ISSN: 1139-8736

4. Cognitive explanation

If both structures coexist in Spanish, it must be because they fulfill different semantic needs. We will proceed now to explain how Spanish speakers create different mental constructions of both of these constructions, and therefore, retrieve different meanings from them.

Both of these constructions are transitive, with the difference that the destination construction X moves Y in relation to Z presents a transitive scene set against a locational background, while the Indirect Object blended construction X moves Y to recipient Z presents a scene without a background. We will start therefore by explaining the meaning of transitive constructions.

Langacker (1987) defined transitivity as the exchange of energy between an agent and a patient that resulted in the change of state of the latter. According to this, the energy emanates from the Agent, flows through the action, and arrives to its target, the Patient, causing a change in its state. This is a “scene” or, as Talmy would call them, “a motion event” (Talmy 1985: 85). Motion events often happens within or in relation to a temporal or spatial setting (Talmy 2001). The most typical thematic roles that take place in this prototypical motion event are:

Experiencer : The living entity that experiences the action or event denoted by the predicate.

Agent : The doer or instigator of the action or event denoted by the predicate.

Patient : The undergoer of the action or event denoted by the predicate.

Locative : The specification of the place where the action or event denoted by the predicate is situated.

Thematic roles are archetypes. They are a combination of attributes that tend to happen together. Because of their recurrence, we tend to give them a “personality”. The transfer of energy produced in the transitive exchange is viewed as a SPG relation in which the agent initiates a movement that runs through the action and ends in the patient. This three-stage movement accumulates the following information:

  AGENT ---------------- ACTION ---------------- PATIENT
basic causal chain: cause   event   effect
basic time line: beginning   middle   end
exchange of energy: push   momentum   change of state

Prototype person       object

The mental representation of an Agent, for example, is that of an active entity that is capable and willing to start a movement with a purpose. The cognitive notion that most approximates that mental representation is a human being, therefore, Agents will tend to be persons or personified entities. By the same token, Patients are passive and will tend to be encoded as inanimate objects.

When encoded in language, this motion event takes the shape of the prototypical clause with the following semantic roles:

According to this interpretation of motion events, the cognitive representation that speakers of Spanish have in mind when using the destination construction X moves Y in relation to Z is as follows:

      Rosana pone azúcar en el café.

This utterance is an instantiation of the following grammatical structure:

       Subject + Verb + DO + Peripheral adverb

Which is an iconic instantiation of the abstract form-meaning pair:

      X moves Y in relation to Z

Which carries a lot of meaning:

       X moves Y isa scene that happens against the background Z.

Therefore, the scene as a whole is the essential figure, or Figure number 1, of this event and Z is the relational figure or background. Z is not a participant in the scene, it is a passive relational figure that frames the scene:

Figure: Rosana pone azúcar
  Background: setting "en el café"

Rosana pone azúcar /// en el café

Now the scene can also be subdivided in participants. The Agent is the primary figure of the scene, the initiator, the trajectory, while the object is the landmark, the secondary figure. Their relation is asymmetrical because the first figure can happen without the action, but the Patient can never occur without the verb:

Rosana pone azúcar /// en el café

So, in the destination construction X moves Y in relation to Z , the Spanish speaker has in mind a motion event that features in the first place the relation between an event and its relational background, giving importance to the event as a whole, even if the event can be subdivided. The event is perceived as an indivisible whole.

The Indirect Object blended construction X moves Y to Recipient Z presents a different mental picture, which is derived from the values that this blend imports from each of its inputs.

Rosana le pone azúcar al café

receives its grammatical structure from the Indirect Object Construction:

Subject + IO pronoun + Verb + DO + IO

Its abstract formula for the form-meaning pair draws from the form-meaning pairs of both inputs. From the Indirect Object Construction it draws the fact that this is a motion event in which there is only a scene, but not a relational background. Therefore, the motion itself is backgrounded and each of the figures is foregrounded. There are not two layers of understanding like in the previous example, but just one. In this scene, the Agent is the Figure #1 and the DO is the Figure # 2 in an asymmetrical relation.

But the notion of Indirect Object has been complicated by the blend. The Indirect Object is the Grammatical Role that encodes the Recipient or Possessor of an event. Langecker claims that Recipient or Possessor are the attributes of the thematic role of the Experiencer. Therefore, the Indirect Object would be an active Experiencer located in the landmark of a scene.

Even though there is a Move X-schema involved in this transitive scene, its importance is backgrounded. What the Spanish-speaker highlights is not the transfer of energy between Agent and Patient and the result of that movement. She highlights the two entities that are more cognitive saliency because they are closer to human beings. In this case, the Agent and the Experiencer.

In the blend, Z retains its nature of destination, and therefore the entire Move X-schema is triggered and present, but not highlighted. What is highlighted is that the event relates two persons or personified entities. Everything is scene in this construction, there is no background, therefore, the destination is a major figure in the scene.

Rosana le pone azúcar al café


Personified location as Experiencer

Volumen 23 (2006)
ISSN: 1139-8736