Academic journal article International Journal on Humanistic Ideology

Thoughts on Minds and Language*

Academic journal article International Journal on Humanistic Ideology

Thoughts on Minds and Language*

Article excerpt

The term "biolinguistics" itself was coined by Massimo PiattelliPalmarini as the topic for an international conference in 19741 that brought together evolutionary biologists, neuro scientists, linguists, and others concerned with language and biology, one of many such initiatives, including the Royaumont conference that Massimo PiattelH-Palmarini brought up.2

The 1950s was the heyday of the behavioral sciences. B. F. Skinner's William James lectures, which later appeared as Verbal Behavior (1957), were widely circulated by 1950, at least in Cambridge, Mass., and soon became close to orthodoxy, particularly as the ideas were taken up by W. V. Quine in his classes and work that appeared a decade later in his Word and Object (1960). Much the same was assumed for human capacity and cultural variety generally. Zellig Harris's (1951) Methods of Structural Linguistics appeared at the same time, outlining procedures for the analysis of a corpus of materials from sound to sentence, reducing data to organized form, and particularly within American linguistics, was generally assumed to have gone about as far as theoretical linguistics could or should reach. The fact that the study was called Methods reflected the prevailing assumption that there could be nothing much in the way of a theory of language, because languages can "differ from each other without limit and in unpredictable ways," so that the study of each language must be approached "without any préexistent scheme of what a language must be," the formulation of Martin Joos, summarizing the reigning "Boasian tradition," as he plausibly called it. The dominant picture in general biology was in some ways similar, captured in Günther Stent's (much later) observation that the variability of organisms is so free as to constitute "a near infinitude of particulars which have to be sorted out case by case."

European structuralism was a little different, but not much: Trubetzkoy's Anleitung, a classic introduction of phonological analysis3, was similar in conception to the American procedural approaches, and in fact there was very little beyond phonology and morphology, the areas in which languages do appear to differ very widely and in complex ways, a matter of some more general interest, so recent work suggests.

Computers were on the horizon, and it was also commonly assumed that statistical analysis of vast corpora should reveal everything there is to learn about language and its acquisition, a severe misunderstanding of the fundamental issue that has been the primary concern of generative grammar from its origins at about the same time: to determine the structures that underlie semantic and phonetic interpretation of expressions and the principles that enter into growth and development of attainable languages. It was, of course, understood from the early 1950s that as computing power grows; it should ultimately be possible for analysis of vast corpora to produce material that would resemble the data analyzed. Similarly, it would be possible to do the same with videotapes of bees seeking nourishment. The latter might well give better approximations to what bees do than the work of bee scientists, a matter of zero interest to them; they want to discover how bee communication and foraging actually work, what the mechanisms are, resorting to elaborate and ingenious experiments. The former is even more absurd, since it ignores the core problems of the study of language.

A quite separate question is whether various characterizations of the entities and processes of language, and steps in acquisition, might involve statistical analysis and procedural algorithms. That they do was taken for granted in the earliest work in generative grammar, my Logical Structure of Linguistic Theory (LSLT) in 1955, for example. I assumed that identification of chunked word like elements in phonologically analyzed strings was based on analysis of transitional probabilities - which, surprisingly, turns out to be false, as Thomas Gambell and Charles Yang discovered, unless a simple UG prosodie principle is presupposed. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed

Oops!

An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.