Life is governed by norms and conventions. We adhere to all kinds of rules, some of them codified as laws, others unwritten but known by all. We obey traffic laws, we stick to spelling conventions, we like the books and music we are supposed to like and despise forms of entertainment we are not supposed to like, and we communicate with others in ways that are expected of us. Norms and conventions, that is, play a role in nearly every aspect of human behavior. These aspects are studied and talked about and theorized in many different ways in the Humanities and Social Sciences. Recently, an approach has developed in linguistics that provides a way of thinking about these phenomena in a more integrated way. The ‘usage-based approach’ holds that much of what we do is driven by knowledge about how things are always done, and we have stored this knowledge in our minds on the basis of past experience (both in the sense of having had passive exposure to it and of having actively used it). This theory is compatible with how cultural studies, anthropology and the social sciences have accounted for human behavior in general. For example, we know how to behave in a bar because (most of us) have been in one often enough; likewise, we also know how to construct a subordinate clause because we practice it hundreds of times a day. Innate cognitive skills help us organizing and processing these experiences. In this class, we explore what a usage-based approach is, how it is being applied in linguistics, how it is researched, and how it relates to other aspects of human behavior, such as the examples given above.
Students' performance in this course will be assessed on the basis of the paper they produce. The project consists of four parts (it may be conducted individually or in pairs):
- Finding a suitable empirical domain or phenomenon on which to focus. A well-chosen domain should be already in the student’s field of interest, allow investigation of whether or not a usage-based approach is useful, and be broad enough to ensure there’s enough literature to look at. The topic does not have to be a linguistic one.
- Reading, digesting and summarizing a number of relevant articles or book chapters
- Prepare a short class presentation on intermediate findings or sharing the findings in a group discussion.
- Write all this up in one of two ways: 1) a paper of about 4000 words. It should contain: summary of the domain, discipline, topic, etc., breakdown into sub-topics (which will be the basis of sections in the paper), digest of some relevant literature, general discussion, summarizing conclusion, indication of future research needs; 2) a portfolio containing various essays and research notes on the basis of discussions with the class and the teacher on selected readings; the portfolio may of course also contain a paper as described under 1).
The course has three areas of attention, which all play a role in each class. All in all, it is an eclectic course, as it brings together various domains of study (language, behavior and culture) and different disciplines (linguistics, communication studies, culture studies and computational studies). Students read a number of texts; throughout the course some of the reading material is shared by all, and some is tailored to students’ particular interests.
Area 1: Basics. For this part of the course, most of the reading is shared. Every week we discuss at least one article.
- Definition of what a usage-based approach to theory formation is;
- Characteristics of usage-based approaches in linguistics (Cognitive Grammar, Construction Grammar, language acquisition);
- Discussion of central concepts, especially mental representation, usage, entrenchment, meaning, conventions and norms.
Area 2: Expansion. The knowledge we bring to many communicative and behavioral activities can be interpreted as usage-based, for example communicative competence, communicative style, linguistic variation, alignment/priming in interaction, cultural scripts, literary styles, music styles, fashion, teaching styles, attitudes/political views, everyday behavior, scientific theories, etc. Each student formulates an empirical domain for which we will then explore the degree to which theorizing about it is, or can be, done from a usage-based perspective, and what types of research are done, or could be done, to support these theories (e.g. ethnography, surveys, computational modeling, psycholinguistic experimentation, etc.). Students will be asked to take an active part in looking for relevant material. Here, most of the reading material is not shared by all; instead, students and teacher will present some of the work in class.
Area 3: Reporting. Students work on a paper that will ultimately be the basis for assessment. The paper is, in most cases, a literature review of work done on the chosen empirical domain, explaining whether important theoretical accounts in the domain are usage-based or not, and whether or not a usage-based approach is a good way of investigating that particular domain.
- articles, to be announced in class
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