Language and other cognitive systems. What is special about language?

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The traditional conception of language is that it is, in Aristotle's phrase, sound with meaning. The sound-meaning correlation is, furthermore, unbounded, an elementary fact that came to be understood as of great significance in the 17th century scientific revolution. In contemporary terms, the internal language (I-language) of an individual consists, at the very least, of a generative process that yields an infinite array of structured expressions, each interpreted at two interfaces, the sensory-motor interface (sound, sign, or some other sensory modality) for externalization and the conceptual-intentional interface for thought and planning of action. The earliest efforts to address this problem, in the 1950s, postulated rich descriptive apparatus-in different terms, rich assumptions about the genetic component of the language faculty, what has been called "universal grammar" (UG). That seemed necessary to provide for a modicum of descriptive adequacy. Also, many puzzles were discovered that had passed unnoticed, and in some cases still pose serious problems. A primary goal of linguistic theory since has been to try to reduce UG assumptions to a minimum, both for standard reasons of seeking deeper explanations, and also in the hope that a serious approach to language evolution, that is, evolution of UG, might someday be possible. There have been two approaches to this problem: one seeks to reduce or totally eliminate UG by reliance on other cognitive processes; the second has approached the same goal by invoking more general principles that may well fall within extra-biological natural law, particularly considerations of minimal computation, particularly natural for a computational system like language. The former approach is now prevalent if not dominant in cognitive science and was largely taken for granted 50 years ago at the origins of inquiry into generative grammar. It has achieved almost no results, though a weaker variant-the study of interactions between UG principles and statistical-based learning-theoretical approaches-has some achievements to its credit. The latter approach in contrast has made quite considerable progress. In recent years, the approach has come to be called "the minimalist program," but it is simply a continuation of what has been undertaken from the earliest years, and while considered controversial, it seems to me no more than normal scientific rationality. One conclusion that appears to emerge with considerable force is that Aristotle's maxim should be inverted: language is meaning with sound, a rather different matter. The core of language appears to be a system of thought, with externalization a secondary process (including communication, a special case of externalization). If so, much of the speculation about the nature and origins of language is on the wrong track. The conclusion seems to accord well with the little that is understood about evolution of language, and with the highly productive studies of language acquisition of recent years.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)263-278
Number of pages16
JournalLanguage Learning and Development
Issue number4
StatePublished - Oct 2011
Externally publishedYes

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Education
  • Language and Linguistics
  • Linguistics and Language


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