Funky images

In my last post one of the comments (by nmwhiteport) was skeptical about the notion of core meaning of words as I used it to describe the verbs make and do in Collocations need not be arbitrary. One issue here is how to define core (of which the definitions I used may be debatable) and the other is even if people agree on definitions of core meaning is it more effective than learning words by memorisation?

Taking the first issue, Verspoor & Lowie (2003) give one definition of core (taken from a dictionary) as :

“The core meaning is the one that represents the most literal sense that the word has in modern usage. This is not necessarily the same as the oldest meaning, because word meanings change over time. Nor is it necessarily the most frequent meaning, because figurative senses are sometimes the most frequent. It is the meaning accepted by native speakers as the one that is most established as literal and central.”

Verspoor & Lowie, 2003: 555

Note that Tyler & Evans (2003) give a more rigorous approach in identifying what they refer to as primary sense.

Using the Verspoor & Lowie (2003) definition one can say the literal meaning of make is to create something new from nothing and that of do is to execute an activity. A diagram could be presented to illustrate this over time:

(Tsai, 2014: 94)
(Tsai, 2014: 94)

Perhaps nmwhiteport’s puzzle loving student would be less likely to produce ‘make a crossword’ having seen the above diagrams and noted how make involves “a nothing to a something” compared to do which has a “something to a samething”?

One clue to the second issue of the efficacy of core meaning is seen in Verspoor and Lowie (2003) who found that students who were given a core meaning were better able to interpret extended meanings better than students who were given translated meanings of a more peripheral sense. This difference held when students were tested 2 weeks later.

Similarly when lexical items overlap as described in the last post with the example of high and tall, Beréndi, Csábi & Kövesces (2008), provided central senses of hold and keep to one group of students (key idea of hand in hold and control in keep) and asked another group of students to translate various hold and keep sentences from English into Hungarian. The first group of students who got the core meanings did better than the second group in both immediate and delayed post-tests.

A core meaning approach has been used with prepositions (Tyler & Evans, 2004), phrasal verbs (Condon & Kelly, 2002, as cited in Tyler, 2012) and article use (Thu, H. N., & Huong, N. T., 2005).

One interesting thing to note is that the addition of images in cognitive linguistics studies seem to be very helpful in learning performance. Hence I have started a database of images that could be useful in language teaching, mainly for English but other languages can be added. So please do let me know or do share link with people who may be interested.


Beréndi, M., Csábi, S., & Kövecses, Z. (2008). Using conceptual metaphors and metonymies in vocabulary teaching. In F. Boers & S. Lindstromberg (Eds.), Cognitive linguistic approaches to teaching vocabulary and phraseology (pp. 65–100). Berlin: Mouton de Gruyter.

Thu, H. N., & Huong, N. T. (2005). Vietnamese learners mastering English articles (Published doctoral dissertation).

Tsai, M. H. (2014). Usage-based cognitive semantics in L2 collocation: A microgenetic analysis of EFL students’ collocational knowledge (Unpublished doctoral dissertation).

Tyler, A. (2012). Cognitive linguistics and second language learning: Theoretical basics and experimental evidence. Routledge.

Tyler, A., & Evans, V. (2003). The semantics of English prepositions: Spatial scenes, embodied meaning and cognition. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

Verspoor, M. H., & Lowie, W. (2003). Making sense of polysemous words. Language Learning, 53, 547–586.

Why the pineapple?

This post can be considered a follow on from the post Collocations need not be arbitrary.

One response that proponents of the lexical approach in language teaching could make to the issue of looking at meanings and collocations is simply to define collocation as one level of meaning. John Firth, as cited by Joseph (2003), put it thus:

“The statement of meaning by collocation and various collocabilities does not involve the definition of word meaning by means of further sentences in shifted terms. Meaning by collocation is an abstraction at the syntagmatic level and is not directly concerned with the conceptual or idea approach to the meaning of words. One of the meanings of night is its collocability with dark, and of dark, of course, collocation with night.”

Joseph, 2003: 130

Defining collocations as one level of meaning is reasonable but it does not provide an explanation that may be pedagogically useful. Cognitive linguistics claims to provide such a use.

Let’s take the question of the difference between choosing highest mountain and tallest mountain that arose in a class recently. One explanation is based on the distribution of what collocates with tall – that is living things (tall man, tall tree) and man made objects (tall building, tall pole). Tall tends not to collocate with natural objects such as mountains.

That is where a Firthian (and by consequence a lexical) approach stops. A cognitive analysis by Dirven and Taylor (1988) showed that general cognition (in the form of concepts) can explain further.

Highest mountain is preferred as the concept HIGH includes both a meaning of vertical position (positional meaning) as well as vertical length (extensional meaning) whereas the concept TALL only includes the meaning of vertical length. So although you can find tallest mountain people often think of being at the top of a mountain hence the vertical position is emphasised rather than vertical length (see figure below):

Figure 1. after Dirven & Taylor, 1988: 386

Thanks for reading. And do have a read of a less favourable view of cognitive linguistics at a recent Geoff Jordan blog Anybody seen a pineapple?


Marc Jones writes about cueing as a way to learn chunks Pinneapples?


Dirven, R., & Taylor, J. R. (1988). The conceptualisation of vertical space in English: The case of tall. In Topics in cognitive linguistics, B. Rudzka-Ostyn (ed), 379. John Benjamins.

Joseph, J. (2003). Rethinking linguistic creativity. In Rethinking Linguistics, H. Davis & T.J. Taylor (eds), 121–150. London: Routledge.