Profile, Base, Domain

PROFILE, BASE, DOMAIN are the terms proposed by Ronald Langacker to specify the figure-ground relations in the semantics of language units, usually of words, thematic groups, parts of speech or word combinations.

The terms “profile” and “base” reflect the idea of cognitive scientists that semantics of a linguistic expression is not so much a detailed portrait of an object as its sketch. Similar to a sketch, which depicts only some features of the object (even though the most typical ones), the image of a referent construed in the semantics of a language unit is indeterminate and can be understood only in a broader context. R. Langacker calls this broader context, or immediate conceptual content evoked by a verbal expression, the base. The elements or features of the base that are foregrounded by the expression are defined as the profile [Fillmore 1985; Langacker 1991].

For instance, the lexeme Sunday profiles a particular day relating to the conceptual base ‘week’, and the U.S. President profiles the role characteristic of an individual against the background of the U.S. political system. Such relations may be found in the word elbow profiling a particular part of the arm (i.e. of its immediate conceptual base). The conceptual content of the word arm can be in its turn considered as a profile inside the base ‘human body’, etc. In many cognitive reference books the examples of a hypotenuse and a triangle, an arc and a circle, the summit and a mountain are given, which also illustrate the distinction between the profile and the base [Ungerer, Schmid 1996: 189; Taylor 2002: 192 — 194].

In fact, the base is interpreted as the immediate ground for conceptual elements, which are being profiled by this or that language unit, as a whole range of conceptual entities – both central and peripheral, which are activated by a certain language unit. It is interesting that the base can put constraints on the usage of a word: we may say the right elbow, but we cannot say the *body’s elbow [Radden, Dirven 2007].

In R. Langacker’s works further distinction is drawn between the base (the immediate conceptual setting) and the domain (broader conceptual setting). The base is the conceptual content that is directly linked to the concept, regularly referred to and activated by a language unit. The domain is usually a wider and more abstract sphere of background knowledge, which this concept belongs to (e.g. form, temperature, colour, taste, etc.). So, the concept hypotenuse exists only within the base ‘triangle’, but the word hypotenuse is connected to a wider field of knowledge, i.e. to the domain ‘planimetrics’, although the word does not directly activate it [Taylor 2002: 195].

Several domains may serve as the general context for a concept, because the borders between the domains are often obscure, and the domains themselves overlap (see the notion of “domain matrix” by R. Langacker). The configuration of domains often determines the specific character of a word’s semantics. For instance, there are two words for naming fish eggs in the English language – roeand caviar. Both words are connected with the domain of fishing but the conceptual content of the first lexeme is profiled within the domain ‘reproduction of fish’, and  for the second word the basic domains are ‘food’ and ‘social status’ [Langacker 1991: 62].

Further reading

Langacker R. Concept, Image and Symbol: The Cognitive Basis of Grammar. — Berlin — New York: Mouton de Gruyter, 1991.

Radden G., Dirven R. Cognitive English Grammar. — Amsterdam: John Benjamins, 2007.

Taylor J. R. Сognitive Grammar. — Oxford, NY: Oxford University Press, 2002.

Ungerer F., Schmid H.-J. An Introduction to Cognitive Linguistics. — London: Longman, 1996.

Оlga Iriskhanova

Translated by Georgy Gorshkov