LINGUIST List 24.2506

Thu Jun 20 2013

Review: History of Ling.; Psycholinguistics: Levelt (2012)

Editor for this issue: Joseph Salmons <>

Date: 19-Apr-2013
From: Phaedra Royle <>
Subject: A History of Psycholinguistics
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AUTHOR: Willem J.M. LeveltTITLE: A History of PsycholinguisticsSUBTITLE: The Pre-Chomskyan EraPUBLISHER: Oxford University PressYEAR: 2012

REVIEWER: Phaedra Royle, Université de Montréal

INTRODUCTIONIn _A history of Psycholinguistics_ Levelt presents the “modern” history ofresearch on language, mind and brain, since the 1770s. This book reviewsresearch in historical linguistics, neuroscience, language acquisition(including sign language), and, obviously, psycholinguistics, that shapedearlier or contemporary models of language processing. This book is a prequelto Levelt’s _Formal grammars in linguistics and psycholinguistics_ (1974[2008]), which covers the modern history of psycholinguistics from 1951 on.

SUMMARYPart 1 “Orientation” (Chapter 1). Levelt points out that the term‘psycholinguistics’ was first used in 1936, but the study of the psychology oflanguage predates it. The first chapter, entitled “1951”, presents the stateof affairs in psycholinguistic theory and research in the early fifties andfocuses on three landmark events: the interdisciplinary Summer Seminar inPsychology and Linguistics (Cornell 1951) and its follow-up Summer Seminar inPsycholinguistics (Indiana 1953), the publication of _Language andCommunication_ by George Miller in 1951, and a paper by Karl Lashley entitled“The problem of serial order in behavior” in 1951. According to Levelt, theseevents played central roles in the “Cognitive Revolution” that was about tounfold. He comes back to 1951 and the state of psycholinguistics since theSecond World War in the last section and chapter of the book.

Part 2 “Establishing the discipline: 1770-1900” (Chapters 2-6). The firstchapters, which we could call “a century of studies in language production”reviews seminal early studies of language production in different domains ofinquiry. Early studies from the domains of philology, aphasiology, languageacquisition and experimental psycholinguistics are all reasoned by Levelt tobe at the root of models, methods and research in psycholinguistics: the firstby reconstructing proto-languages and the essence of meaning through wordroots 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 structureslinked to language production in patients with brain lesions causing aphasia;the third, by using diary studies documenting language emergence anddevelopment in children, including those learning sign languages; and thefourth by developing the first experimental measures in psycholinguistics,mostly in the domain of speech production, including priming studies, but alsoeye-tracking, word perception, speech error studies, and translationassociation priming.

These four domains are each given a chapter in the first section. The chapteron initial research on aphasiology highlights major and less major players inthe debates on “localization” of language in the brain and the first diagrammakers, who attempted to develop functional models of language processing inthe brain, based on lesion data. Initial evidence-based research inpsycholinguistics was the study of language acquisition through diary writing(for example the diary of Louis XIV, and diaries of deaf signers). Theearliest 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 devotedthee volumes to language (the first volume of “Logik” and the two volumes of“Die Sprache”, spanning 1200 pages). These books synthesize the state ofaffairs in the domain of psychology of language at the end of the nineteenthCentury. The works include discussions of sign languages -- and their syntax,which was assumed to follow the ‘spontaneous’ SOV pattern --, analogicalchange (overregularizations and folk etymology), word-formation processes andmorphological trees, binary syntactic trees (Wundt introduces the term‘transformations’), ‘apperception’ -- roughly equivalent to executive control--, sentence and speech prosody, and functional models of speech perceptionand production. Wundt did not agree with the Lichtheim (diagrammatic) model oflanguage and brain function, he did however propose his own functional modelof speech perception and production that did not have a neurobiologicalinterpretation. He was essentially interested in language and linguisticsinsofar as it could bring insight to the understanding of the psychology ofthe human mind.

Part 3 “Twentieth-century psycholinguistics before the ‘cognitive revolution’”(Chapters 7-14). These chapters are the heart of the book and presentextensive reviews of research between 1900 and 1951. One chapter each isdevoted to the emergence of research and theories of structuralism versus thepsychology of language, verbal behavior, speech acts, ‘modern’ (and almostcompletely atheoretical) language acquisition, the debate on holistic versuslocalizationist approaches to aphasia, empirical studies of language use andprocessing, and cross-linguistic (linguistic relativity) approaches tolanguage, in addition to the chapter on the effects of World War II on Germanand Austrian research institutions and researchers. Levelt presents the newcognitive linguistics currents, which diverged considerably between NorthAmerican structuralists (or behaviorists) who were more interested in datathan theory, on the one hand, and European mentalists who were quite focusedon mental processes, on the other. The divergence was compounded by the SecondWorld War. The final chapter of this section focuses specifically onpsycholinguistic research during the Third Reich, and the disappearance orexile of researchers from the German and Austrian scene.

Of particular interest was the fact that the advent of structuralism created aslowly growing chasm between linguistic research and psycholinguistics, on theone hand because structuralism explicitly distanced itself from psychology.For example, in de Saussure’s “Cours”, we find statements like these “weconsider [language] an autonomous part of collective psychology” (1926, p.101) and “The true and unique object of linguistics is language studied in andfor itself “(ibid., p. 232). Another important reason for this continental‘drift’ was the Second World War, the main cause of isolation of the EasternBlock from the American and West European scenes, but also the disappearanceof many researchers. I have always wondered why North Americanspsycholinguists were so misinformed about European research (and vice versa).In retrospect, the roots of this mutual deafness could have stemmed from thesespecific historical events.

Part 4 “Psycholinguistics re-established” (Chapter 15). This last section andchapter present the state of affairs on the cusp of the _Cognitive Revolution_that was about to unfold in psycholinguistics and related disciplines. Leveltproposes that a number of insights and inventions developed during the intensewar-research period preceding it (e.g., Turing’s computational theory, Shannon& Waver’s communication model), as well as the need to care for thousands ofveterans with head injuries, triggered new research paradigms inpsycholinguistics that led to the present state of affairs.

In his Epilogue, Levelt reiterates that psycholinguistics is not a youngscience, and that many theoretical insights, if not research paradigms andproofs, had already been around before the twentieth century.

The book also contains an interesting Bibliography, and Author and Subjectindices.

EVALUATIONThis lengthy 653-page book is impressive in its scope and thoroughness. It isessentially a book about people and ideas, but also methods. The peoplediscussed are researchers who cluster around the domain of psycholinguistics.Because the field is interdisciplinary by definition, Levelt also coversvarious domains in the history of language studies, including historicallinguistics, aphasiology, anthropological linguistics, behaviorism, and more.

Levelt is a fine researcher of original texts. He is extremely methodical inclearly citing references to original documents and is careful to thankscolleagues for pointing out sources to him. Levelt provides a large number oftranslated citations (except when they are “too obnoxious to translate”, p.122) as well as original texts for every citation, included as footnotes. Thisallows the reader to form her own opinion about the original logic or theoryof the cited author (as long as they are able to read the language). This isalso a practical time-saver, as many of the cited texts are somewhat difficultto access.

Levelt clearly had fun writing this book. We can sense his pleasure in delvinginto historical texts and thought, but also in discovering links betweenseminal work and modern theory. He highlights excellent and innovative work,leading us through archives and libraries across Europe, and occasionally theUSA. He also pokes fun at how people presented and evaluated evidence insupport of their theories, often culturally biased, methodologically orlogically flawed, or simply anecdotal, as with Frederick Tracy citing evidencefrom Horatio Hale’s (1886) diary study of twins who had been reported to haveinvented their own language, using the example of ''carriage'' that wasproduced as '' 'ni-si-boo-a' of which … the syllables were sometimes sorepeated that they made a much longer word.''… which indeed sounds like areliable piece of evidence.'' (p. 160) quips Levelt, tongue in cheek (Idiscovered after a while that Levelt has a few codes for ‘blatantlyunconvincing’, one being ‘which indeed sounds like reliable evidence’).

Not all researchers have these flaws. Levelt gives excellent researchers theirdue. For example, he discusses at length the work of Rudolf Meringer, stillheld in high regard for his studies of speech errors (Meringer & Mayer, 1895[Cutler & Fay, 1978]), aimed at creating a systematic and unbiased database ofspeech errors. Contrary to some of his contemporaries, Meringer did notbelieve that speech errors were the cause of language change, but rather thatthey were the results of psycholinguistic factors in the internal system, thusreflective of regular (rule-based) mental mechanisms. The basic categoriesMeringer identified for output speech errors are still used today, as is hiscorpus (e.g., MacKay, 1979). Freud (p. 160, et passim), one of Meringer’scontemporaries, did not agree that slips of the tongue were essentiallyrule-based, and developed analyses that were based on external influences(words floating around in consciousness) and, more importantly, subconsciousfactors. Meringer’s attack on Freud, published in 1927 seems quite exciting,tearing apart Freud’s quackery, as well as being hilarious, according toLevelt (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 domainshistorically related to psycholinguistics, for example the well known debateover whether Broca was the first to propose that the left frontal regions ofthe 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, inChapter 11, “Language in the brain: The lures of holism”, he returns toanother Aphasia debate, spearheaded by Jules Dejerine and Pierre Marie at thebeginning of the twentieth Century, on whether localizationist (‘diagrammakers’) or holistic (integrated) models of language in the brain were mostappropriate for describing language function and language breakdown, andwhether Broca’s area was responsible for articulated speech or not.

Another important debate that has been ongoing in psycholinguists (and alsobetween linguists and psychologists of language) is whether language should bestudied as an object of thought or rather as an object of structure. Forexample, de Saussure declared (p. 215) that “Everything in language [langue]is basically psychological” (Saussure, 1959, p. 6 contradicting his statementoutlined above, it seems Sechehaye one of the editors of the _Cours_, was lessa mentalist than de Saussure). Some, such as the members of the Würzburgschool (pp. 225-238) went much further in their psychological approach tolanguage, developing studies on schemata and imageless thoughts, using highlysubjective and introspective approaches to language processing, while in NorthAmerica, behaviorists such as Bloomfield eschewed the possibility of anypsychology as part of linguistics (he saw linguistics as indifferent to thepsychological system). Others in Europe, such as Weiss (1925) proposed that,on the contrary, that “conscious processes FOLLOW the neural processes, theydo not lead them” (p. 360). This has recently been supported by experimentalevidence on free will (e.g., Haggard, 2011). Some, like Sechehaye (1908) hadalready proposed that an abstract grammar, a system of rules, lay beneathlanguage output.

Many other debates are discussed and presented by Levelt throughout. There ismore 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 thedomains of psycholinguistics, language acquisition and neurolinguistics arepresented, with their specific databases, experimental approaches andtheories, thoroughly discussed by the author. My knowledge of the domain isdefinitely not as wide ranging as Levelt’s; he seems to have an encyclopedicmind and is probably one of the best people to write such a book. It wasobviously written over a span of many years. Because he could not cover eachand every piece of research in every domain of interest in the book, Leveltoften excuses himself for quickly passing over worthy researchers. However,what he does present is quite impressive, and I have few complaints aboutmissing information. On the contrary, it took me a long time to finishreviewing this book because I kept stopping to make notes on elements I couldbring to my own teaching, research, students and colleagues as complimentaryinformation sources for our work.

Many chapters could serve as historical introductions to specific fields ofstudy in a classroom setting, for example, as background to the study oflanguage acquisition, sign language politics, neurolinguistics and aphasia,and especially psycholinguistic research. In fact, I have always yearned formore offerings in the history of linguistics or in the general domain ofhistory of science. This work is an excellent source for this type ofinformation and would be a choice reading for a seminar on these topics. Forthe time being, it has quenched my thirst for a better understanding of thescientific and theoretical bases for my own research domain.

REFERENCESBuckingham, H. W. (2006). The Marc Dax (1770-1837)/Paul Broca (1824-1880)controversy over priority in science: left hemisphere specificity for seat ofarticulate language and for lesions that cause aphemia. Clinical Linguisticsand 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 [2008]). Formal grammars in linguistics andpsycholinguistics. The Hague (1974), Mouton (1984), and Amsterdam (2008): JohnBenjamins.

MacKay, D. G. (1979). Lexical insertion, inflection, and derivation: Creativeprocesses in word production. Journal of Psycholinguistic Research, 8,477-498.

Meringer, R. (1923). Die täglichen Fehler im Sprechen, Lesen und Handeln (ZuFreuds Psychopathologie des Alltaglebens). Wörter und Sachen, 8, 122-140.

Meringer, R., & Mayer, C. (1895 [1978 A. Cutler & C. Fay (Eds.)]). Versprechenund 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 ofthe 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 6,107-138.

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 REVIEWERPhaedra Royle holds a Ph.D. in Linguistics from the Université de Montréal andpursued postdoctoral studies at the School of Communication Sciences andDisorders at McGill. Her interests lie in psycholinguistics, neurolinguistics,language disorders, language acquisition, lexicon, morpho-phonology andmorpho-syntactic processing in French populations with and without learningchallenges (SLI, Cochlear implants, Bilingualism, Ageing). She is a professorat the School of Speech Language Pathology and Audiology at the Université deMontréal, and is a member of the Centre for Research on Brain, Language andMusic.

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