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Project C4 - Polysemy and metaphors as a challenge for mental representations

PI: Constanze Spieß, Christina Kauschke
Ph.D.-student: Maike Park

Research context

Semantic approaches to representations refer to the content of linguistic signs. Moreover, they consider the dynamics of their mental representation in light of their use in situated communicative contexts. Linguistic expressions are then regarded as access points to seman­tic representations. On the one hand, using positional verbs (sitzen, stehen, liegen etc.) as an example, it can be analyzed how semantic change (e.g., metonymization and metaphoriza­tion processes) can be conceived of as a shift of mental representations. On the other hand, it can be investigated to what extent utterances with positional verbs can be modelled as constructions.

Current dissertation project

Working Title: Metaphorization of stative positional verb constructions


The operationalization of conceptual metaphors anchored in sensorimotor experiences and their role as cognitive processes respectively has so far proved to be a challenge, especially for corpus-based studies. The aim of the dissertation project is to develop and experimentally validate an acquisition-related usage-based model for the corpus-based description of the acquisition, structuring and cross-linking of meaning in the mental lexicon in the case of the stative positional verbs stehen (to be standing), liegen (to be lying), sitzen (to be sitting) and hängen (to be hanging). Based on salient linguistic patterns in cor­pora of spoken and written language, potential metaphorical constructions will be identified in order to describe the conceptual metaphors instantiated by them. In addition, the project addresses the question of to what extent (and how) the results of corpus-based studies allow researchers to draw conclusions about abstract knowledge in the mental lexicon of language users.


The project draws on theoretical approaches from cognitive metaphor theory, blending the­ory and cognitive construction grammar, and combines qualitative and quantitative corpus linguistic analyses with an experimental investigation. Following previous studies on the acquisition of spatial referential expressions (Kutscher/Schultze-Berndt 2007, Bryant 2012, Madlener et al. 2017), the pro­ject aims at identifying early usage of patterns with stative positional verbs as well as metaphoric use of such patterns in children's speech on the basis of spoken language data (the LEO cor­pus, available through the CHILDES database, cf. MacWhinney 2000). A second step is to in­vestigate to what extent fixed and partly lexically filled constructions that have been acquired during earlier childhood have the potential to participate in metaphorization processes by analyzing written language data of adult language users. To this end, the project explores the use of collostruction analyses in order to identify potential metaphorical constructions (Stefanowitsch/Gries 2003, 2005) that will serve as the basis for further qualitative corpus analyses. In a third step, a priming experiment will investigate whether and in which form the constructions acquired in early childhood as well as identified metaphorical constructions that can be mapped onto them are linked within the mental lexicon of adult speakers.

Preliminary work

The project follows on from previous studies in the field of pragmalinguistic research on met­aphors (Spieß 2014, 2015, 2016) as well as ongoing research on the semantics of German positional verbs (e.g. Gillmann/Werth 2021).

Relation to other projects

Project C4 has close links to Project C2 and the semantic and frequency of use influences on language change investigated there, but there are also links to B1 with regard to the acquisition of mental representations.


Bryant, Doreen (2012). Der Erwerb von Positionsverben – Warum Kinder so an hängen hängen? Linguistische Berichte 226, 199-242.

Gillmann, Melitta/Werth, Alexander (2021). Polysemie und morphosyntaktische Variation. Die Auxiliarselektion beim Positionsverb stehen in Diachronie und Diatopik. Beiträge zur Geschichte der deutschen Sprache und Lite­ratur 143 (4), 513-562.

Kutscher, Silvia/Schultze-Berndt, Eva (2007). Why a folder lies in the basket although it is not lying: the semantics and use of German positional verbs with inanimate figures. Linguistics 45 (5/6), 983-1028.

Madlener, Karin/Skoruppa, Katrin/Behrens, Heike (2017). Gradual development of constructional complexity in German spatial language. Cognitive Linguistics 28 (4), S. 757-798.

MacWhinney, B. (2000). The CHILDES Project: Tools for analyzing talk. 3. Auflage. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erl­baum Associates.

Stefanowitsch, Anatol/ Gries, Stefan (2003). Collostructions: Investigating the interaction of words and construc­tions. International Journal of Corpus Linguistics 8 (2), 209-243.

Stefanowitsch, Anatol/Gries, Stefan (2005). Covarying collexemes. Corpus Linguistics and Linguistic Theory 1-1, 1-43.

Spieß, Constanze (2014). Diskurslinguistische Metaphernanalyse. In: Matthias Junge (Hrsg.): Methoden der Me­taphernforschung und -analyse. Wiesbaden: Springer, 31-58.

Spieß, Constanze (2015). Metonymie und Metapher: Sprachdidaktische Perspektiven auf das sprachreflexive Potenzial zweier Phänomene. In: Constanze Spieß & Klaus-Michael Köpcke (Hrsg.): Metapher und Metonymie: Theoretische, methodische und empirische Zugänge. Berlin, München, Boston: De Gruyter, 323-354.

Spieß, Constanze (2016). Metapher als multimodales kognitives Funktionsprinzip. In: Nina-Maria Klug und Hart­mus Stöckl (Hrsg.): Sprache im multimodalen Kontext. Berlin/Boston: De Gruyter, 75-98.