How grammar introduces asymmetry into cognitive structures: Compositional semantics, metaphors, and schematological hybrids

David Gil*, Yeshayahu Shen

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


This paper presents a preliminary and tentative formulation of a novel empirical generalization governing the relationship between grammar and cognition across a variety of independent domains. Its point of departure is an abstract distinction between two kinds of cognitive structures: symmetric and asymmetric. While in principle any feature whatsoever has the potential for introducing asymmetry, this paper focuses on one specific feature, namely thematic-role assignment. Our main empirical finding concerns the role of language, or, more specifically, grammar, in effecting and maintaining the distinction between symmetric and asymmetric cognitive structures. Specifically, whereas symmetric structures devoid of thematic-role assignment more commonly occur in a non-grammatical and usually also non-verbal medium, asymmetric structures involving thematic-role assignment are more likely to be associated with a grammatical medium. Our work draws together three independent strands of empirical research associated with three diverse phenomenological domains: compositional semantics, metaphors and schematological hybrids. These three domains instantiate conceptual combinations, bringing together two or more subordinate entities into a single superordinate entity. For compositional semantics this consists of a juxtaposition of constituent signs to form a single more complex sign; for metaphors this entails the bringing together of two different concepts in order to produce a comparison; while for schematological hybrids this involves the combination of different entities to form a single new hybrid entity. Our empirical results reveal a remarkable parallelism between the above three domains. Within each domain, symmetric structures tend to be associated with a non-verbal or otherwise non-grammatical medium, while asymmetric structures are more frequently associated with a grammatical medium. Thus, within each domain, grammar introduces asymmetry. More specifically, we find that in all three domains, the asymmetry in question is one that involves the assignment of thematic roles. To capture this effect, we posit two distinct levels, or tiers, of cognition: non-grammatical cognition, more commonly associated with symmetric structures, and grammatical cognition more conducive to asymmetric structures. Within each of the three phenomenological domains, we find the distinction between non-grammatical and grammatical cognition to be manifest in three independent realms, phylogeny, ontogeny, and the architecture of human cognition. Thus, grammar constitutes the driving force behind the transition from symmetric to asymmetric cognitive structures.

Original languageEnglish
Article number2275
JournalFrontiers in Psychology
Issue numberOCT
StatePublished - 2019


  • Asymmetry
  • Compositional semantics
  • Conceptual combination
  • Hybrid
  • Metaphor
  • Ontogeny
  • Phylogeny
  • Thematic roles


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