Hypostasis, schema negotiation and other dynamic phenomena in the “inventory of linguistic units”


Cognitive linguistics (primarily through the groundbreaking work of Lakoff, Langacker and Croft) has made great strides towards establishing a credible view of language as a “structured inventory of conventional linguistic units” (i.a. Langacker, 1990). In particular, their refusal to separate syntax, semantics and pragmatics, has made it possible to view phenomena previously thought aberrant as an integral part of language. However, much more has been implied than said about how this ‘structured inventory’ is structured. What processes operate within it and when do they come into play? It appears to be generally accepted that blending theory provides a reliable blueprint for how these ‘conventional linguistic units’ are activated and integrated into conceptually coherent and linguistically cohesive utterances but what of the relations among the building blocks themselves? We know from Lakoff and Langacker that they are not atomic and that their relationships are hierarchical and schematic. Croft further adds that the operations performed on them are minimal. But the question of how they receive their schematicity and how they enter into the hierarchical relationships is left unanswered. Both cognitive grammar and blending theory operate with the concept of entrenchment but the details of the processes through which entrenchment occurs are left to our imagination. Similarly, the processes through which language speakers retrieve units are also thought to be mostly uniform and largely unconscious, and as such outside the scope of linguistic investigation.
This paper suggests that in order to understand how the ‘unit inventory’ of language is created, maintained and utilized, and how units are retrieved, we must investigate language more rigorously at the arena (I purposely do not use the term level) of discourse (both dialogic and expository). Specifically, I will introduce examples of two processes that occur in discourse and that are illustrative of the functioning of the unit inventory of language. They are hypostasis and schema negotiation. Both of these phenomena point to the dynamic nature of unit repository but they do it in such a way that illustrates the practical impact of some of the most basic assumptions behind cognitive grammar.

Hypostasis is a term that has fallen out of favor with linguists since the 1950s. When it was first introduced by Bloomfield it referred to a particular use of synsemantic (i.e. supposedly meaning-less) lexical items with a reference to their function, as in ‘I’m tired of his buts and ifs’. Cognitive grammar, of course, does not recognize the synsemantic/autosemantic lexicon dichotomy but claims that both ‘but’ and ‘butt’ have the same type of ‘lexical meaning’ which differs in its level of schematicity. Significantly, even grammatical constructions are seen has having substantially the same kind of meaning. However, to my knowledge no attempts have been made to investigate the processes through which levels of schematicity are negotiated in language. This paper’s principal claim is that far from being the peripheral anomaly of Bloomfield’s time or the forgotten curiosity of today, hypostasis and other means through which schematicity of linguistic units is negotiated are ubiquitous in discourse and that speakers’ ability to process them is probably crucial to our view of language as an inventory of units rather than rules and units. It is what makes it possible for units previously thought to be poles apart in the level-based view of language (such as ‘tired’ and ‘if’) to integrate together seamlessly in discourse. I contend that linguistic units are not ‘stored’ with their schematicity but rather that the degree to which they are schematic is constantly being negotiated through hypostasis-like processes. I will present examples of this negotiation from various types of discourse from task-oriented conversation to academic exposition and demonstrate how hypostasis in utterances such “Making common sense more common.” or “Today’s pins and needles day … and I got me on … them.” is being used to negotiate the schematicity of linguistic units.