AUTHOR: Cedric Boeckx TITLE: Language in Cognition SUBTITLE: Uncovering Mental Structures and the Rules Behind Them PUBLISHER: Wiley-Blackwell YEAR: 2009
Michael Shelton, Assistant Professor of Spanish and Linguistics, Occidental College
Boeckx's ''Language in Cognition'' serves as an introductory text appropriate for beginning-level linguistics courses with a focus on the biological nature of language. The text explores linguistics within the broader context of the cognitive sciences. As opposed to traditional introductory linguistics texts, this book is unique in that it does not take the reader on a tour through the many subfields of linguistic inquiry (e.g. phonology, morphology, syntax, etc.), but rather it challenges the reader to consider larger questions about the nature of the language faculty, what its biological foundation is, and what our linguistic system shares with other cognitive processes such as vision and audition.
Boeckx begins with a Prologue in which he states the goals of his book. He explains that he will focus on the biological view of language with the goal of awakening curiosity among his readers. The assumed audience of the text are students with little or no previous knowledge of the subject matter. The chapters place less emphasis on results but rather focus on the questions that have proven fruitful in bringing those results within reach. As it is also the focus of research in the humanities and springs from natural curiosity, the author views linguistics as a natural ''bridge discipline'' to introduce students to the sciences. The remainder of the book is divided into four parts with three chapters each.
Part I -- Ever Since Chomsky In Chapter 1, the author lays out the goals of linguistic study. He highlights that linguistics is indeed a young discipline with many basic questions still unsolved. The distinction between ''E-language'' (social/cultural perspectives) and ''I-language'' (cognitive perspectives) is discussed with the view that individual languages are the tools one can use to test what's happening cognitively underneath. This chapter also explains the difference between descriptive and prescriptive grammars and explains that part of understanding the constraints of the linguistic system includes identifying what is constrained purely within the system itself, and what limitations are shared with other cognitive abilities. In this chapter Boeckx also outlines the general organization of the book stating that there are five broad questions of interest to understand: how to best characterize our knowledge of language, how that knowledge is acquired, how it is implemented in the brain, how it is put to use, and how it emerged in the species. He closes the chapter by motivating linguistic inquiry as a theory of the language faculty, a model to investigate cognition, and a program to create questions regarding the relationship between the brain and the mind. A useful analogy he adopts is to understand linguistics as the ''laserbeam'' view within the ''floodlight'' scope of the cognitive sciences.
Chapter 2 couches modern linguistic theory within the broader historical context of language studies. The ''cognitive revolution'' of the 1950s is characterized as a program to develop a computational-representational theory of mind which was motivated by the revival of 17th and 18th century philosophical views on language, ethological studies of animal behavior, advances in mathematical research studying computation, and a break away from the behaviorist paradigm in psychology. This chapter discusses Chomsky's seminal review of Skinner (1957) in which he critiques behaviorism and outlines the framework for a nativist/biological account of language. Chomsky's views of language are then related to work in other disciplines. The author describes that nativist perspectives on language drawn from ethological studies which examine how behavioral programs mature during development in other animals, including studies on instincts and imprinting. He argues that Chomsky adopted from the ethologists the central idea that, while experience with the outside environment may be necessary, this experience requires mental computations tailored to what is to be learned, a set of task-specific learning organs that know what to extract from the specific experiences. It is here that Boeckx first introduces the nature of the Language Acquisition Device (LAD) or Universal Grammar (UG). The chapter then continues to identify insights that modern linguists may draw from Cartesian philosophy. Highlighted are certain claims by Descartes that resonate strongly with our current understanding of language, such as the importance of our ability to detach the use of language from its immediate circumstances, the idea that mechanical explanations should be the aim of scientific understanding, and the emphasis on the creative aspects of language use and the importance of internal structures. This chapter also introduces Hobbes' perspective that thinking consists of performing arithmetic-like operations on these internal structures, which can be likened to the modern concept of a computational theory of mind. Hobbes also stressed the importance of type-token distinctions, compositionality, quantification, and recursion as essential features of human cognition. Lastly, Chapter 2 examines the contributions of the mathematical nature of information processing that Turing and Shannon made to modern cognitive science.
Chapter 3 introduces the poverty of the stimulus with discussions of Plato's ''Meno'', creoles, and newly formed sign languages. The author also presents the problematic nature of the perhaps more intuitive concept that language is acquired solely through cultural transmission with a review of cultural differences in child-directed speech, the fallacy of grammar correction by caretakers, structure-dependency illustrated through examples of AUX inversion in English, and the acquisition of ''visual'' words (e.g. look, see) by blind children. The last section of Chapter 3 explores Lenneberg's work on the biological foundations of language (1967). The reader is introduced to the arguments in favor of a critical period for first language acquisition as well as research on critical periods in other areas of cognition, such as Hubel & Wiesel's (2004) work on the visual system. Elaborating on the critical period hypothesis (CPH) for language, the author cites the usual studies on feral children and Genie, in addition to reviewing research techniques with infants such as habituation and sucking rate studies. Indirect support for the CPH from second language acquisition among late learners closes Chapter 3 and Part I.
Part II -- Unweaving the Sentence Chapter 4 introduces the basic tenets of syntactic theory and the importance of underlying hidden structure. This chapter in particular makes very insightful analogies to other cognitive domains to exemplify how we automatically structure what we extract from the input in our environment, listing examples in our interpretation of colors and shapes, such as in the Kanizsa triangle (1955), and in language from Lewis Carroll's ''Jabberwocky'' (1872). In its discussion of syntax, the chapter explores ideas central to Chomsky's ''Syntactic Structures'' (1957), such as how to formalize the productive nature of language (infinite use of finite means). The reader learns about phrase structure rules after examining finite-state machines and how they fail to account for many aspects of linguistic structure, such as dependencies and imbedded clauses. By viewing crossing dependencies, the reader sees the need for transformations applied to underlying structures, thus setting the stage for hierarchical structure in language in the form of generative-transformational grammar. In the subsequent section, Boeckx examines other ''hidden'' properties such as fractality which leads to our understanding of headed hierarchies (exemplified in simplified X' Theory), and how we are able to transform the hierarchical structure of language into the linear order needed for speech. In this section the author draws more connections to the visual system in a discussion of our ability to transform 3D images into 2D signals in the retina. Dimension-reduction always leads to a loss of information, and the discussion is brought back to linguistics via examples of syntactic ambiguity. Chapter 4 also introduces concepts such as locality, which motivates the interpretation of the shortest dependency available, and conservativity, which motivates traces and copies within transformations.
A clear exposition of parameters and comparative linguistic studies with illustrative examples and insightful analogies to other sciences forms Chapter 5. Boeckx begins with the apparent paradox that we find in language: one human cognitive system, but thousands of linguistic varieties in the world. In this discussion the reader encounters the proposition that perhaps the surface-level differences are more alike than they may seem. Using examples such as wh-words in English and Chinese, pro-drop vs. non-pro-drop languages, adverb placement in English and French, and head direction in English and Japanese, the chapter motivates the central concepts of Principles and Parameters, illustrated in the typical manner as a set of switches. Again referencing biology, the author describes analogous behavior among genes, in which master genes ''turn on and off'' other genes, to demonstrate that variation is not endless but rather severely limited by cognitive/genetic constraints. Lastly, Chapter 5 highlights the importance of comparative linguistics and emphasizes how comparisons between seemingly unrelated languages (such as examples from transitivity in English and Basque) can illuminate a general cognitive aim.
Chapter 6 tackles language acquisition. The author admits that parameters show how a child could in principle solve the language acquisition problem, yet he does not think that we have found a way to show how it is done in practice. This leads to a discussion of computational modeling. A staunch nativist perspective is presented in a critique of Saffran, Aslin & Newport's (1996) study on statistical learning, arguing that a baby can only track the transitional properties of syllables in the input if pre-specified mental structures are already in place, including knowledge of what a syllable is. The chapter outlines a rule-based account of language acquisition with examples from regular and irregular verbal forms, which continues with the need for cues which help to set parameters by cuing certain structures as important to look for in the input. The crucial role of frequency of forms and structure is also discussed in a short section. The chapter closes with an exposition of the Continuity Hypothesis which describes how children's errors may also be revealing of UG in that the mistakes they make fall within crosslinguistically attested possibilities.
Part III -- The Mental Foundations of Behavior
Chapter 7 offers a discussion of meaning from a strong philosophical perspective. In the first section, the author discusses logicist approaches and supports a mind-dependent view of semantics. The author warns against the temptation to confuse meaning with reference, arguing that knowing what a word means and knowing how to use it are different things. The interaction effects of meaning and reference are expounded with examples in which truth-conditions and ambiguous sentences exemplify context-dependent variability in meaning. A description of entailment follows with the importance of negative facts (i.e. one must investigate what words and sentences cannot be as well as what they can). The licensing of negative polarity items and certain quantifiers (every vs. some) illustrate this issue and reiterate that meaning relies on properties that are intrinsic to sentence structure and do not represent the shifts in contexts of use. The final sections of Chapter 5 explore the meaning of words as instructions to build concepts in the mind. The reader sees how certain concepts can exist in the mind despite varying specific references in the real world (e.g. book, green, triangle).
Chapter 8 examines the relationship between language and thought, given the striking similarities yet remarkable differences between our cognition and those of other animals. Here the concept of modularity is introduced as special-purpose mechanisms that perform specific tasks related to certain types of processing. The chapter explores how human infants, chicks, and adult monkeys represent objects, how we track numerosities, how we interpret agency and goals, the nature of our sense of space, and beginning evidence for a core knowledge system for social interaction (such as infants' preference for race, gender, and native language), ending in a discussion of Spelke's (e.g. 2000) and Fodor's (e.g. 1983) work on modularity. From here the chapter explores ways in which natural language breaks the bounds of traditional views of modularity in that language combines information across various modules. The chapter then ends with an argument for what makes us human: a theory of mind and the flexibility to combine representations that would otherwise remain isolated.
Chapter 9 introduces competence and performance and explores theoretical and experimental methods in linguistics and psycholinguistics. Examples of processing difficulties with center-embedding illustrate how theoretically grammatical constructs can break down due to performance issues, in this case working memory. Next the chapter explores the history that led to a divide between theoretical linguistics and processing studies in language production and comprehension. A note on acceptability judgments argues that they should be viewed as behavioral data despite claims that they are too gradient and exhibit interaction effects. The last section of Chapter 9 involves a detailed discussion of six arguments that have divided psycholinguists and theoretical linguists. Among these issues are discrepancies between theoretical grammars and parsers, issues of ambiguity resolution, differences in timing (parsing and production are fast, acceptability judgments are slow), disagreement regarding unified or separate systems for production and comprehension, and the alleged failure of the derivational theory of complexity.
Part IV -- Missing Links
In the final chapters of his book, Boeckx explores current questions in the relationship between the mind and the brain and the evolution of mental faculties. Chapter 10 begins with the classic description of the functional localization of language in Broca's and Wernicke's areas. Following the typical discussion found in most introductory textbooks, the author describes what he considers to be the major flaws of the classic model, including the complex symptoms of aphasics, the overly simplistic linguistic foundations of the model, and the inability of the anatomical assertions to hold up in light of subsequent observations. The author argues that, despite its limitations, this model remains in the mainstream due to a history starting with Gall's phrenology and findings that show strong evidence of localization in other sensory and motor domains, such as vision, hearing and the somatosensory system. A discussion of the problematic nature of linking neurology with linguistic theory stresses fundamental problems such as how linguistic theory focuses on finely-grained distinctions, whereas neurological studies have tried to localize ''syntax'' or ''phonology'' very broadly defined. The chapter concludes with the argument that what might be localized are the underlying specific computations that cognitive scientists have motivated on independent grounds.
Chapter 11 is entitled ''Homo Combinans'' and reiterates the uniqueness of the human ability to combine linguistic units in productive and creative ways. It starts with a discussion of evolutionary studies that have moved away from questioning the emergence of language and instead focus on adaptation and selection. Comparative studies of vervet monkeys, bees, and songbirds identify the unique qualities of human language. Shifting the question slightly, Boeckx argues in Chapter 11 that a fruitful approach to comparative research would be to study in animals the computations and representation that underlie language rather than to search for language itself. The chapter concludes arguing that human cognition is special not only because we combine linguistic items in creative ways, but also due to our ability to combine information (in computational terms) across various cognitive domains.
The final chapter identifies current research in linguistics and genetics, stating clearly from the outset that there is no specific gene for language. The reader learns of the famous case of the KE family and the FOXP2 gene, with a description of how foxp2 exists in many mammals and has been shown to have an important role in various areas of the body. This discussion returns to the view of the mind as a collection of special-purpose machines, or modules. While the author admits the possibility of a modular mind, he argues that the modules share cognitive primitives, such as ''combine'', ''linearize'', or ''concatenate'', and it is these shared combinations that may underlie localization. The chapter concludes emphasizing the need for a computation-oriented approach to the study of the mind, linguistics, and cognitive science in general.
An epilogue concludes the book with an extension of the biological arguments for language to moral competence and to the mental constructs of music.
Overall this text is a clearly written, thought-provoking discussion of the cognitive sciences through the lens of language. I believe this book does achieve its goal of piquing the curiosity of its readers regarding the biological nature and origins of language, and how language fits into the mind among other cognitive abilities.
Amongst the book's strengths, particularly commendable are the connections made to other cognitive domains and the biological sciences. They couch language and linguistics well within our broader understanding of the mind and the body. Equally laudable is the discussion of the history of language studies from Plato to Descartes, something I have never seen in such detail in other introductory texts on linguistics. It gives a well-grounded basis for understanding the motivation for current perspectives and lines of research.
In general I have few criticisms for the text. The chapters read in a very conversational yet detailed manner. Included throughout are extensive notes that point the reader to the sources from which the author derives his examples, and where one may find more in-depth discussion of the material.
One question that does arise is the best use for such a text. It is clearly a good choice for a general audience with interest in language and the mind. For students, however, it is quite different from a typical introduction to linguistics textbook, with a scope that makes it difficult to place it within a traditional introduction to linguistics class. The focus is too narrow in its discussion of linguistics proper, covering syntax and formal semantics throughout, but with little attention to other subfields such as phonology or morphology (or related fields such as sociolinguistics). At other times the focus is quite broad as the author relates language to other cognitive domains and the biological sciences. The instructor would need to rely quite heavily on supplementary material to cover basic topics in an introductory class. Perhaps a special topics course on the biological bases of language, or a course in cognitive science on language and the mind would be the most appropriate venues for a book such as this. On a similar note, the author acknowledges in the prologue that alternative views have been relegated to endnotes (or are often absent), that the book is ''unabashedly Chomskyan'' (p.xiv), and that as a syntactician his examples are predominantly of a syntactic nature while other subfields likely would have served equally well for the purpose of illustration. As a reference book for those interested in a basic introduction to issues pertinent to the study of language and the mind, these caveats may be sufficient. However, as a textbook, one would like to see a more rounded discussion of topics in which the student does indeed read how other levels of linguistic inquiry play a role in understanding language's place in the cognitive sciences, as well as how other approaches beyond generative theories have informed and encouraged discourse on the nature of language in cognition.
As the book follows the traditional generative approach, the reader also encounters a description in which, in the simplest of terms, our linguistic system can be conceived of as a set of lexical items, and grammars which allow for combination of these items (be it at the phonological, morphological, or syntactic levels). The syntactic system is discussed and exemplified heavily in the chapters, yet the nature of the representation of the lexical items is less developed. The chapters that deal with semantics and the relation between language and thought do describe various views on meaning, but the novice reader may be left wondering how this information is represented cognitively, as a discussion of the lexicon is lacking (topics such as prototypes, schemata, among others, which often appear in other texts are absent here).
Turning to the supplementary materials at the end of the book, the Guide to Further Study is excellent. It contains recommendations to read seminal works, ideas for essays, discussion topics, and references to sources with additional exercises for practice with data. This section would undoubtedly enhance the classroom experience for students. As it is a textbook, it is surprising to find no glossary, given the technical terminology that appears in the chapters. The reference section is thorough. Included are seminal works on topics discussed in the book as well as current sources, both those accessible to the novice for further reading and those more appropriate for the more advanced reader seeking technical accounts of the material.
In summary, Boeckx's text is a unique introduction to the biological foundations of language. While perhaps problematic in its scope for a general linguistics class, the book is well written, with many insightful connections to other areas of cognition. Anyone interested in exploring the underlying structures that connect language and the mind will enjoy both the exposition presented in this text as well as the wealth of additional references it includes.
Carroll, L. (1872). ''Through the looking-glass, and what Alice found there''. London: Macmillan.
Chomsky, N. (1957). ''Syntactic Structures''. The Hague: Mouton.
Chomsky, N. (1959). Review of Skinner (1957). ''Language'' 35: 26-58.
Fodor, J. A. (1983). ''The modularity of mind: An essay in faculty psychology''. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
Hubel, D. H. & Wiesel, T. N. (2004). ''Brain and visual perception: The story of a 25-year collaboration''. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Kanizsa, G. (1955). Margini quasi-percettivi in campi con stimolazione omogenea. ''Revista di Psicologia'', 49 (1): 7--30.
Lenneberg, E. H. (1967). ''Biological foundations of language''. New York: Wiley.
Plato. (1956). ''Protagoras and Meno''. New York: Penguin Classics.
Saffran, J., Aslin, R., & Newport, E. (1996). Statistical learning by 8-month old infants. ''Science'' 274: 1926-8.
Skinner, B. F. (1957). ''Verbal behavior''. New York: Appleton-Century-Crofts.
Spelke, E. S. (2000). Core knowledge. ''American Psychologist'' 55: 1233-43.
ABOUT THE REVIEWER:
ABOUT THE REVIEWER
Michael Shelton received his Ph.D. in Hispanic linguistics from The
Pennsylvania State University. He currently teaches general linguistics,
Hispanic linguistics and Spanish language at Occidental College in Los
Angeles, CA, USA. His principle research interests are experimental
approaches to phonology, the cognitive representation of phonological
structure, and language processing.