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My talk at DGKL 5 with Mihailo Antović

posted Jun 26, 2012, 7:12 AM by Cristóbal Pagán Cánovas
At DGKL 5, the Fifth Conference of the German Cognitive Linguistics Association, Oct 10-12, 2012, professor Antović and I will be giving a presentation that will introduce our FRIAS cognitive oral poetics project to the cogling community. Here is the abstract of our talk:

Towards a Cognitive Oral Poetics:

Constructions, Frames and Mappings in the Study of Oral Epic Poetry



The Parry-Lord theory of composition-in-performance (Parry 1971, Lord 1960, 1991, 1995) shows that oral epic singers compose lengthy and intricate poems not by remembering a fixed text, but by improvising their song as they perform. This technique is based on the mastery of formulae, fixed expressions regularly used under certain metrical and discursive conditions (e.g. “swift footed Achilles,” “he/she spoke forth winged words”) and themes, typical scenes that structure the narrative (e.g. the assembly, the arrival of a messenger).

The functioning of formulaic diction in oral poetry is analogous to that of idiomaticity in everyday language, and thus requires the acquisition of communicative skills (Lord 1960: 13-29, Foley 1991, 2002: 116-145, 170-190) similar to those described by usage-based approaches (such as Tomasello 2003, 2008).

We claim that Cognitive Linguistics can provide an adequate framework for the study of the enhanced idiomaticity of composition-in-performance. We draw on the long tradition of oral-formulaic research comparing Homeric and Serbo-Croatian epic poetry, and propose three strategies to connect it to cognitive linguistics:


a)            The formula and construction grammar.

Research in Construction Grammar (Goldberg 1995, 2006, 2009) shows that pieces of discourse are psychologically identified as constructions depending on both their frequency and their emergent properties in form or function, and that their patterns are learned through repetition and structural priming. To be consistent in cognitive terms, oral formulae have to be learned, understood, and created in an analogous way, so that they can be remembered as effectively and unconsciously as grammar and lexicon. This suggests a balance between the major views on oral formulae (see Edwards 1988), either as strictly metrical and repetitive, or as semantic units with emergent meaning of their own.


b)            The theme and frame semantics.

In frame semantics (Fillmore 1982), we observe that a conceptual frame, culturally and experientially constructed, is usually triggered by minimal grammatical cues. Frames can be employed to study what minimal prompts are needed by the oral poet to introduce type scenes, and the way in which themes impose a conceptual framing that shapes formulaic expressions.


c)            Conceptual integration in formulae and themes.

Grammatical constructions are prompts for conceptual integration templates (Fauconnier 2009, Pagán Cánovas 2010), since they give minimal instructions to perform mappings and integrations across mental spaces (e.g. Fauconnier & Turner 2002: 147-168). Idiomaticity in formulae such as epithets functions in the same way, providing minimal cues for the poet and audience to establish the right idiomatic meaning.

Mappings between frames also provide a useful framework. We use frame shifting (Coulson 2001) to analyze the transitions from one theme to another, often triggered by a sole formulaic expression that functions as a space builder (Fauconnier 1985: 16-18). Also, frame blending (Turner 2008) facilitates the study of combinations of themes into hybrid type-scenes presenting emergent properties and formulaic language of their own (e.g. assembly and contest into a verbal competition where the speakers “win honour” or “lose face”).




Coulson, S. (2001). Semantic Leaps: Frame-Shifting and Conceptual Blending in Meaning Construction, Cambridge University Press.

Edwards, M. W. (1988). Homer and Oral Tradition: The Formula, Part II, Oral Tradition, 3(1-2), 11-60.

Fauconnier, G. (1985). Mental Spaces: Aspects of Meaning Construction in Natural Language, Cambridge University Press.

Fauconnier, G. (2009). Generalized Integration Networks. In V. Evans & S. Purcell (Eds.) New Directions in Cognitive Linguistics (pp. 147-160), Amsterdam: John Benjamins.

Fauconnier, G. & Turner, M. (2002). The Way We Think. Conceptual Blending and the Mind’s Hidden Complexities, New York: Basic Books.

Fillmore, C. (1982). Frame semantics. In: Linguistics in the Morning Calm, Seoul, Hanshin Publishing, pp. 111-137.

Foley, J. M. (1991). Immanent Art: From Structure to Meaning in Traditional Oral Epic, Indiana University Press.

Foley, J. M. (2002). How to Read an Oral Poem, University of Illinois Press.

Goldberg, A. (1995). Constructions: A Construction Grammar Approach to Argument Structure, University of Chicago Press.

Goldberg, A. (2006). Constructions at Work: The Nature of Generalization in Language, Oxford University Press.

Goldberg, A. (2009). The nature of generalization in language. Cognitive Linguistics, 20(1), 93-127.

Lord, A. B. (1960). The Singer of Tales, Harvard University Press.

Lord, A. B. (1991). Epic Singers and Oral Tradition, Cornell University Press.

Lord, A. B. (1995). The Singer Resumes the Tale, Cornell University Press.

Pagán Cánovas, C. (2010). Erotic Emissions in Greek Poetry: A Generic Integration Network, Cognitive Semiotics 6: 7-32.

Parry, M. (1971). The Making of Homeric Verse: The Collected Papers of Milman Parry, edited by A. Parry, Oxford University Press.

Tomasello, M. (2003). Constructing a Language: A Usage-Based Theory of Language Acquisition, Harvard University Press.

Tomasello, M. (2008). Origins of Human Communication, MIT Press.

Turner, M. (2008). Frame Blending. In R. Rossini Favretti (Ed.) Frames, Corpora, and Knowledge Representation (pp. 13-32), Bolonia University Press.