LINGUIST List 13.2043

Wed Aug 7 2002

Review: Cognitive Science: Loritz (1999/2002)

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  1. Katharine Beals, Loritz (2002) How the Brain Evolved Language

Message 1: Loritz (2002) How the Brain Evolved Language

Date: Tue, 06 Aug 2002 21:33:24 +0000
From: Katharine Beals <>
Subject: Loritz (2002) How the Brain Evolved Language

Loritz, Donald (2002) How the Brain Evolved Language.
Oxford University Press, 227pp, paperback ISBN 0-19-515124-0, $19.95.
(Hardback ed. published 1999)

Book Announcement on Linguist: 

Katharine Beals


In "How the Brain Evolved Language" Donald Loritz argues why human
language requires no special linguistic module, and how its underlying
neurology can, and indeed must, be explained without recourse to the
abstract mechanisms of generative grammar.

A complete explanation of language, Loritz believes, must start with
the one-celled life forms whose communication with the outside world
prefigured multicelled life. Loritz, thus, begins by describing
single-celled organisms, and how their membranes admit food and block
toxins; the Cambrian explosion of multicelled organisms, a consequence
of the invention of the neuron (an "excellent prototype" for which was
the single-celled organism called the flagellate, with its axon-like
tail); and the formula for life: f(x) = Ax + t, where x is a form, A
is a geometric transform of that form, and f(x), therefore, is the
general equation for a fractal.

Indeed, the fractal principle of self-similarity-- the principle that
"patterns in nature repeat themselves on different scales" (p. 29)--
pervades Loritz's sketches of biology in general and the brain in
particular. The cell, with its membranes within membranes, is
self-similar both in its design and function; by the same principle,
so is each bodily organ, and so is the body as a whole.

The recapitulation of phylogeny by ontogeny in fetal development is a
case of "procedural self-similarity" (p. 30). Within an organism that
itself communicates, so is communication among neurons, the
complicated mechanics of which is Loritz' next topic. Following this,
and next in the fractal hierarchy of human communication, is "the
society of the brain." Here we visit the limbic system, the
cerebellum, and the cerebrum, with all its substructures and their
different functions, and discover, in Loritz' overview of the
occipital lobe and vision, the principle of "on-center off-surround"
anatomies that turns out to be key to language learning and
processing. In such an anatomy, some "center cells", reacting to a
stimulus, relay their excitement up to other cells, which echo this
back to the center cells, keeping them excited, while also inhibiting
those at the periphery (p. 63). Reviewing evidence about brain
function in deaf signers, left-handers, and children who recover
from aphasia, Loritz concludes that the cerebrum is initially plastic,
and that there is no particular location into which language is

The subject of the next chapter, Adaptive Resonance, is the theory of
neural communication which underlies how brain cells learn language
without hard-wiring. Here, with myriad schematic diagrams,
mathematical equations, and quantitative models, Loritz addresses how
Adaptive Resonance, via on-center off-surround anatomies, enables such
functions as contrast enhancement, noise suppression, resonance,
self-similarity, and neural rebounds-functions which, though they turn
out to be key to language, also underlie sensory processing,
especially vision.

In the following chapters, Loritz discusses the extent to which
Adaptive Resonance Theory underpins language learning and processing,
from sound and speech perception, to serial processing, to morphology,
syntax, semantics and pragmatics. Key to morphology and syntax is a
specific Adaptive Resonance mechanism: that of the dipole rhythm
generator, which enables the hierarchical, binary, parsing of language
into phrases, words, feet and syllables. Emerging from these dipoles,
therefore, are metrical phonology, spoonerisms, and syntactic
structure. Syntax, in particular word order, also results from a
"topic gradient" of old to new information, which includes verbal as
well as nominal elements, and which orders older before newer.
Combine the topic gradient with the principles of Adaptive Resonance,
and we get cross-linguistic tendencies towards subject first, as well
as topicalization, passivization, dative movement, particle movement,
the ordering of arguments within the VP, the distribution of pronouns,
the scope of negation, and the syntax of questions. Generative
grammar, which had its time, and its virtues, but whose tree diagrams
were starting to look "more and more like stimulus-response chains and
crayfish brains" (p. 147), is no longer needed.

In the closing chapter, "What if Language is Learned by Brain Cells,"
Loritz revisits, from the vantage point of language acquisition, how
language can exist without a linguistic module. He questions the
so-called "critical period" for language learning, arguing that, to
the extent that it exists, it is merely part and parcel of a critical
period for learning in general: over time the cerebrum in particular
becomes less plastic. He then shows how various language disorders,
some of which (e.g. Specific Language Impairment) purportedly evince
different linguistic modules, may instead result from more general
dysfunctions, e.g. in Adaptive Resonance mechanisms. Finally, he
questions two key claims of generative grammarians: that children
learn language effortlessly, and that parents don't teach it to them.
In particular, he argues, when a child refers to a cow as a "koo," the
typical parental response-e.g. "That's right! It's a cow"- is an
expansion or recasting that yields implicit negative evidence of
the sort that generative grammarians assume is completely absent, but
which in fact, through the principles of Adaptive Resonance, causes
automatic, subconscious corrections.


Maybe Loritz is on to something. In particular, his general
observation about implicit negative evidence in language acquisition
rings true. But, for the most part, it's awfully hard to tell. His
explanation of Adaptive Resonance Theory is at once too technical and
too sketchy for the non-mathematical, non-computational lay person to
glean even a general gist; his disposal of the major problems of
phonology, morphology and syntax is way too sweeping and superficial:
morphology in three pages; syntax in 13. Farfetched claims-- whether
about flagellae and axons, or syntactic trees and crayfish brains--
undermine his credibility. So do some of his specific linguistic
judgments, e.g. the purported acceptability of "Irv poured the glass
with ice water," which to me, in comparison with "Irv filled the glass
with ice water," sounds unequivocally odd.

The general exposition is also confusing. Key terms and
concepts-"self-similar," "on-center off-surround" and "dipole" appear
pages in advance of anything approaching a definition. The topics
ramble along with many apparently unmotivated digressions: it's never
really clear, for example, what the point is of recapitulating
phylogeny and exposing self-similarity in Chapter 2, or what the
meditation in Chapter 11 on truth vs. meaning (which tracks the rise
and fall of Linguistics from the Holy Roman Empire and the Reformation
through Hitler and oral contraceptives) has to do with the rest of the

"How the Brain Evolved Language" glimmers with interesting and
important ideas. If only Loritz had used more words to describe and
connect them!


Katharine Beals received her Ph.D. in linguistics from the University
of Chicago in 1995. From 1995 to 2000 she worked as a Senior Software
Engineer with the Natural Language Group at Unisys. She is currently
at home with her baby daughter and at work on a book about her deaf,
autistic son, which explores such issues as language modality,
cochlear implants, and language and consciousness in autistic people.
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