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Review of  The Language Organ

Reviewer: Phaedra Royle
Book Title: The Language Organ
Book Author: Stephen R. Anderson David W Lightfoot
Publisher: Cambridge University Press
Linguistic Field(s): Linguistic Theories
Issue Number: 14.383

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Date: Thu, 06 Feb 2003 12:27:44 -0500
From: Phaedra Royle
Subject: Review: The Language Organ: Linguistics as Cognitive Physiology

Stephen R. Anderson, and David W. Lightfoot (2002) The Language Organ:
Linguistics as Cognitive Physiology. Cambridge University Press,
Paperback ISBN 0-521-00783-6, xix+263pp, $24.00.

This book was announced on LinguistList Issue 132382
Web link

Phaedra Royle, School of Communication Sciences and Disorders, McGill

In The Language Organ (hereafter TLO), Anderson and Lightfoot aim to
position Linguistics squarely into the realm of biological sciences,
where the authors believe it should be. The authors want to convince the
reader of the biological basis of the cognitive faculty we call
"language", and show that the organization of the language "organ" is
complex. The authors address in turn, the history of language study,
basic issues in linguistic research, syntax, phonetics, phonology,
morphology, language change, language acquisition and the biology of
language in order to provide support for the notion that the study of
language " every bit as "physiological" as the study of processes
that take place in the kidney, even though the "organ" involved is functional rather than anatomical terms."(xiii)

To linguists, the innateness hypothesis does not come as a surprise, and
is often implicitly assumed. However, we don't have to search as far
a field as the general public to find a significant body of people who do
not believe that there necessarily is an innate language faculty. A case
in point is the domain of cognitive psychology, where language
representation and processing theories run the gamut between
connectionist (where patterns arise as a consequence of the input, but
are in no sense innate rules) and rule-based models, with dual-route
models (incorporating rule- and association-based processes) positioned
somewhere in the middle ground between the two extremes.

The reader's interest will be piqued by the comment, stated boldly in the
book's forward, that "we need to understand the "processes, activities
and phenomena" characteristic of our mental life, the organization,
development, and interaction of cognition. ... to do that we have to look
at the right things; and in the case of language, that means studying
language as a highly structured kind of knowledge [or I-language] rather
than as a collection of external events [or E-language]." (xiii) Anderson
and Lightfoot proceed to analyze research in different sub-domains of
Linguistics with the stated goals of convincing the non-specialist of the
biological origins of language, and of reminding the specialist of the
importance of the innate and internal nature of language, not to be
confused with it's external manifestation(s).

The premise of TLO is that Linguistics does not belong in the Humanities,
nor in the Social Sciences but rather in the "hard sciences" on par with
Biology. This is based on the notion that Linguistics is not the study of
E-language (or external manifestations of language) but rather I-language
(the internal "knowledge" of language). The book is intended to show (or
remind) the reader what the difference is between E- and I-language and
how to avoid the E-language trap. For example, in Chapter 5 "Describing
linguistic knowledge" the authors present arguments against the use of
phonological rules in favor of Optimality Theory (hereafter OT), while
presenting loanword data from Fula. Fula is a language spoken in West
Africa and contains many borrowings from French. As those who have
studied borrowing know, borrowing languages modify the phonological
structure of loanwords in order for them to obey the phonology of the
borrowing language. Anderson and Lightfoot argue that rule-based accounts
of loanword adaptations are insufficient as descriptions of I-language.
If a language (like Fula) does not independently have a representation
for a specific phonetic segment (say, /v/), there is no reason for the
existence of a rule in that language converting /v/ to something else.
Anderson and Lightfoot conclude that "[t]he regularities of sound
structure seem to have a reality whether or not the language can be
argued to contain rules to modify its own forms so as to make them
conform."(97) They conclude that the constraint-based approach of OT
manages to capture the universal, cross-linguistic, and innate nature of
speaker's linguistic representations.

It is interesting to note the parallels between OT and Connectionist
approaches to language representation and processing. Both integrate a
notion of evaluation of multiple outputs and the idea of the best fit
being the output of the system. However, major differences do exist. Most
importantly, OT specifies innate and universal conditions on
well-formedness (NoCoda and so on), while Connectionist approaches
believe in the emergent nature of linguistic "rules". That is, patterns
appear based on the input rather than on innate properties of the
language organ. Despite these differences, it appears to me that OT
theorists could (and should) use the computational tools developed by
Connectionist modelers in order to be able to model their theoretical
assumptions, and to see which account will provide a better match for
linguistic data in domains such as acquisition, loan-word borrowing (and
probably others). But I digress.

Anderson and Lightfoots's book arrives at a time where a number of
linguists are reconsidering issues in the field (see for example, Hale
and Reiss, 2000, and Jackendoff, 2002). In particular they question what
Linguistics is, how we study language, what type of data is relevant to
the study of Linguistics, and where Linguistics is heading as a science.
The authors review a number of different areas of linguistic
investigation (syntax, phonology, morphology, acquisition, language
change, etc.) while attempting to provide a unified, theoretical,
approach to the study of Linguistics. The only area they do not
explicitly address is semantics. In fact, this book could be considered
complimentary to Jackendoff's Foundation of Language, as the authors have
decided to leave aside a thorough discussion of semantics, referring the
readers to previous Jackendoff articles (his more recent book had not
been published at the time of publication of the present book). Anderson
and Lighfoot's goal is to present an account for a large number of
linguistic data with a restricted number of innate constraints (on
syntax, phonology and so on).

Considering the goals of the authors, the book is quite succinct - a bit
less than 300 pages for ten chapters. However, the theoretical arguments
presented are thorough and to the point. No content is lost in the name
of brevity. The discussion is thorough and elegant. For example, in the
syntax section, they manage to account for a number of seemingly very
different phenomena (constraints on 'that' deletion, traces,
incorporation, 'wanna' contraction, and so on) with a few simple
principles. Over and over again, they show that approaching the study of
language from the point of view of E-language is misleading because of
the isomorphy problem-linguistic knowledge often is not isomorphic with
external manifestations.

On a number of occasions, Anderson and Lightfoot make cavalier statements
about language without seriously backing up their claims. For example,
they state that children come to language with the predetermined
knowledge on "the nature of clitics, and the fact that they cannot by
themselves satisfy the requirement that phrases be represented by at
least one phonological word [and that this] is contributed by the
linguistic genotype and is part of what the child brings to language
acquisition." (31) It might be the case that children have the ability to
recognize clitics based on innate knowledge, but this is a bit of a leap
of faith. It is highly improbable that children have a representation for
"clitic". I know this is not what the authors are trying to say but their
phrasing is unfortunate, and the inexperienced reader will find this type
of assertion daunting. Another example can be found in chapter 6
(Phonetics and the I-linguistics of speech) where the authors endorse a
Motor Theory of Speech Perception without discussing why, but rather
stating that they are convinced by the arguments presented by proponents
of Motor Theory (Liberman & Mattingly 1985, Mattingly & Studdart-Kennedy,
1991). One wonders what is the point of presenting a theory that is not
discussed. It does not add anything to the book because it is simply a
statement. No implications can be drawn from it.

TLO is intended for a number of different audiences. In spite of this,
the author's statement that it is available to the uninitiated reader may
be a bit misleading. The discussion of disadvantages of different
approaches might seem a bit out of reach of the non-linguist, or even the
neophyte. It would probably be more appropriate for an advanced Theories
of Language class at the undergraduate level, or even a graduate seminar
in Linguistics. TLO could be a useful tool for researchers with an
understanding of linguistic issues (for example, neurologists, cognitive
scientists, and so on) and that are interested putting their work into
perspective, or in bringing their knowledge up to date in domains that
are not their specialty. The chapters could also be used as quick and
ready introductions to more recent areas of theoretical linguistic
inquiry such as Optimality Theory and Minimalism.

A final caveat is that a number of typos were found in the text.
Fortunately this has little consequence for general understanding.
However, one typo was found in the French examples in the discussion of
borrowing. This makes one wary of the other unknown language examples,
since the non-native speaker cannot evaluate whether the examples and
transcriptions are accurate, or not.

Hale, Mark & Reiss, Charles (2000) Phonology as Cognition, in
Burton-Roberts, N., Carr, P., & Docherty, G. (Eds.) Phonological
Knowledge: Conceptual and Empirical Issues. Oxford University Press,
Jackendoff, Ray (2002) Foundations of Language: Brain, Meaning, Grammar,
Evolution. Oxford University Press.
Liberman, A. M. & Mattingly, I. G. (1985) The motor theory of speech
perception revised. Cognition, 21, 1-36.
Mattingly, I. G. & Studdart-Kennedy, M., eds. (1991) Modularity and the
motor theory of speech perception. Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.

Phaedra Royle holds a Ph.D. in Linguistics from the Université de Montréal. Her interests lie in psycholinguistics, language disorders (Specific Language Impairment), language acquisition and morphology. Her thesis investigated lexical access in language-impaired French-speaking adolescents and adults. She is presently carrying out postdoctoral research on early language acquisition in French-speaking children with and without language delay, at McGill University in the School of Communication Sciences and Disorders.

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