an important step in the development of “construction morphology”)
Goldberg (2013: 15) associates four features (or “tenets”) with her broader notion of “constructionist approaches”:
- Grammatical constructions: Phrasal constructions, like traditional lexical items, are learned pairings of form and function.
- Surface structure: Grammar does not involve any transformational or derivational component. Semantics is associated directly with surface form.
- A network of constructions: Phrasal constructions, words, and partially filled words (a.k.a. morphemes) are related in a network in which nodes are related by inheritance links.
- Crosslinguistic variability and generalization: Languages are acknowledged to vary in wide-ranging ways. The crosslinguistic generalizations that do exist are explained by domain-general cognitive processes or by the functions of the constructions involved.
On this list, No. 4 does indeed seem to be a major difference between generative and non-aprioristic linguistics, because generative linguists have traditionally assumed that there is a rich innate blueprint for grammar. But as I noted above, everyone must assume that “phrasal constructions are learned pairings of form and function” (No 1), in one way or another – notations vary widely, but the simplistic model of morph combination and composition is plainly insufficient. The “surface structure orientation” (No 2) is not a substantive difference either, because “underlying structures” and “derivational rules” are just one way of notating constructional patterns. All descriptions need abstractness because grammatical patterns are not simplistic, and unless one thinks that the rule types are innate (see the first sentence of this paragraph), transformations are merely one way of describing the facts.
It may be that the idea of an inheritance network (No 3) is truly different from generative grammar, but it is actually quite doubtful that inheritance networks are sufficient (see Müller & Wechsler 2014 for extensive discussion; also Müller 2021: §1.2.3). Booij & Masini (2015) provide some discussion of “second-order schemas”, and Audring (2019) discusses similar phenomena under the rubric of “sister constructions/schemas”. Basically, all inflectional paradigms are sets of sister constructions, and when Goldberg talks about “a network of constructions”, it is not clear whether this network is necessarily limited to pure inheritance relations. If not, then again the difference seems to be primarily notational.
(It is true that Goldberg’s fifth point about the usage-based nature of competence, that “knowledge of language includes both items and generalizations, at varying levels of specificity”, is never emphasized by generative grammarians, but it seems logically necessary to recognize that some complex forms are stored in memory, so again, the substantive difference is hard to pinpoint. But I leave this matter aside here.)
Thus, we must all be constructionists. I am saying “must” here, because in a sense, it would be desirable to have a simpler model of morphosyntax that makes do with morphs and their combinations. Constructions are powerful devices. If languages did not have constructions, and relied merely on morphs and simple combination patterns (e.g. if sentences were like web URLs, which consist of letters and letter combinations plus a few other symbols, combined according to a few simple rules), grammars would be much simpler. But with the power that constructions provide, languages could be much more complex than they are in reality. This then leads us to the question why many parts of languages seem to approximate the morph-combination model.
I find this a very challenging question, and I feel that we have not even asked it properly. Just arguing against the “morpheme theory” strawman does not seem to lead to significant understanding. If language systems consist of constructions, not of morphs and simple combination rules, then why do many sentences look like they largely consist of morph combinations?
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