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Review of  A History of Psycholinguistics

Reviewer: Phaedra Royle
Book Title: A History of Psycholinguistics
Book Author: Willem J.M. Levelt
Publisher: Oxford University Press
Linguistic Field(s): Psycholinguistics
History of Linguistics
Issue Number: 24.2506

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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 [2008]), 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 association priming.

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 indices.

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 to access.

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 language output.

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 [2008]). Formal grammars in linguistics and psycholinguistics. The Hague (1974), Mouton (1984), and Amsterdam (2008): John Benjamins.

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

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, 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.
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 Music.

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