Profile (in Cognitive Grammar)

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In Cognitive Grammar semantic structures generally are expected to consist in a designatum which "stands out in bas-relief" (Lindner 1981) against a background of related cognitive structures which are collectively referred to as the base of the particular semantic structure. This designatum is called the profile, and is said to be "profiled" against the base. ("Profile" is, accordingly, used as both a noun and a verb.)

This distinction of profile vs. base is taken to be a manifestation of figure/ground organization: the profiled element (designatum) is the figure and the base is the ground against which it is construed. There may be additional layers of figure-ground organization involved: in particular the trajector within a relational profile is understood as a kind of figure with respect to the rest of the relational profile.

Profile Types

Langacker claims (e.g. 2007:438-441) that the most basic grammatical categories (including noun and verb and their major subclasses, along with adjective, adverb and adposition) differ semantically in the kind of entity they profile. Nouns (and other nominal entities such as pronouns, NPs, etc.) profile a Thing, which is defined as a reified group. Adjectives, adverbs and adpositions profile (non-processual) relations of various sorts (adjectives have a Thing as trajector while adverbs have a relational trajector: adpositions, whether adjectival or adverbial, are transitive, expecting to be accompanied by an object.) Verbs (and other verbal structures such as VPs, clauses, etc.) profile a process, that is a temporally evolving relation sequentially scanned through time.

For example, the English semantic structure CIRCLE profiles a closed curve on a base consisting of two-dimensional space; ARC profiles a curved segment on a base consisting of a circle; CHORD profiles a straight line segment on a base consisting of an arc (and therefore, further in the cognitive background, of circle and two-dimensional space). These are all Things. BISECT, however, is a verb: it profiles a process in which a trajector divides a landmark into two equal parts.

The bases of most semantic structures are considerably more complex than these (see base (in Cognitive Grammar)). For instance, AUNT profiles a female human being against a base centrally involving kinship relations and especially the relation of the profiled person to a sibling’s child (the ego). ACE profiles a particular kind of card against the complex base of a pack of cards in their different suits, with the relative values of each card, typical card games and how the aces function in each, etc. SURRENDER profiles an action (a kind of process) of allowing an antagonist to win, against a base involving some sort of contest or conflict, including the expectation (denied by the profiled process) that both agonists will continue contesting each other's supremacy, and so forth.

The differences among the basic kinds of profiles, in the last analysis, are matters of construal rather than necessarily reflecting differences in the objective situation referred to. COMPLAIN, COMPLAINT, and COMPLAINER may be seen as all involving the same process. COMPLAIN profiles the process itself, COMPLAINT reifies that process and profiles it as a Thing, and COMPLAINER relegates the process to the base by profiling its most prominent participant (its trajector).

In any relationship of full schematicity, the profiles of schema and elaboration must match. In a sequence such as DO → ACT → MOVE → RUN → LOPE the profile (that of a process) matches all the way down; in other kinds of sequences (e.g. a constructional sequence such as COMPUTE > COMPUTER > COMPUTER EXPERT, or an associational sequence such as CAT > MOUSE > CHEESE) the elements are not schematic for each other and the profiles do not match.

Profile determinance

When symbolic structures such as morphemes or words are joined together syntagmatically, it is usual for the composite semantic structure (the meaning of the complex symbolic structure) to inherit its profile from one of its components. That semantic component is schematic for the composite structure, and it (or, derivatively, the symbol in which it serves as the semantic pole) may be called the profile determinant of the structure. In clear cases, the notion of a profile determinant is equivalent to the traditional notion of a head. The profile determinant is thus schematic for the composite structure: in the count noun football BALL (or, derivatively, ball) is head of the compound because the profiled element of FOOTBALL is the same as that of BALL: a football is a ball and not a foot.

There is nothing, however, that says there must always be a profile determinant, or that there will only be one. Often there is a relationship of only partial schematicity between the most head-like component and the composite structure, e.g. in French toast the overall designatum is like TOAST, but is not a straightforward example of the category. A non-prototypical headship relationship can be recognized here: toast is certainly closer to being head than is French. In a word like eavesdrop the relationship is more tenuous, but one would still want to say that DROP, being a process, has a profile more like that of EAVESDROP than does EAVES. In neighbor lady or slam-dunk it makes sense to say that both components are profile determinant, and in spitfire or yellow-jacket or holdup that neither is.

Sometimes the profile determinant element contributes little besides the profiling, and the vast majority of the semantic specifications (the bulk of the semantic "weight") is contributed by the other element. The profile determinant element in such cases has sometimes been termed a transformational element. Such cases have traditionally been problematic as far as "headship" is concerned. For instance, in assignment is assign or is ment the head? Clearly ment is profile determinant (the complex structure designates a Thing, as -MENT but not ASSIGN specifies), but assign contributes the vast majority of the semantic specifications and is in that sense the "main" element.


  • Langacker, Ronald W. 1987. Foundations of Cognitive grammar. Volume I, Theoretical prerequisites. Stanford: Stanford University Press.
  • Langacker, Ronald W. 2007. “Cognitive Grammar.” In Geeraerts, Dirk, and Hubert Cuyckens, eds. The Oxford Handbook of Cognitive Linguistics, pp. 421-462. Oxford: Oxford University Press.