The grammar of constructions: yet another theory on language. Do we really need it? Perhaps some of you have thought this when reading my article What is construction grammar? published in this column a week ago. The answer is: we can’t know if we don’t use it and if we don’t test it. On the other hand, if a scientific community develops a new theory it is because there are aspects of the theories previously available that were considered not (completely) satisfactory, so if nothing else it is worthwhile to understand what the new proposal offers, or to different, and what new perspectives it opens up.
Surely, the grammar of constructions broadens the horizon of phenomena “worthy” of consideration, in the belief that a theory of language must account for both regular and irregular expressions (and, of course, everything in between …).
But what kind of theory is it? Plural and inclusive
Recently there is much talk of plurality (or diversity) and inclusion. Here, the grammar of constructions is a theory of language that I would define as “plural” and “inclusive”.
” Plural ” because there are many concrete manifestations of this theory, which is divided, internally, into more specific constructionist models, each of which focuses on particular aspects of linguistic investigation. Adele Goldberg’s (2006) approach, for example, focuses more on cognitive aspects, while William Croft’s (2001) on typology and linguistic diversity. Moreover, there is no “leader” in the grammar of constructions (as is Noam Chomsky for example for generative grammar): there are as many as there are various strands. This “choral” – which has led someone to talk about construction grammars (or constructionism) – is a fairly original feature for theoretical linguistics, in which often theories are associated with an undisputed leader.
“ Inclusive ” because the grammar of constructions has welcomed scholars of different specializations, who have approached this new paradigm, thanks to the inherently hybrid nature of constructionism, which is, let’s say, halfway between formalism (which gives priority to the study of the formal side of linguistic expressions) and functionalism (which instead focuses on semantic, pragmatic and use aspects). This could have resulted in a rather penalizing fragmentation compared to other more compact and homogeneous models. In fact, it has had positive effects, leading to the aggregation of skills and perspectives, with a general enrichment. This aggregation has also led to greater solidity and plausibility of the constructionist theses, given the convergence of data and results from different fields of study and application fields.
Processes of abstraction
Today linguists who deal with linguistic change, language acquisition, psycho- and neurolinguistics, typology, sociolinguistics, speech analysis, language teaching, computational linguistics, lexicography, move within constructionism. and so on.
Some of these areas (such as linguistic change, language acquisition, psycholinguistics, computational linguistics) developed relatively early in constructionism and are already well established. In particular, the development of an inductive acquisitional theory played a leading role in the development of the grammar of constructions, reaffirming the centrality of use and experience of the speaker, who formulates generalizations starting from the input. The more abstract constructions, therefore, would gradually emerge in our linguistic competence starting from specific constructs, through abstraction processes (Tomasello 2003).
Others are still emerging. Sociolinguistics, for example, is one of them. The intralinguistic variation is, moreover, particularly relevant for a theory that claims to be usage-based,based on use, and which must therefore take into account both the ability of speakers to use different languages according to the context / interlocutor (and in this sense the possibility of encoding discursive information concerning the register, textual genre, etc.), and of the way in which multilingual speakers (even in contact situations) organize and manage their linguistic repertoires. A recent proposal in this sense is for the multilingual speaker to organize their linguistic competence without drawing sharp boundaries between the varieties, integrating the elements belonging to the different varieties into a single (dia) system (Höder 2014).
Second language learning
In recent years, construction has also “infected” studies on the learning of second languages and related teaching techniques (De Knop & Gilquin 2016). A fact that is not particularly surprising, considering the centrality of formular language (which goes very well with constructionist assumptions) in acquisitional linguistics and language teaching. As for the first languages, also in the learning of the second languages we start from concrete prefabricated blocks and then move on to a progressively more creative use of structures up to the actual abstract constructions (Ellis 2003). The increase in constructionist studies in this area is perhaps also linked to the fact that the grammar of constructions, especially in recent years,
Another expanding field is that of lexicography applied to buildings. In the constructionist context, the structured set of constructions of a given language (which in fact corresponds to the linguistic competence of the speakers) is called constructicon , along the lines of lexicon ‘lexicon (mental)’ (normally translated into Italian as ‘constructional’, which however it is not very happy as a term, because it is more reminiscent of the dictionary / vocabulary than the mental lexicon). For some years the term constructicography ‘construction’ has been introduced to identify that application branch that aims to develop “construction dictionaries”, that is, concrete resources that describe the constructicon. In these construction dictionaries, the various types of constructions should find a place, both the most abstract and the more specific ones, giving rise to very complex resources whose structuring (coding of constructions, relationships between constructions, etc.) is still the subject of debate. and research (Lyngfelt et al. 2016). Of course, these are innovative and extremely useful resources, not only for their possible uses (think of the possible applications in the computational or language teaching field), but also because they constitute an attempt at a unitary representation of the linguistic competence of speakers: lexicon and grammar, together.