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Review of  Language in the Brain

Reviewer: Alejandrina Cristia
Book Title: Language in the Brain
Book Author: Helmut Schnelle
Publisher: Cambridge University Press
Linguistic Field(s): Neurolinguistics
Issue Number: 22.686

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AUTHOR: Helmut Schnelle
TITLE: Language in the Brain
PUBLISHER: Cambridge University Press
YEAR: 2010

Alejandrina Cristià, Laboratoire de Sciences Cognitives et Psycholinguistique,


This monograph is intended to close the gap between linguistics, neurocognition,
and phenomenological psychology. Brief summaries of the book's chapters follow.

Part I aims to provide linguists with some basic principles of neuroscience to
propitiate this interdisciplinary work. Chapter 1 opens with a defense of an
''interdisciplinary triangle,'' in which linguistics, psychology, and biology
inform each other without being reducible to one another. It also includes some
basic notions of neuroanatomy (common divisions of the brain into areas;
neuronal networks) and references to a few models of language in the brain.
Chapter 2 proposes a Leibniz-inspired model of brain organization for memory or
knowledge formation, based on perception-action links. Some references to
psychological and experimental work are given in Chapter 3, including a review
of Piaget's proposed stages of development, the mirror-neuron system, a handful
of electrophysiological and neuroimaging studies on children, and visual and
auditory processing in terms of wholes and parts. Continuing along this
phenomenological path, Chapter 4 discusses creativity, the self, and feelings.

Part II is overtly addressed to neuroscientists, and covers principles of
linguistic theory. Chapter 5 consists of a critique of pre-1960's generative
grammar and some recent views on semantics, again insisting on the importance of
integrating mind, brain, and body into language studies. Chapter 6 includes
sections entitled ''Explaining grammar as meaningful; Langacker's views of the
foundations of grammar; Mental and communicative efficiency; Flexibility of
grammatical framing in constructions and construals of form and meaning;
Objectivity and subjectivity in common forms of situation accounts; Subjective
and objective time; The mental universe as a collection of archetype frames''.
Chapter 7 revisits creativity and the self, further incorporating a
consideration of others, i.e., partners in communication or objects of thought
or feeling. Chapter 8 repeats that scientists should adopt this highly
interdisciplinary view, even though it is challenging, and proposes some ways to
bridge extant gaps.


The question of how language is implemented in the brain is not only
intrinsically fascinating, but also one that has been increasingly explored in
the last 50 years, and where methodological progress has yielded considerable
gains in empirical knowledge in the last 10 years. Yet very few comprehensive
overviews have been published in that decade. Excluding multi-authored volumes,
where each chapter is usually highly specialized (e.g., Galaburda, Kosslyn, &
Christen, 2002), and general discussions, where the specifics of implementation
may not be discussed at length (e.g., Jackendoff, 2002), linguists can see the
disciplines of neuroscience and linguistics discussed globally and at length in
only two works, Pulvermüller (2002) and Smolensky and Legendre (2006).

Against this backdrop, Helmut Schnelle's attempt to bring the disciplines
together, and to inform the fields about each other, is remarkable in and of
itself. The author expressed an interest in the matter as early as the 1970s,
and has published on the topic from time to time (e.g., Schnelle, 1996).
However, if the book really were about language in the brain as advertised in
the title, I would have to conclude that the coverage of previous work is, to
say the least, haphazard. To begin with, there is little mention of most
linguistic subdisciplines. Other than semantics and pragmatics, there are only a
few references to phonology/phonetics, and a few, largely derogatory mentions of
syntax. Even within the subfields of semantics and pragmatics (in a very broad
sense, as evidenced by the multiple references to creativity in the arts), the
coverage of neuroscience is next to null, and no reference is made to basic
neuroscience findings on semantics and pragmatics: No N400, no discussion of
hemispheric asymmetries, and the word 'temporal' in the index refers to temporal
integration, not to temporal cortex. The neuroscience that _is_ referred to
either does not pertain to language as traditionally defined (e.g., a great
interest is shown for emotions and consciousness -- see below), or is seriously
outdated. For instance, on how to relate abstract grammatical categories to the
brain, the author refers several times to a statement Roman Jakobson made in
1979 (e.g., pp. 15, 199, 204) but never to Paul Smolensky, Jeff Elman, or others
who have been working extensively on the topic since. (In fact, the name ''Elman''
appears once, in a paper disparaged on p. 203, but not included in the
bibliography.) References to linguistic work are slightly more numerous,
although they consist basically of personal discussions with strawman versions
of Chomsky, Jackendoff, Langacker, and a few more. For these reasons, I would
not recommend this text to linguists interested in finding out about the neural
bases of language; they would be better served by Pulvermüller (2002) and
Smolensky and Legendre (2006), both older but clearer and better researched.

At least in part, these shortcomings in coverage could be explained by the
following considerations: Talking about language in the brain is already a
monumental task, requiring an understanding of a broad range of theories and
findings; establishing a _trialogue_ between neuroscience, linguistics and
phenomenological psychology is even more difficult. It is, in fact, this third
participant, missing from the title, that receives most attention throughout the
book. The need for interdisciplinarity appears to stem from a hunch (statements
like ''I am certain that mutual comparison of thoughts and models as well as
combinations of perspectives can open new insights and direction in each
domain,'' p. 4 are profuse). But shouldn't interdisciplinarity (or any other
scientific decision) be based on an empirical or theoretical motivation, such as
''the object is best explained through the integration of factors typically
studied in different disciplines''? One could argue that Schnelle's position is
justified by the intuition that when we convey meaning, this is affected not
only by our grammar, but also our concrete experiences and feelings, and those
of others (although in this case it is unclear to me that this is done through
only the experiences of which we are conscious, within the purview of
phenomenological psychology). This 'pan-organic' view of language espoused by
the author is exemplified in the title and subtitle of Chapter 7, where one
could almost read an equal sign between the title ''Integrating language
organization in mind and brain'' and the subtitle ''the world of thinking and
knowing, liking or hating other mind/brain/bodies.'' Thus, Schnelle embarks on an
ambitious thought experiment, where he integrates phenomenology with language
and the brain, using inspirations from sources as diverse as classical
philosophical works, abstract art criticism, and connectionism. The thought
process revealed by the prose is somewhat erratic; both the style (changes in
font, repetitions, and exclamations), and the content (ideas are driven by likes
and intuitions; qualitative adjectives surround the descriptions of the work of
others; the ''I'' is everywhere) underline the subjectivity of the opinions
presented. As a result, this book will be a literary experience, which may
interest semanticists who want to think outside the box.

An important caveat is in order. I mentioned that few books look at language in
the brain; even fewer of those are reviewed on For instance,
among the four volumes mentioned in the first paragraph, only Jackendoff (2002)
has been reviewed
(; and a total
of 12 reviews have ever been done on books that had the word ''brain'' in the
title. The first reading of this fact is that linguists have little interest in
neuroscientifically-oriented views of language. This seems unlikely, given that
the last few decades have seen a broadening of views on what could or should be
studied in language (as evidenced by the expansion of work in areas such as
sociolinguistics and variationist linguistics, and even evolution of language,
cf. Bickerton, 1992, and Hauser, Chomsky, & Fitch, 2002). Alternatively, since
it takes an expert to evaluate another, linguists may have been by and large
unwilling to evaluate neuroscientific work. Indeed, I found it highly demanding
to evaluate this book, as my knowledge of phenomenological psychology is far
from comprehensive. For this reason, I hope that others may be better able to
draw useful ideas from this volume, and to give a flavor of the book, I close
with a paragraph from the final page (p. 212).

''Let us return to language and neuroscience. Focusing on the former, we are
looking for a new interpretation. Language should be described as a dynamic
competence, mentally activated in the intentional energy of speech acts and also
historically changing in its social 'energeia', as Humboldt said. These dynamic
views should in principle be better substantiated by the analysis of 'language
in the brain' than 'language in symbolic formalisms'.''


Bickerton, D. (1990). Language and Species. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Galaburda, A. M., Kosslyn, S. M., & Christen, Y. (Eds) (2002). The Languages of
the Brain. Cambridge & London: Cambridge University Press.

Hauser, M. D., Chomsky, N., & Fitch, W. T. (2002). The Faculty of Language,
Science, 298, 1569-1579.

Jackendoff, R. (2002). Foundations of Language, New York: Oxford University Press.

Pulvermüller, F. (2002). The Neuroscience of Language. Cambridge: Cambridge
University Press.

Schnelle, H. (1996). Approaches to computational brain theories of language - a
review of recent proposals. Theoretical Linguistics, 22, 49-104.

Smolensky, P. & Legendre, G. (2006) The Harmonic Mind (2 vols). Cambridge: MIT

Alejandrina Cristià specializes in phonetics, phonology, and language acquisition. She has a PhD from the Interdisciplinary Linguistics Program at Purdue University, and is now a post-doctoral fellow at the Laboratoire de Sciences Cognitives et Psycholinguistique in Paris.

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