LINGUIST List 22.686

Thu Feb 10 2011

Review: Neurolinguistics: Schnelle (2010)

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        1.     Alejandrina Cristia , Language in the Brain

Message 1: Language in the Brain
Date: 10-Feb-2011
From: Alejandrina Cristia <>
Subject: Language in the Brain
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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, EHESS, ENS-DEC, CNRS


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 Press.


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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