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Review of  Foundations of Language

Reviewer: Oren Sadeh Leicht
Book Title: Foundations of Language
Book Author: Ray Jackendoff
Publisher: Oxford University Press
Linguistic Field(s): Computational Linguistics
Historical Linguistics
Philosophy of Language
Cognitive Science
Language Acquisition
Issue Number: 15.1042

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Date: Mon, 29 Mar 2004 16:42:48 +0200
From: Oren Sadeh-Leicht
Subject: Foundations of Language: Brain, Meaning, Grammar, Evolution

AUTHOR: Jackendoff, Ray
TITLE: Foundations of Language, paperback ed.
SUBTITLE: Brain, Meaning, Grammar, Evolution
PUBLISHER: Oxford University Press
YEAR: 2003

Oren Sadeh-Leicht, Utrecht Institute of Linguistics OTS, Utrecht

The first (hardback) edition (2002) was reviewed in


The book comprises of three parts. The first part discusses the
psychological and biological foundations of natural language. The
second part elaborates on the architectural foundations of natural
language. The third part provides a more detailed survey of the
semantic and conceptual foundations of natural language. The idea is to
provide a full description of the cognitive abilities of the language

The first part contains four chapters. The first chapter comprises of a
general introduction to the complexity of linguistic structure. It
demonstrates the complexity of language, and gives an accurate
description of it. A discussion of abstract representations at all
levels of a simple sentence is described: phonological, syntactic,
semantic/conceptual and spatial structure.

The following chapter shows how those levels can be connected (i.e.,
the linking problem). There is also a discussion about anaphora and
unbounded dependencies. This chapter lays down the foundation to the
view promoted in this book: that linguistic research should not be all
about syntax (the syntactocentric view), but rather integrate all
aspects of language, since these are all generative systems in their

The second chapter discusses language as a mental phenomenon. It opens
with a discussion of the term "mental", and how one should interpret
linguistic notations as a psychological phenomenon. Furthermore, there
is a discussion about what is knowledge of language in the Chomskian
sense, the distinction between competence and performance, and language
in a social context. The chapter introduces the notion of f-mind,
functional mind. Essentially, this means that a native speaker has
knowledge of functional entities, such as the notion of NP. Therefore
it is functional to talk about an NP, but it does not mean that one has
a notion of an NP in one's mind. This distinction is used all over the

The third chapter discusses combinatoriality. It introduces the need
for (f-) mental grammar. Several examples of rules are brought and
discussed, focusing on lexical rules are discussed more elaborately.
This is followed by a discussion of the meaning of rules of grammar.
The final part of this chapter discusses the binding problem in

The fourth and last chapter discusses universal grammar (UG). The
discussion begins with arguments for the existence of UG, and an
elaboration on what linguistic universals are. It continues with
arguments from observations on language acquisition. A discussion
follows how UG can be related to human's genetic endowment taking into
account well-known psycholinguistic data. The author puts forward
additional non-linguistic arguments for the existence of UG, mostly of
which are biologically related (e.g., timing of acquisition, deaf
children creating a language). The section ends with a summary of
arguments in support of the hypothesis of UG.

The second part begins with a chapter about the parallel structure of
language. Here, it is claimed that most aspects of linguistic research,
i.e. phonology, semantics, syntax, can be considered to be generative
systems. It further discusses the reason why a large bulk of the
research in the generative tradition was "syntactocentric", and
provides arguments for the necessity to have a more balanced view of
all aspects of language. The following chapter deals in broad lines
with the content of the lexicon. What is a lexical item? How does
morphology come into play? How is the lexicon acquired? Do we construct
idioms on-line, or do we store them? The chapter is sealed with some
remarks about contemporary theories such as Head-driven Phrase
Structure Grammar (HPSG) and Construction Grammar (CG). The next
chapter is concerned with implications for processing. Basic issues are
discussed, such as the division of labor between the parser and
grammar, how competence theories relate to processing, and also how
working memory comes into play. Relevant issues in processing are
discussed, such as priming of all types, lexical access, tip-of-the-
tongue states, and speech errors. A discussion of the structure of the
mind follows.

The final chapter, titled "an evolutionary perspective on the
architecture" is dedicated to show how language could have evolved from
a state of having no language. In an intriguing and meticulous way, the
author lays down the foundations of how language, as a human cognitive
specialization, could have emerged, basing his argument on (sometimes
controversial) data that has been accumulated about the origins of
language (such as Pidgin and Creole languages).

The final and third part of the book is an elaboration of semantic
issues, which are the author's area of expertise. The first chapter
discusses more general issues, such as the research of semantics, what
is "meaning", the opinions of Chomsky and Jerry Fodor on semantics,
contextual approaches to meaning, and what the difference between
semantics and pragmatics is. The subsequent chapter discusses
reference and truth, in relation to Frege. This is a chapter about
basic problems in semantics: proper names, kinds, abstract objects. It
also elaborates on the correlation between semantics and consciousness
and the role of the community in interpretation. The next chapter
discusses lexical semantics. There is a general discussion about what
the boundaries of lexical meaning are, the prospects of decomposition
into primitives, polysemy, and taxonomic structure. It brings about
contributions from perceptual modalities, and shows that the same
abstract organization is found in many semantic fields. It also
discusses the interesting question of state and event functions, and
how to build verb-meanings.

The final chapter discusses phrasal semantics. What is a proper
argument structure? How do we refer phrasal structure to meaning? What
is the role of focus? What is the connection between phrasal semantics
and UG? How can discourse (conversation, narrative) be integrated into
this? The book ends with concluding remarks.


This book has it all. It discusses all those troubling issues that a
beginner linguist might encounter, but never knows what the
"professors" have to say about them: What is the structure of the mind?
How do parsers fit in? What are exactly the arguments for UG? What is
the McGurk effect? How did language evolve? How different are we from
the great apes? What is that difference?

The book is thus a fascinating introduction to the world of
linguistics. A beginner linguist will find in the book most of his/her
questions answered. However, the book does require a certain amount of
basic knowledge in linguistics and psycholinguistics in order to be
read fluently. The language of the book is fluent and clear, and there
are jokes and self-ironies made by the author which make the reading
enjoyable. It gives a sense of informality to a book which encompasses
many serious subjects. However, the repeated remark that a certain
interesting issue will be discussed later on in the book was somewhat
annoying. Perhaps this is the tactics of the author, because it makes
the reader more committed to continue reading.

The author seemed to complain about "syntactocentrism". Consequently,
it was shown that language consists of several generative systems, all
worthy of "centrism". However, dedicating one part out of three for
semantics might appear as promoting the view that research should be
"semantocentric". In my view, the end result is a general but deep
review of many intriguing issues (language acquisition, evolution of
language, psychology and psycholinguistics, semantics, syntax,
pragmatics, sociology of language) in linguistics. I found the book
extremely interesting, captivating and important. If you are not sure
about certain basic facts in the research of natural language, read
this book. It will provide you with quite an objective view of the
development of the research of language on all aspects.


Sadeh Leicht, O. 2003. Sporadic Occurrence of the Garden Path Effect.
In Yearbook 2003, eds. W. Heeren, D. Papangeli and E. Vlachou, 59-68:
Utrecht Institute of Linguistics OTS.

Oren Sadeh-Leicht is a Ph.D. student in Psycholinguistics at the
Utrecht Linguistics Institute OTS, The Netherlands. His M. A. thesis
is entitled "Parsing Optional Garden Path Sentences in Hebrew"; a
summary of this work is in Sadeh Leicht (2003). He is more generally
interested in the connection between competence and performance,
processing of syntactic structures, parsers, evolution of language,
and neurolinguistics.