Speaking in too many tongues

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Linguists are divided in their ideas about the origin of language.

Human Language and Our Reptilian Brain: The Subcortical Bases of Speech, Syntax, and Thought

Harvard University Press: 2000. 240 pp. $39.95, £26.50
“But wait a bit,” the Oysters cried, “Before we have our chat”. Credit: FROM LEWIS CARROLL'S ALICE THROUGH THE LOOKING-GLASS

Reminiscing about the beginnings of her career, the distinguished psychologist Eleanor Rosch once wrote: “I wanted my new field to be empirical, but not barbarically so.” In his fifth book on the evolution of language, Philip Lieberman wants his field to be empirical, period. His central thesis is stated unequivocally on the second page: “Ultimately, human linguistic and cognitive ability can be traced back to the learned motor responses of mollusks.” Such bluntness has to be put in the context of the success of Steven Pinker's 1994 book on language evolution, The Language Instinct (William Morrow), one of the best things to have happened in the dissemination of ideas in linguistics and cognitive science. Professor Lieberman probably felt obliged to write the ultimate anti-Pinker.

His thorn, from Pinker's rose, is that nearly half a century ago, at the Research Laboratory of Electronics at MIT, Noam Chomsky opened a new avenue into the study of language. Linguistic inquiry was to be part of the natural sciences, with a privileged link to biology. It would therefore welcome the inevitable consequence that linguistic hypotheses and explanations would be open to refutation or corroboration by data from a variety of domains — from traumatic speech impairments to congenital language deficits, from sign languages to the spontaneous creolization of pidgins, and much beyond. This new study of language was expected to open a privileged window on the workings of the human mind.

And many of us think it did. But an all-important proviso existed then, and persists today: the study of language is ultimately a biological science, but it must be conducted at a suitably abstract level of analysis. The symbolic representations and transformations that constitute a person's knowledge of their mother tongue must be investigated by amassing a huge variety of phonological, morphological, syntactic and semantic facts, from as many languages as possible. The brain scientists will have to know exactly what they are expected to find the neural bases of.

Lieberman totally neglects this proviso. To him, linguistics is applied evolutionary biology. “In time, 'biological-linguists' working in an evolutionary framework will lead the way to new insights on the nature of language.”

He claims to be in a position to offer a new kind of linguistics, but never attempts to tackle even one of the problems that have absorbed hundreds of linguists over the past several decades. He dismisses all their hard work at a single stroke, radically misquoting as his ally Ray Jackendoff, one of the most productive researchers in the field.

Jackendoff's idea, in the passage Lieberman refers to, was that any five-year-old child knows things about their mother tongue that certified linguists have been striving to understand for decades, so far with only limited success. This fact is explicitly presented by Jackendoff as the “paradox of language acquisition”, which leads to the inevitable conclusion that “the human brain contains a genetically determined specialization for language” (from Patterns in the Mind: Language and Human Nature, Harvester/Wheatsheaf, 1993).

Admittedly, Jackendoff also candidly confesses to the limited success of his discipline. (What major scientific discipline will not admit that quite a lot is yet to be discovered?) Lieberman, using indirect discourse, drastically denatures this act of modesty: “Candid exponents of the algorithmic approach introduced by Chomsky such as Ray Jackendoff admit they cannot even describe the sentences of any human language.” Such token of unfairness has a reason: those who believe language to be a practical ability, a skill based on a variety of other skills, mobilizing huge, distributed functional complexes in the brain, have no truck with an “algorithmic approach”.

In Lieberman's conception there is nothing specific about language. Syntax is merely the outcome of general patterns of motor control acting on the phonatory apparatus. The book deals at length with the transient linguistic impairments provoked by high-altitude hypoxia near the top of Mount Everest, or in hypobaric chambers. Who would deny that there are circumstances in which motor impairments and speech impairments occur together? The observation of drunkards would have been equally telling, although less exotic.

In a rather long quote, which appears twice, Lieberman endorses the idea that “thought is mental movement without motion”. J. B. Watson's old behaviourist idea that syntactic comprehension consists of silent phonetic rehearsal (literally talking to oneself) is rediscovered, and occurs on so many pages that I could not even begin to list them.

I have just bemoaned Lieberman's liberal use of passages from authors in the other camp. The book also contains a few glaring factual mistakes that a good copy editor should have amended. But don't let me be misunderstood: although Lieberman is highly selective in his citations, he also correctly summons quotes and data from authors in his own camp. The idea that language is only a special chapter of general intelligence, coming out through sophisticated, but still generic, motor schemata, is very old and still popular. Lieberman has no shortage of real allies, in philosophy, anthropology, artificial intelligence, evolutionary psychology and the neurosciences. He can, and does, summon plenty of academically certified witnesses for the defence. None of them cares a jot about the problems, data and theories of Lieberman's so-called “algorithmic” linguistics. But indifference to, and ignorance of, linguistic research can too quickly turn into hasty indictments: “No evidence exists that . . . the neural machinery regulating language differs fundamentally from that regulating other aspects of behavior. . . . The search for the Universal Grammar is perhaps best regarded as a search for a holy grail.”

But a central consideration must be taken into account. Lieberman has an endowed chair in a major university, and the monograph is part of a prestigious series from a prestigious publisher. Its very existence attests to a deeply unsatisfactory situation in large sections of this domain. Rosch's proviso has been too often neglected. The Liebermans of this world jettison en bloc the results of the real study of real languages, freely over-generalizing from what they think they can observe in the brain, and in molluscs. And the other camp is not overly interested in reading about the alleged neuro-evolutionary bases of linguistic phenomena and mechanisms that they know cannot be right. With a few comforting exceptions, the long-sought, deep dialogue between linguistics and the neurosciences has yet to come.

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