The cognitive side of syntactic variation: Verbal objects and the creation of communicative styles in discourse

Members of the research group will take part in different upcoming events to present some advances of the ongoing research project FFI2013-41250-P. One of these is the 13 International Cognitive Linguistics Conference to be held at Northumbria University, Newcastle, England, July 20-25, 2015.

The principles and methods of the study of syntactic variation can greatly benefit from the theoretical bases offered by cognitive linguistics, particularly its view of syntax as inherently meaningful. In turn, this will make it possible to accommodate the sociolinguistic side of variation; the generation of meaning through syntactic choices results in the rise of communicative styles as the construction of personal identities and of interpersonal relationships. More specifically, variation can be considered a matter of communicative choice in the sense that no two grammatical forms are totally synonymous. Any alteration in the syntactic form is parallel to a difference in the way events and their participants are conceptualized. If this notion is applied to language use in human communities, if follows that the differential patterning of syntactic variants across communicative settings and social groups will reflect the preference for different ways to create meanings and communicative styles in discourse.

Salience is the cognitive perceptual relevance an entity achieves in a scene or event described by means of language. It stems from the assumption that discourse is undetachable from the physical and psychological context where is produced, and that it tends to reflect the relative importance accorded to the direct participants and any other entities. Salient elements tend to dominate discourse and constitute the primary perspective from which events are regarded. On the other hand, informativeness can be seen as a discursive correlate of cognitive salience, and an inversely proportional one; it alludes to the degree of processing required by an element, depending on its expectability in the cognitive context.

The omitted subject pronoun “Vengo” ((I) come’) will convey more cognitive salience than the expressed choice “Yo vengo” (‘I come’) and, conversely, the first variant will result less informative than the second. Texts with a higher frequency of omitted subjects will then be more objectives and those in which expressed subjects are abundant tend to subjectivity. Previous researches about pronominal subjects have demonstrated that pronominal subjects variation may be explained according to these cognitive properties. Such a scientific approach to syntactic variation and the methodology for its study must be widened to other grammatical functions in order to adequately deal with the meaningful potential of formal variants. Thus we will extend the analysis to the cognitive foundations that give rise to the choice of the positional variants of syntactic objects. The variants are the following:

a) Expressed posverbal object: No encuentro la llave (‘I can’t find the key’); Te llamaron a ti (‘They called you’)

b) Expressed preverbal object: La llave no la encuentro (‘The key I can’f find it’); A ti te llamaron (‘To you they called’)

c) Omitted object: No la encuentro (‘(I) Can’t find’; Te llamaron (‘(They) called (you)’)

As can be inferred from the examples, clitic concordance of object is, like subjects, a formal variable which may be studied according with cognitive salience and informativeness. Each of the syntactic variants studied may serve different communicative goals and help create different stylistic meanings, whose interpretation can be grounded on abstract dimensions such as those of subjectivity and objectivity. By means of such cognitive grounds we have reach the conclusion that each variant performs not only a different meaning but also contributes to shape a sociocommunicative style based on the continuum objectivity-subjectivity.

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