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Construction grammar and evolutionary linguistics

Vak 2015-2016

Admission requirements

A BA-diploma Dutch Language and Culture or other relevant diploma.


This course offers an overview of construction grammar and the way it relates to seman-tics/pragmatics, language acquisition and processing, language change, and evolution.

Over the last 15 years or so, grammarians of different backgrounds have started to pay more and more attention to the diversity of grammatical patterns (across and) within lan-guages. This has led to the insight that templates of different degrees of idiomaticity con-stitute the units of grammatical knowledge. These range from relatively fixed expressions such as (English) to make one’s way and X let alone Y, via intermediate ones such as The X-er, the Y-er (e.g. The more you practice, the easier it will get) and to V TIME away (e.g. He slept the entire afternoon away), to highly schematic ones such as the Caused Motion Construction NP-V-NP-LOCATIVE EXPRESSION (e.g. Pat sneezed the foam off the cappuc-cino) and the Ditransitive Construction NP-V-NP[ANIMATE]-NP (e.g. They fixed us a tour of Whales). The latter correspond to traditional (general) ‘rules of grammar’, but the dif-ferences with other patterns are considered to be a matter of degree rather than kind. All of these patterns are grammatical constructions, each pairing a specific form to a particu-lar meaning, or function. Construction grammar is the label for the family of approaches to syntax based on the idea that constructions constitute the fundamental units for the grammatical analysis of utterances in natural languages. Using material from mostly Dutch and English, we will explore the common assumptions of these approaches, as well as a few differences, paying special attention to (plain) “Construction Grammar” (Goldberg), “Cognitive Grammar” (Langacker), and “Radical Construction Grammar” (Croft).

Over the years, Construction Grammar has developed into a comprehensive theoreti-cal framework that provides an account of linguistic structure (syntax and semantics) and at the same time of processes of language use, language acquisition, and language change, in an integrated way. This is the result of the articulation of the ‘usage-based’ conception, according to which (systems of) rules of language emerge from patterns of actual language use: in the development of individuals (leading to knowledge of language in adults), as well as in the (cultural) evolution of conventional systems in populations (cf. grammaticalization). Individuals imitate, for the purpose of successful communication, the patterns of language use they encounter. At the same time, they differ in their linguis-tic experience, and thus build up (slightly) different representations of the patterns of use in their community. Moreover, they may select certain types of expressions over others as a function of their assessment of an expression’s usefulness for their communicative pur-poses. A language is thus a dynamic population level system characterized by repeated cycles of variation, reproduction, and selection (a Darwinian system). There is a close theoretical link between Construction Grammar as a framework for the analysis of lin-guistic structure on the one hand, and the study of language usage on the other hand, both ontogenetically (language acquisition) and phylogenetically (language change). Jointly, these constitute the framework of evolutionary linguistics.

Course objectives

  • Students build up a good picture of the state of the art of research in constructional ap-proaches to grammar, in particular Construction Grammar, Cognitive Grammar, and Radical Construction Grammar, and of related research in the fields of language processing and acquisition, and of language change.
  • They are able to follow the relevant scientific literature and comment on it in a critical manner.
  • They are able to formulate research questions and hypotheses using the concepts and analytical tools acquired, as well as a design for investigating and testing them.


The timetable will be available on the website

Mode of instruction


Assessment method

  • Active participation, presentations in class, assignments (30%)
  • Term paper (70%).


  • When the result is below 5,5 students get a second chance to improve their term paper.


Yes, see Blackboard

Reading list

Brief introduction: Goldberg, Adele E. (2003), Constructions: A new theoretical ap-proach to language. Trends in Cognitive Sciences 7: 219-224.

Most of the rest of the literature will be made available through Blackboard.


Via uSis.

Contact information

Prof. dr. A. Verhagen