AUTHORS: Ina Bornkessel-Schlesewsky, Matthias Schlesewsky TITLE: Processing Syntax and Morphology SERIES TITLE: Oxford Surveys in Syntax and Morphology PUBLISHER: Oxford University Press YEAR: 2009
Phaedra Royle, École d'orthophonie et d'audiologie Université de Montréal
This book is intended for knowledgeable audiences interested in neuroimaging techniques used for the study of syntax and morphology. However, deep knowledge of neuroimaging techniques is not a prerequisite for the understanding of the book’s contents. In fact, since most of the chapters are relatively short and present research reviews, the book is also appropriate for third year undergraduate courses in neuro- and psycholinguistics. The linguistic background necessary for the book is quite advanced, as many of the discussions involve complex combinations of factors that could influence the processing of syntax. These include, among other things, thematic roles, valency, animacy, cleft structures, subcategorization, garden path sentences, A vs. A-bar movement, intonation phrase and more.
The monograph contains 16 chapters and is divided into four parts, an introduction and methodological section, as well as a number of other sections (prefaces, lists, references, indices). The first chapters establish the structure of the book and background (methodological prerequisites) so that the readers have the necessary knowledge about the research techniques reported on throughout the book. Chapters 3-6 (Part I) present studies of ''Syntax and Morphology at the Word Level'', Chapters 7 through 12 (Part II) present data on ''Syntax and Morphology in Sentence Processing'', and Chapters 13 and 14 (Part III) present data on ''Syntax and Morphology at the Interfaces''. In Part IV (Chapters 15 and 16), ''Neurocognitive Models of Language Processing'' (including the authors' model ''The Extended Argument Dependency Model'') are discussed in turn, and future directions for research are suggested.
Bornkessel-Schlesewsky and Schlesewsky (hereafter B-S & S) present a review of the research in brain imaging pertaining to morphological structure and syntactic processing with a particular focus on the processing of complex relations such as relational (argument) structure, information structure and complex structure such as relative clauses.
This book is very well written and contains few editorial flaws. More importantly, the authors present research and theoretical concepts from the neurosciences in a manner that is quite transparent and accessible. In most cases where they present a new concept, or one that might need to be explained to less knowledgeable audiences, they do not assume reader background knowledge. For example, when discussing the ''inverse problem'' (p. 5) (that is the fact that one can predict EEG activity as measured on the scalp surface if we know the source of activity, but not the opposite, that is, we cannot know the source of brain activity from scalp surface measures) that is always present in electroencephalographic (EEG) and other brain activity measures, the authors clearly define the problem and discuss its implications for data interpretation. This is in fact quite rare in neuroimaging texts, and the first time I have encountered such a clear presentation of issues.
For the most part, the chapters are presented in a succinct fashion, going over the major findings in specific domains of neurolinguistic research. This makes them quite easy to read -- some are only five pages long -- and usable in a course setting. However, I think that in a teaching setting, one would probably find advantage in adding to the chapters with some critical thinking from some other authors, or by reading one of the cited research articles, to get a more in-depth view of the questions addressed. Sometimes the chapters can feel a bit ''thin'' in terms of content. For example, it has long been a tradition in neurolinguistics to compare the processing of verbs and nouns, and a chapter (''Chapter 3: Basic categories: The noun-verb distinction'') reviews the issues. The chapter is only 6 pages long, which is quite short, considering the large amount of data that has been brought to bear on this question. B-S & S conclude the chapter with the following remarks: ''These results indicate that, rather than being due to inherent categorial differences, the neurocognitive distinction between nouns and verbs may be crucially influenced by inflectional morphology and the potential relation role of the words being processed'' (p. 45). This may in fact be true, but there is a strong debate surrounding this question and no reference to further readings are given. A good example would have been Shapiro and Caramazza (2004), who address this issue and argue, presenting modality specific (reading, writing) deficits for inflectional morphemes on verbs and nouns in single patient case studies, that ''syntactic category knowledge is represented independently of [age of acquisition, frequency, concreteness, and inflectional productivity] variables, and that access to words of different syntactic categories can be spared or impaired selectively […].'' (p. 804). Thus a presentation of further readings might be helpful departure points from the shorter (and even longer) chapters.
One goal of this monograph is to present B-S & S's model for syntactic processing: ''The Extended Argument Dependency Model'' or eADM. This model has the merit of being based on data from a number of well-designed experiments on the processing of syntax in a variety of languages (e.g. Hindi/Urdu, Turkish, Japanese), still quite rare in neuroimaging, where the majority of studies have been carried out in German, Dutch or English. Thus the strongest chapters in this book focus on the issues that are directly relevant to this model. These chapters are also the most complex in terms of the sheer amount of data presented and are unbalanced with respect others such as Chapter 3 discussed above. However, these are also the chapters that are the most interesting, as they present issues that are presently hot topics in the ERP literature in sentence processing. For example, Chapter 9, ''Relational Structure'' presents data on the interaction between the processing of syntax and thematic structure, but also other factors that seem to come into play in online language processing, such as word order and animacy, and is 60 pages long.
Returning to the eADM, the authors allude to it at various points in the monograph, while not clearly naming it, which creates a bit of confusion in the reader. For example, in Chapter 9, B-S & S indicate that ''[argument order reanalysis] might be explained […] by assuming that the relative ordering of subject and object in simple sentences does not affect the phrase structure'' and refer to an article by themselves ''and Chapter 15.4 for a processing model incorporating this assumption.'' (p. 184). Earlier, in ''Chapter 11, they refer to the concept of ''generalized mapping'' and cite again one of their publications without clearly explaining the concept (''a process which serves to map peripheral information onto properties of the core'') (p. 215). It thus seems that the authors are a bit shy about explaining their own concepts, and do not directly make links to the final chapters where they explicitly present these within the context of the model.
Chapter 15, ''Neurocognitive models of language comprehension'' presents four models, three quite well known, as well as their own. B-S & S thus discuss ''The declarative/procedural'' model (Ullman, 2004), the ''Memory Unification and Control (MUC) model'' (Hagoort, 2005) and Friederici's hierarchical syntax-first model (2002), before presenting their own. They discuss issues relating to these models: in what context they were developed, what they try to account for, and what testable hypotheses they have for neurocognitive processing of syntax. Here we focus on the eADM. This model was developed in part to provide a cross-linguistic neurocognitive account of syntactic processing and is formulated in terms of hierarchies or preferences. Its essence is derived from Friederici's model, in that it is a hierarchical model, but it assumes relational structure encoding similar to that of, for example, Culicover & Jackendoff, (2005). In their model:
''arguments are ranked hierarchically and assigned generalized semantic roles (Actor and Undergoer). This […] is derived with reference to a set of cross-linguistically motivated information types (termed ''prominence information'') and their language-specific weightings as specified in the interface hypothesis of incremental argument interpretation [… which] is accomplished by the syntax-semantics interface, i.e. with reference to a cross-linguistically defined set of prominence scales and their language specific weighting. The relevant prominence scales are: a. morphological case marking (nominative >accusative/ergative>nominative) b. argument order (argument 1 > argument 2) c. animacy (+ animate > -animate) d. definiteness/specificity (+definite/specific > -definite/specific) e. person (1st/2nd person > 3rd person)'' (p. 289).
B-S & S thus present a model that can putatively account for different linking effects across languages. One of its strengths is that it can make explicit predictions and be tested in a number of ways, with different linguistic phenomena. It is a serial-hierarchical model because it stipulates that word category information is necessary in the identification of possible arguments within the structure, before the mapping of arguments to syntactic roles specified by the verb. In addition, an intermediate step of argument linking with predicative elements (e.g., verbs) and prominence computation with non-predicating structures (e.g., NPs) is stipulated before the mapping between the two. Finally, following recent experimental findings, they propose a feed-forward cascading rather than a strictly serial processing model.
B-S & S argue that their model is the best suited for the cross-linguistic description of linguistic processing at the syntax-semantics interface. In addition, they point out that it is one of the few models based on the processing of grammatical and plausible structures (most research on syntax in the cognitive neurosciences uses violation paradigms to study syntactic processing). It is clear about its psycholinguistic assumptions for linguistic representation during processing. However, as they note, its greatest weakness is its underspecification of links between psychological and neurological processes engaged during processing (contrary to Ullman, 2004 for neurocognitive and Hagoort, 2005 for psycho-cognitive and neurological processes).
The book ends with a plea for the development of a neurocognitive science that does not have to make reference to linguistics or neurology to find an appropriate level of granularity (Poeppel & Embick, 2005), but rather to forge ahead and develop its own tradition in the pursuit of a better understanding of human linguistic cognition.
Culicover, Peter W. & Jackendoff, Ray (2005). Simpler syntax. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Poeppel, David, & Embick, David (2005). Defining the relation between linguistics and neuroscience. In A. Cutler (Ed.), Twenty-First Century Psycholinguistics: four cornerstones (pp. 103-118). Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.
Friederici, Angela D. (2002). Towards a neural basis of auditory sentence processing. Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 6(2), 78-84.
Hagoort, Peter (2005). On Broca, brain and binding: a new framework. Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 9, 416-423.
Shapiro, Kevin & Caramazza, Alfonso (2004). The Neural Basis of Syntactic Processes. In Michael S. Gazzaniga, ed., The Cognitive Neurosciences (3 ed., pp. 803-814). Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
Ullman, Michael T. (2004). Contributions of memory circuits to language: The declarative/procedural model. Cognition, 92, 231-270.
ABOUT THE REVIEWER
ABOUT THE REVIEWER:
Phaedra Royle holds a Ph.D. in Linguistics from the Université de Montréal
and pursued postdoctoral studies at the School of Communication Sciences
and Disorders at McGill University. Her interests lie in psycholinguistics,
neurolinguistics, language disorders (Specific Language Impairment),
language acquisition, morphology and morphosyntax. Her thesis investigated
verb processing in language-impaired French-speaking adolescents and
adults. Her postdoctoral research focused on early verb acquisition in
French-speaking children with and without SLI. She is presently carrying
out research on language acquisition (French DPs) and processing of complex
noun phrases in French- and Spanish-speaking populations with and without
SLI, ERP imaging of morphological processing and agreement in
French-speaking adults and children, as well as eye-tracking experiments on
morphological processing. She holds a professorship at the School of Speech
Language Pathology and Audiology at the Université de Montréal, has a
research lab at the CHU Sainte-Justine and is a member of the Centre for
Research on Language, Mind and Brain (Montreal).