Prof Dirk Geeraerts, an internationally renowned cognitive linguist from KU Leuven University in Belgium who has played an important role in the expansion of this approach to linguistics, recently visited the Ancient Studies Department to share his knowledge of the field with staff and students in the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences.
Cognitive linguistics is “an approach to the analysis of natural language" which “originated in the late 1970s and early 1980s" in the work of [the linguists] George Lakoff, Ron Langacker, and Len Talmy". Through this approach, academics are able to study the “formal structures of languages", not as autonomous structures, but rather as “reflections of general conceptual organization, categorization principles, processing mechanisms" and as it is impacted by experiential and environmental influences.
Geeraerts was invited to Stellenbosch University by Prof Christo van der Merwe, who specialises in Biblical Hebrew, Bible translation and cognitive semantics in the Ancient Studies Department, and had learn to know Geeraerts in person while on an exchange opportunity at the Belgian university in 2016.
During Geeraerts five-day visit at SU he presented a number of talks on topics such as The fog of meaning, which delved into the meaning of language and linguistic expressions, and on From structure to context: Decontextualization and recontextualization in the history of modern Western linguistics. He also presented workshops on cognitive socio-linguistics to staff and students from different departments.
“Geeraerts' visit was not only useful to academics and students within the Ancient Studies Department, but also relevant to individuals in the languages' environments. His insights into how meaning is derived from the use of language in different environments is of interest to our department especially now that we are starting to look at how language is also influenced by context, and not only syntax [the arrangement of words and phrases to create well-formed sentences in language]. Scholars are now moving beyond the meaning of language and its parts and wanting to understand how language is shaped by the environment of the people who speak that language," said Van der Merwe.
Geeraerts' fascination with cognitive linguistics started in the 1980s. Through his PhD research, he became one of the first scholars in Europe to explore the possibilities of the prototype-theoretical model of categorisation – essentially the manner in which objects are classified in language based on their similarity to a “mental image of a prototype of that object" rather than in terms of neat discrete criteria. In other words, the “red" of red lipstick would be regarded as the prototype of the category “red", while the “red" of a red jackal would be regarded as less prototypical example of the category “red" in English.
His main research interests have stretched across the overlapping fields of lexical semantics (the systematic study of word meanings), lexicology (the study of words, including things like its historical development and formation), and lexicography. He is the founding editor of the Cognitive Linguistics journal and currently serves as the managing editor of the book series, Cognitive Linguistics Research, published by Mouton de Gruyter. In 2000, he founded the research group unit on Quantitative Lexicology and Variational Linguistics at KU Leuven.
“His ideas on language variation, how the same language is spoken differently in different parts of the world, and how language gain certain meanings over time are quite fascinating," said Van der Merwe.
Prof Dirk Geeraerts (front row, second from the left), an internationally renowned theoretical linguist from KU Leuven University in Belgium who has played an important role in the expansion of cognitive linguistics, recently visited the Ancient Studies Department to share his knowledge of the field with staff and students in the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences. In the front row are Prof Christo van der Merwe of the Ancient Studies Department; Geeraerts; Mr Marcus Joubert; Prof Philip Bosman, also of the Ancient Studies Department; and Mr Cliff Sekowe. In the back are Dr Joel Ruark, and Ms Amy Daniels from the Ancient Studies Department. (Anton Jordaan, SSFD)