LINGUIST List 13.1241

Fri May 3 2002

Review: Philosophy of Lang: Jackendoff (2001)

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  1. Pritha Chandra, Foundations of Language: Brain, Meaning, Grammar, Evolution

Message 1: Foundations of Language: Brain, Meaning, Grammar, Evolution

Date: Wed, 01 May 2002 16:07:24 +0000
From: Pritha Chandra <>
Subject: Foundations of Language: Brain, Meaning, Grammar, Evolution

Jackendoff, Ray (2002) 
Foundations of Language: Brain, Meaning, Grammar, Evolution. 
Oxford University Press, xx+477pp, hardback 
ISBN 0-19-827012-7, GBP 25.00

Book Announcement on Linguist:

Pritha Chandra, Centre of Linguistics and English, 
Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi (India).

'Foundations of Language' stands out as a unique endeavour to bring
together issues that have been the concerns of many contemporary
researches. The dilemma of most present day linguistic researches is
that they miss the essential linkages and interfaces between various
aspects of language, thus failing to formulate a holistic approach
indispensable for a complete and comprehensive understanding of the
architecture of the language faculty. The book successfully indulges
in the arduous task of bringing together various theoretical
assumptions about language and filling up the missing links in the
study of the mind and language. Committed to this task, it targets an
interdisciplinary audience with many of the linguistic jargons being
successfully moulded to the taste of non-linguists.

The book is divided into three parts - each with four chapters, with
one additional chapter linking up the manifold ideas distributed
throughout the book. The first part lays down the 'psychological and
biological foundations' of language, primarily dealing with issues
that have shaped generative linguistics for the last thirty years or
so - mentalism, combinatoriality and nativism. The next part carries
forward the doubts and questions posed in the previous chapters
regarding the conjectures of the existing generative paradigms, and
lays out alternative 'architectural foundations'. The final part
-'semantic and conceptual foundations' focuses essentially on framing
a more sophisticated theory of semantics, necessary for forging a
meaningful and dialectical interconnection between the human mind and
the objective reality.

The uniqueness of human language is the complex and rich structure
inherent in all possible linguistic constructions; even a very simple
sentence like 'The little star's beside a big star' can be
conceptualised at four different levels - phonological, syntactic,
semantic/conceptual and spatial. Structural specificity has therefore
rightly occupied the centre-stage of linguistic research, rendering it
the status of a highly specialised field. In the first chapter, the
author reflects on these issues and constructs the two-fold agenda for
linguists working within the generative paradigm: recognising the four
levels and their tiers of structure, and secondly, postulating
possible ways of correspondence between them.

In the second chapter, terms like f(unctional) mind and f- mental are
introduced in a bid to reduce the tensions generating from otherwise
commonly used terms like `representation', `symbol' in the generative
tradition. Rejecting theories that vouch for a complete analogy
between linguistic structures and neural instantiations, the notion of
f-mind insinuates that diverse linguistic notations encode particular
dimensions of the state-space, characterised by the combination of the
states of neurons in relevant parts of the brain.

In the next chapter, Jackendoff deals with the various rules used to
beget legible sentences in the grammar. These rules are of three types
- formation rules, derivational rules and constraints, along with
other specific rules for the construction of lexical items from
smaller units. Extending on the language-neural instantiation
relationship developed in the previous chapter, these rules are too
formal constructs that could be conceptualised either as data
structures stored in long-term memory or as partial descriptions of
the operations of the processor itself. The last chapter in the first
part is used to clarify some of the common misconceptions usually
associated with the term Universal Grammar. Jackendoff considers that
mentalism and connectionism are two extremes - one focuses entirely on
pre-specification of linguistic universals and structures in the mind,
while the other takes more of an empiricist viewpoint to the manner in
which children acquire language. The right path, the author claims
"lies undoubtedly between these two extremes".

The fifth chapter provides an alternative to the existing generative
models for the language faculty. Jackendoff's alternative model
perceives more than one combinatorial system interacting with each
other through interface systems. In other words, each of the four
language specific components in the present model is equally

The alternative model also calls for a distinction between elements
stored in the long- term memory (lexical items) and those constructed
online from working memory (grammatical words), and between productive
morphology (containing mostly regular forms) and semi-productive
morphology (with partial regularities). All these different processes
are dealt with extensively in chapter six, that contemplates a dynamic
version of the lexicon, with the Universal Grammar providing design
space for words and stable 'unmarked' pre-specified lexical rules as
well as the 'marked' ones.

The seventh chapter sets a deeper probe into the concept of
'modularity', with the focus now primarily placed on the interactions
of the various components of grammar and the implications this new
architecture has for processing. Jackendoff's 'structure constrained
modularity' states that levels of structure communicate with each
other through interface modules where correlation is carried out
through specific computations. There are in fact degrees of modularity
rather than absolute modularity, with the interactions enhancing as
the interfaces between two components enrich. These stipulations flag
another deviation from standard generative linguistic assumptions
about the evolution of the language faculty. Chapter eight is entirely
devoted to this theme, where Jackendoff contends that language is by
large a consequence of natural selection. His claim is that the new
grammatical machine allows for a well- articulated account of the way
the human language kept enriching and adding new structures to
accommodate to the increasing pressures of adequately conveying
complex thoughts and concepts. The evolution of the language faculty
is regarded in the author's own words, as "the successive addition of
more and more 'tricks' to the toolkit".

Generative grammar, according to the author has never had a clear
understanding of semantics; likewise, semantic theories have also not
been very explicit in their definition of linguistic semantics and its
relation to human cognition and conceptualisation. Extending on the
new grammatical model, the ninth chapter argues against the reduction
of semantics to syntax, instead postulating semantics as an
independent combinatorial structure. Linguistic semantics is
conceptualised as arising from the interface between conceptualisation
and linguistic structures corresponding to syntax and phonology.

The concept of semantics is further clarified in the tenth chapter,
which focuses on notions of truth and reference and the way language
relates to our perception of the world and thought processes. A
detailed sketch of the way, language is used to convey names, abstract
objects and kinds, imparts vital inputs about the intricacies of human

The eleventh and twelfth chapters deal with two very important aspects
of meaning, lexical semantics and phrasal semantics respectively. The
author deals extensively with issues like lexical decomposition, its
drawbacks and prospects, polysemy, and other subtle similarities and
differences in meaning arising from levels of cognition. Building up
on notions like state and event functions, the author postulates
structures (conceptual structures and spatial structures) within
lexical meaning. The twelfth chapter draws parallels between lexical
semantics and phrasal semantics to the extent that both use certain
basic conceptual combinations and other principles like variable
satisfaction, modification and lambda extraction. However, phrasal
semantics also reflects the extremely rich and complex coordination
between grammar, independent well- formedness conditions on conceptual
structure and the construal of context. The final chapter presents the
concluding remarks.


It is indeed a formidable task to embark upon a naturalistic study of
an abstract phenomenon as language, and to construct a
mathematical/logical model for it, suited to explain its immense
complexity. In this approach, linguistics is elevated to the standards
and sophistication expected from any genuine natural science using
higher levels of abstraction to generate principles governing the
phenomena under study, against the crudity of mechanistic
"physicalism". As Chomsky (2000) cogitates, "A naturalistic approach
to linguistic and mental aspects of the world seeks to construct
intelligible explanatory theories, taking as "real" what we are led to
posit in this quest, and hoping for eventual unification with the
"core" natural sciences, not necessarily reduction." In this regard,
Jackendoff's effort is definitely commendable, in that he not only
relates the results of linguistic researches with other disciplines, a
beneficial enterprise for both sides, but also that he examines the
existing generative paradigms' attempts with the required scepticism,
essential for further opening up of the field.

The underpinning of the minimalist programme has been that a speaker's
internal or individual language (I-language) consists of a
computational procedure and a lexicon, where "language variation
appears to reside". Drawing in lexical items from the lexicon, syntax
generates a more complex array of features, with the generative engine
bifurcating into the Phonetic Form and the Logical Form. This paradigm
has come under severe criticisms from various quarters, on various
issues. However, one of the major loopholes pointed out has been its
undermining of the concept of semantics. Chomsky explicitly states,
"As for semantics, insofar as we understand language use, the argument
for a reference-based semantics (apart from an internalist syntactic
version) seems to be weak. It is possible that natural language has
only syntax and pragmatics; it has a "semantics" only in the sense of
"the study of how this instrument, whose formal structure and
potentialities of expression are the subject of syntactic
investigation, is actually put to use in a speech community". What
could be concluded is that semantics is not necessarily reduced to
syntax, as more often claimed, but that it does not form part of the
naturalistic inquiries into the language faculty. Linguistic
structures need not necessarily bear any relation to the semantics
finally attributed in actual use. This view only adds to the status of
semantics as an important, independent (but related) field of study,
rightly exemplified by its immense complexity and variation in
different social environment and belief systems.

Further, when one talks about the 'centricity' of syntax in the
organised structure of the language faculty, it is not at all
equivalent to building up a deterministic framework, rather it draws
from the task of dealing with the organisation of any complex,
probabilistic system. Like any self-regulating and self-organising
complex system, the language faculty has to satisfy the basic
cybernetic laws, which require its factorisation into various
sub-systems, along with the satisfaction of Godel's 'incompleteness
theorem', which forces a hierarchic structuring. A hierarchy does not
signify that of privilege, status or seniority, rather it simply means
that the tension unresolved within a system requires a `meta'-system
to resolve it. The functional 'centricity' of syntax derives from this
inescapable 'natural' law.

Another point of contention among present day linguists revolves
around the evolution of the language faculty in hominids. While some
like Pinker and Bloom (1990), and the author himself argue for an
incremental development of language as a response to natural
selection, others like Gould and Lewontin (1979) contest for the
position that the emergence of the language faculty was a consequence
of natural selection-driven heterogeneous developments converging on a
brain structure. "Objects designed for definite purposes can, as a
result of their structural complexity, perform many other tasks as
well. ...Our large brains may have originated "for" some set of
necessary skills in gathering food, socializing, or whatever; but
these do not exhaust the limits of what such a complex machine can
do." (Gould, 1980) Language faculty in this framework emerges as an
un-purposed component of the brain, a necessary corollary of
macroevolution. 'Hyper- selectionism', on the other hand, tries to
explain every macroevolution as slowly accumulated microevolution, and
is unable to explain the historicity of evidenced long-term
stasis. The author tends to adhere to this position, which is already
under revision in molecular biology, in direct study of fossil
sequences, etc.

But then science develops through its tensions, by evidencing and
counter-evidencing principles and facts. The greatness of this 'bound
to be a classic' lies in its uncompromising posing of questions and
possible answers. It definitely establishes a landmark where the
linguistic research must take a radical leap, towards the definite
establishment of linguistics as a science.


Chomsky, N. (2000) New Horizons in the Study of Language and
Mind. Cambridge University Press.

Gould, S.J. and R.C. Lewontin (1979) The spandrels of San Marco and
the Panglossian paradigm: a critique of the adaptationist
programme. Proceedings of the Royal Society, London B205:581-98.

Gould, S.J. (1980) The Panda's Thumb. Penguin. 

Pinker, S. & P. Bloom (1990) Natural language and natural
selection. In Behavioural and Brain Sciences 13: 707-784.


Pritha Chandra is associated with the Centre of Linguistics and
English, Jawaharlal Nehru University. She has been teaching
linguistics in a college in the University of Delhi. Her
specialisation is generative syntax with a specific focus on argument
structure, Case and EPP.

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