Oral Poetics and Cognitive Science

The School of Language and Literature at the Freiburg Institute for Advanced Studies (

Freiburg, January 24-26, 2013

Mihailo Antović, FRIAS & University of Niš, Serbia Cristóbal Pagán Cánovas, FRIAS & University of Murcia, Spain

The conference


CFP     Program     Flyer    Participants     FRIAS

The Parry-Lord research on oral composition in performance was arguably the major breakthrough in classics and oral tradition studies in the 20th century. The so called “cognitive revolution” has probably been the most important movement cutting across all the sciences of the mind for the past one hundred years, maybe more. Both paradigm shifts have an important point of coincidence: the idea that language learning and verbal creativity result from usage and performance, and build on general cognitive capacities and cultural context. The basic units of language and oral poetry are not a set of transformational or formal rules, but functional form-meaning pairs acquired through an instance-based process.

Oral poetics and Cognitive Science seeks to lay the foundations of a new discipline, Cognitive Oral Poetics, through an interdisciplinary conversation between researchers in oral poetics, empirical literary scholars, linguists and cognitive scientists.

Keynote speakers

  • Egbert Bakker, Yale University, Department of Classics
  • Hans C. Boas, University of Texas at Austin, Departments of German and Linguistics
  • Anna Bonifazi, University of Heidelberg, Department of Classical Philology
  • Winfried Menninghaus, Free University Berlin, Peter Szondi Institute of Comparative Literature
  • Mark Turner, Case Western Reserve University, Department of Cognitive Science

Guest speakers


Elisa BuginCa’Foscari University Venice

Mark de Kreij University of Heidelberg

Mirjana Detelić & Lidija Delić University of Belgrade

William Duffy & William Short University of Texas at San Antonio

Thomas Hoffmann & Alexander Bergs University of Osnabrück

Agnieszka Matkwoska Adam Mickiewicz University of Poznań

Raymond Person Ohio Northern University

Nemanja Radulović University of Belgrade

Jonathan Ready Indiana University

Sonja Zeman Ludwig Maximillian University of Munich


Our project


Milman Parry and Albert B. Lord showed 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, learned through a process that has strong parallels with language acquisition, is based on the mastery of: 

o        formulae, fixed expressions regularly used under certain metrical and discursive conditions (e.g. “swift footed Achilles,” “he/she spoke forth winged words”)

o        themes, typical scenes that structure the narrative (e.g. the assembly, the arrival of a messenger)

o        story-patterns, a repertoire of basic plots (e.g. the return of the hero, the wrath and revenge of the warrior)

 The mental feats accomplished by epic singers constitute a fascinating phenomenon for the study not only of memory, but also of idiomaticity, conceptual structure and many other key issues in language and cognition, especially if we focus on the common operations of meaning construction shared by oral traditions around the world. By manipulating these operations to serve the strong communicative demands of performance, oral poetry exposes cognitive patterns more clearly than everyday language.

 Our main interest is to connect the mechanisms of meaning construction detected by oral poetics scholars to research on language and cognition, especially in the following aspects:

    • Instance-based language acquisition, in parallel to the usage-based process of learning the epic singing techniques
    • Idiomatic-phraseological units. Form-meaning/function pairs: formulae/grammatical constructions
    • Traditional episodic structures. Conventionalized sets of  encyclopedic knowledge: themes/frames
    • Multimodality and performativity. Emergence of meaning through mapping and integrating of entrenched and ad-hoc structures, including multimodal mental simulation

 The functioning of formulaic diction in oral poetry is analogous to that of idiomaticity in everyday language, and thus requires the acquisition of similar communicative skills. Through its rich research tradition in the emergence of meaning beyond compositionality, cognitive linguistics can provide an adequate framework for the study of the enhanced idiomaticity of composition-in-performance.

Within the cognitive linguistic framework, constructions, essentially, formal templates paired with semantic and pragmatic content, are the building blocks of all language use. Constructions, just like oral formulae, vary in length and structure (a morpheme, a word, a phrase, a sentence or a group of sentences), and their form, meaning and discursive function are interdependent.

Experimental research 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 cognitively plausible, 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. Formulae, like constructions, are formed and learned on the basis of instance-based knowledge that is retained.

Constructions are generally interpreted within frames, functional constructs providing semantic points of reference within the network of related concepts. We propose that frame semantics, where words are understood in terms of meaningful experiential gestalts, is an appropriate approach for examining the interplay between the storage of themes and formulae in composition-in-performance.

In frame semantics, we observe that a conceptual frame, culturally and experientially constructed, is usually triggered by minimal grammatical cues. For example, the term ‘waiter’ can activate the whole restaurant frame, a well organized set of knowledge. Frames structure thought and constrain the semantics of constructions, which are always connected to our general knowledge. Themes seem to play an analogous role in composition-in-performance. 

Mappings between conceptual materials are the key to understanding how meaning is constructed through the interplay between frames and constructions. Conceptual integration is the human capacity to form novel conceptual wholes from separate, often clashing conceptual materials. Grammatical constructions can be seen as conceptual integration templates, giving minimal instructions to perform mappings and integrations across mental spaces (e.g. Fauconnier & Turner 2002: 147-168). Idiomaticity in oral formulaic style functions in the same way, providing minimal cues for the poet and audience to establish the right idiomatic meaning.

In general terms, an oral epic song is itself a multi-modal conceptual blend, emergent from four major inputs: verbal, musical, visual and traditional. To build the complex meanings of composition-in-performance, singers and audiences need to integrate all three modalities, plus their instance-based knowledge of the tradition, into a coherent mental simulation. The song only emerges as an act of social cognition combining the form and meaning of words, the metrics, melody and prosody of music, the mental imagery suggested by words and music (sometimes also by gesture and other visual signs), and the knowledge of traditional formulae, themes and story-patterns. The full meaning of a formulaic expression depends on how its semantics combines with its function as a building block in the traditional story, while at the same time it fits a metrical and prosodic slot in the melody that is being sung.