The Cognitive Image

In order to better describe the languages of the Indo-Iranian Frontier, I have over the years developed a cognitive model of the language process, based on the grammars of several languages along this linguistic frontier.1  A brief overview of the model appears here; more details appear in the grammatical descriptions of the individual languages. A cognitive model by its nature has at its core a system of visual processing, and the model used here is convergent with current models developed by computer scientists to generate visual content from speech.2

(Click on the underlined words to see instances of Cognitive Images. Unless otherwise noted, examples are from Kāmviri.)


The Cognitive Image is a graphical device for depicting the meaning of language. It represents the cognitive model that a hearer constructs as he or she comprehends a speaker's utterances. The Cognitive Image consists of an oval Perceptual Field surrounded by a rectangular Modal Field, which represents the speaker's cognitive mode. The hearer's viewpoint on the Image coincides with that of the speaker. It focuses on a Focal Area in the center foreground of the Perceptual Field.

As the hearer decodes each morpheme in the speech signal, cognitive processes are triggered which change his Cognitive Image. In a conversational setting the Cognitive Images of the hearers converge on a composite made from the speech of all the interlocutors.

Morphemes fall into classes according to the cognitive processes that they trigger. Broad categories include nouns, locators, and verbs.

Nouns (in a broad sense) trigger cognitive processes that depict objects in the Cognitive Image. Objects in their most generic form are depicted as translucent boxes in the Cognitive Images presented here. One or more objects stand in the Focal Area as the Subject of the Image.

Locators depict trajectories and regions which locate objects in space and time.

Certain pronouns trigger both depictive and locational processes.

Verbs trigger the depiction of changes in objects. For descriptive purposes a change may be depicted in its prototypical form as a schematic "cognitive molecule" consisting of one or more objects linked by arrows representing paths of force, motion, and emission. The arrows point in the direction of the flow of time.

The objects involved in the change take on functional roles according to their positions relative to these paths.

Associated with verbs are morphemes that set the focus and temporal scope of the Cognitive Image. Focusing morphemes shift the speaker's viewpoint to encompass specific objects in the Focal Area. Scope morphemes delimit the temporal scope of a change. The scope may be holistic, following the objects as an animation throughout their entire process of change; it may be progressive, following the objects as an animation in the midst of the change; or it may focus in on the objects at a point in the change, typically at their final state. Morphemes that set focus or scope are often termed aspectual in traditional linguistic terminology.

Other morphemes trigger changes in the Cognitive Image that represent the speaker's mode of cognitive processing; that is, whether the image is drawn from current perception, recollection, or various forms of conceptualizaion. The various modes are indicated by changes in the Modal Field and in the lighting and background color of the Perceptual Field. Changes in Recollective or Conceptual Modes also have a distance relative to the time of speaking (i.e., a tense), indicated by the lighting of the Perceptual Field. In general, Conceptual Mode is depicted with a light source in the background, so that the background gets brighter as the temporal distance ("futurity") increases. Conversely, Recollective Mode is depicted with a light source behind the Speaker's viewpoint, so that the background gets darker as the temporal distance ("pastness") increases.

A special type of Conceptual Mode is the Prototypical Mode, which shows the prototypes of objects or changes. These appear with a uniformly pink background.

Certain morphemes signal the social status of the speaker relative to the hearer. The status of the hearer is depicted by a shift into Perceptual Mode to view the hearer as either above, even with, or below the plane of the speaker's vision.

A compulsion motivating a change is indicated by icons appearing in the Modal Field. Icons indicating external compulsions appear at the top of the Modal Field, while those indicating internal compulsions appear at the bottom of the Modal Field.

Metaphors underlying the depiction of an object or change may appear as dimmed images lying behind the depiction.

Sentient objects represented in the Cognitive Image may show their own Cognitive Images, which appear as cartoon-style balloons connected to them.



1 Strand 1985, 1991, 1997b, 1997c.

2 See Heidorn 1997 for a recent survey and bibliography.