LINGUIST List 24.2506|
Thu Jun 20 2013
Review: History of Ling.; Psycholinguistics: Levelt (2012)
Editor for this issue: Joseph Salmons
From: Phaedra Royle <phaedra.royleumontreal.ca>
Subject: A History of Psycholinguistics
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Book announced at http://linguistlist.org/issues/23/23-5003.html
AUTHOR: Willem J.M. Levelt
TITLE: A History of Psycholinguistics
SUBTITLE: The Pre-Chomskyan Era
PUBLISHER: Oxford University Press
REVIEWER: Phaedra Royle, Université de Montréal
In _A history of Psycholinguistics_ Levelt presents the “modern” history of
research on language, mind and brain, since the 1770s. This book reviews
research in historical linguistics, neuroscience, language acquisition
(including sign language), and, obviously, psycholinguistics, that shaped
earlier or contemporary models of language processing. This book is a prequel
to Levelt’s _Formal grammars in linguistics and psycholinguistics_ (1974
), which covers the modern history of psycholinguistics from 1951 on.
Part 1 “Orientation” (Chapter 1). Levelt points out that the term
‘psycholinguistics’ was first used in 1936, but the study of the psychology of
language predates it. The first chapter, entitled “1951”, presents the state
of affairs in psycholinguistic theory and research in the early fifties and
focuses on three landmark events: the interdisciplinary Summer Seminar in
Psychology and Linguistics (Cornell 1951) and its follow-up Summer Seminar in
Psycholinguistics (Indiana 1953), the publication of _Language and
Communication_ by George Miller in 1951, and a paper by Karl Lashley entitled
“The problem of serial order in behavior” in 1951. According to Levelt, these
events played central roles in the “Cognitive Revolution” that was about to
unfold. He comes back to 1951 and the state of psycholinguistics since the
Second World War in the last section and chapter of the book.
Part 2 “Establishing the discipline: 1770-1900” (Chapters 2-6). The first
chapters, which we could call “a century of studies in language production”
reviews seminal early studies of language production in different domains of
inquiry. Early studies from the domains of philology, aphasiology, language
acquisition and experimental psycholinguistics are all reasoned by Levelt to
be at the root of models, methods and research in psycholinguistics: the first
by reconstructing proto-languages and the essence of meaning through word
roots in the language and then by establishing the origins of these roots
(''Language is the true autobiography of the mind'', Max Müller, 1887
[Levelt’s translation]); the second by trying to identify brain structures
linked to language production in patients with brain lesions causing aphasia;
the third, by using diary studies documenting language emergence and
development in children, including those learning sign languages; and the
fourth by developing the first experimental measures in psycholinguistics,
mostly in the domain of speech production, including priming studies, but also
eye-tracking, word perception, speech error studies, and translation
These four domains are each given a chapter in the first section. The chapter
on initial research on aphasiology highlights major and less major players in
the debates on “localization” of language in the brain and the first diagram
makers, who attempted to develop functional models of language processing in
the brain, based on lesion data. Initial evidence-based research in
psycholinguistics was the study of language acquisition through diary writing
(for example the diary of Louis XIV, and diaries of deaf signers). The
earliest experimental psycholinguistic experiments (on syllable perception,
and repetition, then word perception and production) were published in 1885.
A whole chapter is devoted to Wilhelm Wundt, whose encyclopedic works devoted
thee volumes to language (the first volume of “Logik” and the two volumes of
“Die Sprache”, spanning 1200 pages). These books synthesize the state of
affairs in the domain of psychology of language at the end of the nineteenth
Century. The works include discussions of sign languages -- and their syntax,
which was assumed to follow the ‘spontaneous’ SOV pattern --, analogical
change (overregularizations and folk etymology), word-formation processes and
morphological trees, binary syntactic trees (Wundt introduces the term
‘transformations’), ‘apperception’ -- roughly equivalent to executive control
--, sentence and speech prosody, and functional models of speech perception
and production. Wundt did not agree with the Lichtheim (diagrammatic) model of
language and brain function, he did however propose his own functional model
of speech perception and production that did not have a neurobiological
interpretation. He was essentially interested in language and linguistics
insofar as it could bring insight to the understanding of the psychology of
the human mind.
Part 3 “Twentieth-century psycholinguistics before the ‘cognitive revolution’”
(Chapters 7-14). These chapters are the heart of the book and present
extensive reviews of research between 1900 and 1951. One chapter each is
devoted to the emergence of research and theories of structuralism versus the
psychology of language, verbal behavior, speech acts, ‘modern’ (and almost
completely atheoretical) language acquisition, the debate on holistic versus
localizationist approaches to aphasia, empirical studies of language use and
processing, and cross-linguistic (linguistic relativity) approaches to
language, in addition to the chapter on the effects of World War II on German
and Austrian research institutions and researchers. Levelt presents the new
cognitive linguistics currents, which diverged considerably between North
American structuralists (or behaviorists) who were more interested in data
than theory, on the one hand, and European mentalists who were quite focused
on mental processes, on the other. The divergence was compounded by the Second
World War. The final chapter of this section focuses specifically on
psycholinguistic research during the Third Reich, and the disappearance or
exile of researchers from the German and Austrian scene.
Of particular interest was the fact that the advent of structuralism created a
slowly growing chasm between linguistic research and psycholinguistics, on the
one hand because structuralism explicitly distanced itself from psychology.
For example, in de Saussure’s “Cours”, we find statements like these “we
consider [language] an autonomous part of collective psychology” (1926, p.
101) and “The true and unique object of linguistics is language studied in and
for itself “(ibid., p. 232). Another important reason for this continental
‘drift’ was the Second World War, the main cause of isolation of the Eastern
Block from the American and West European scenes, but also the disappearance
of many researchers. I have always wondered why North Americans
psycholinguists were so misinformed about European research (and vice versa).
In retrospect, the roots of this mutual deafness could have stemmed from these
specific historical events.
Part 4 “Psycholinguistics re-established” (Chapter 15). This last section and
chapter present the state of affairs on the cusp of the _Cognitive Revolution_
that was about to unfold in psycholinguistics and related disciplines. Levelt
proposes that a number of insights and inventions developed during the intense
war-research period preceding it (e.g., Turing’s computational theory, Shannon
& Waver’s communication model), as well as the need to care for thousands of
veterans with head injuries, triggered new research paradigms in
psycholinguistics that led to the present state of affairs.
In his Epilogue, Levelt reiterates that psycholinguistics is not a young
science, and that many theoretical insights, if not research paradigms and
proofs, had already been around before the twentieth century.
The book also contains an interesting Bibliography, and Author and Subject
This lengthy 653-page book is impressive in its scope and thoroughness. It is
essentially a book about people and ideas, but also methods. The people
discussed are researchers who cluster around the domain of psycholinguistics.
Because the field is interdisciplinary by definition, Levelt also covers
various domains in the history of language studies, including historical
linguistics, aphasiology, anthropological linguistics, behaviorism, and more.
Levelt is a fine researcher of original texts. He is extremely methodical in
clearly citing references to original documents and is careful to thanks
colleagues for pointing out sources to him. Levelt provides a large number of
translated citations (except when they are “too obnoxious to translate”, p.
122) as well as original texts for every citation, included as footnotes. This
allows the reader to form her own opinion about the original logic or theory
of the cited author (as long as they are able to read the language). This is
also a practical time-saver, as many of the cited texts are somewhat difficult
Levelt clearly had fun writing this book. We can sense his pleasure in delving
into historical texts and thought, but also in discovering links between
seminal work and modern theory. He highlights excellent and innovative work,
leading us through archives and libraries across Europe, and occasionally the
USA. He also pokes fun at how people presented and evaluated evidence in
support of their theories, often culturally biased, methodologically or
logically flawed, or simply anecdotal, as with Frederick Tracy citing evidence
from Horatio Hale’s (1886) diary study of twins who had been reported to have
invented their own language, using the example of ''carriage'' that was
produced as '' 'ni-si-boo-a' of which … the syllables were sometimes so
repeated that they made a much longer word.''… which indeed sounds like a
reliable piece of evidence.'' (p. 160) quips Levelt, tongue in cheek (I
discovered after a while that Levelt has a few codes for ‘blatantly
unconvincing’, one being ‘which indeed sounds like reliable evidence’).
Not all researchers have these flaws. Levelt gives excellent researchers their
due. For example, he discusses at length the work of Rudolf Meringer, still
held in high regard for his studies of speech errors (Meringer & Mayer, 1895
[Cutler & Fay, 1978]), aimed at creating a systematic and unbiased database of
speech errors. Contrary to some of his contemporaries, Meringer did not
believe that speech errors were the cause of language change, but rather that
they were the results of psycholinguistic factors in the internal system, thus
reflective of regular (rule-based) mental mechanisms. The basic categories
Meringer identified for output speech errors are still used today, as is his
corpus (e.g., MacKay, 1979). Freud (p. 160, et passim), one of Meringer’s
contemporaries, did not agree that slips of the tongue were essentially
rule-based, and developed analyses that were based on external influences
(words floating around in consciousness) and, more importantly, subconscious
factors. Meringer’s attack on Freud, published in 1927 seems quite exciting,
tearing apart Freud’s quackery, as well as being hilarious, according to
Levelt (unfortunately my German is not yet good enough to appreciate it,
although I have managed to locate and download the article).
Levelt devotes sections to many theoretical debates that arose in domains
historically related to psycholinguistics, for example the well known debate
over whether Broca was the first to propose that the left frontal regions of
the brain were responsible for language production (pp. 62-68), (e.g.,
Schiller, 1979 or Buckingham, 2006; a Google Scholar search for ‘Broca debate’
results in 278 hits). He presents evidence for and against the discovery,
purportedly made by Broca, that the left frontal lobe (BA44/45) is
(specifically) an important structure for language processing. Later, in
Chapter 11, “Language in the brain: The lures of holism”, he returns to
another Aphasia debate, spearheaded by Jules Dejerine and Pierre Marie at the
beginning of the twentieth Century, on whether localizationist (‘diagram
makers’) or holistic (integrated) models of language in the brain were most
appropriate for describing language function and language breakdown, and
whether Broca’s area was responsible for articulated speech or not.
Another important debate that has been ongoing in psycholinguists (and also
between linguists and psychologists of language) is whether language should be
studied as an object of thought or rather as an object of structure. For
example, de Saussure declared (p. 215) that “Everything in language [langue]
is basically psychological” (Saussure, 1959, p. 6 contradicting his statement
outlined above, it seems Sechehaye one of the editors of the _Cours_, was less
a mentalist than de Saussure). Some, such as the members of the Würzburg
school (pp. 225-238) went much further in their psychological approach to
language, developing studies on schemata and imageless thoughts, using highly
subjective and introspective approaches to language processing, while in North
America, behaviorists such as Bloomfield eschewed the possibility of any
psychology as part of linguistics (he saw linguistics as indifferent to the
psychological system). Others in Europe, such as Weiss (1925) proposed that,
on the contrary, that “conscious processes FOLLOW the neural processes, they
do not lead them” (p. 360). This has recently been supported by experimental
evidence on free will (e.g., Haggard, 2011). Some, like Sechehaye (1908) had
already proposed that an abstract grammar, a system of rules, lay beneath
Many other debates are discussed and presented by Levelt throughout. There is
more information in this book than can be reviewed in a fair presentation.
Suffice it to say that many important actors in the study of language in the
domains of psycholinguistics, language acquisition and neurolinguistics are
presented, with their specific databases, experimental approaches and
theories, thoroughly discussed by the author. My knowledge of the domain is
definitely not as wide ranging as Levelt’s; he seems to have an encyclopedic
mind and is probably one of the best people to write such a book. It was
obviously written over a span of many years. Because he could not cover each
and every piece of research in every domain of interest in the book, Levelt
often excuses himself for quickly passing over worthy researchers. However,
what he does present is quite impressive, and I have few complaints about
missing information. On the contrary, it took me a long time to finish
reviewing this book because I kept stopping to make notes on elements I could
bring to my own teaching, research, students and colleagues as complimentary
information sources for our work.
Many chapters could serve as historical introductions to specific fields of
study in a classroom setting, for example, as background to the study of
language acquisition, sign language politics, neurolinguistics and aphasia,
and especially psycholinguistic research. In fact, I have always yearned for
more offerings in the history of linguistics or in the general domain of
history of science. This work is an excellent source for this type of
information and would be a choice reading for a seminar on these topics. For
the time being, it has quenched my thirst for a better understanding of the
scientific and theoretical bases for my own research domain.
Buckingham, H. W. (2006). The Marc Dax (1770-1837)/Paul Broca (1824-1880)
controversy over priority in science: left hemisphere specificity for seat of
articulate language and for lesions that cause aphemia. Clinical Linguistics
and Phonetics, 20(7-8), 613-619.
Haggard, P. (2011). Decision Time for Free Will. Neuron, 69(3), 548-562.
Hale, H. (1886). The origin of language and the antiquity of speaking man.
Proceedings of AAAS, 35, 1-47.
Levelt, W. J. M. (1974 ). Formal grammars in linguistics and
psycholinguistics. The Hague (1974), Mouton (1984), and Amsterdam (2008): John
MacKay, D. G. (1979). Lexical insertion, inflection, and derivation: Creative
processes in word production. Journal of Psycholinguistic Research, 8,
Meringer, R. (1923). Die täglichen Fehler im Sprechen, Lesen und Handeln (Zu
Freuds Psychopathologie des Alltaglebens). Wörter und Sachen, 8, 122-140.
Meringer, R., & Mayer, C. (1895 [1978 A. Cutler & C. Fay (Eds.)]). Versprechen
und Verlesen. Eine psychologisch-linguistische Studie. Amsterdam: Benjamins.
Müller, M. (1887). The science of thought. London: Longmans, Green, and Co.
de Saussure, F. (1915). Cours de linguistique générale. (Bally, C. &
Sechehaye, A. Eds.) Paris-Lausanne: Payot.
Schiller, F. (1979). Paul Broca. Founder of French Anthropology, Explorer of
the Brain. Berkeley: University of California Press.
Sechehaye, A. (1908). Programme et méthodes de la linguistique théorique.
Psychologie du langage. Paris: Honoré Champion.
Tracy, F. (1892). The language of childhood. American Journal of Psychology 6,
Weiss, A. P. (1925). Linguistics and psychology. Language, 1, 52-57.
Wundt, W. (1880). Logik. 2 Vols. Stuttgart: Enke.
Wundt, W. (1880). Die Sprache. 2 Vols. Leipzig: Engelmann.
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. Her interests lie in psycholinguistics, neurolinguistics,
language disorders, language acquisition, lexicon, morpho-phonology and
morpho-syntactic processing in French populations with and without learning
challenges (SLI, Cochlear implants, Bilingualism, Ageing). She is a professor
at the School of Speech Language Pathology and Audiology at the Université de
Montréal, and is a member of the Centre for Research on Brain, Language and
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