Structures and Strategies (Routledge Leading Linguists)


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1 Introduction

So whilst it makes sense to separate Phon from Sem when one studies the underlying mechanisms of language, specific natural languages are a different matter. That is, a natural language encapsulates the use of the Phon and Sem interfaces — in conjunction with other modules — in the act of communication via sound or sign, and so the Phon interface is inseparable from what a natural language is and the way it is used. In contrast to this, the claim that language is an instrument of thought regards the part of the underlying mechanisms of natural languages that creates the hierarchical and recursive expressions that provide humans with a unique way of thinking about the world.

This part on its own is of course not yet a particular natural language, for it is not yet in a form in which it can be externalised.

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In order to become a natural language it needs to be paired with the Phon interface and then, together with other systems, be used in the act of communication. Returning to the double interface object, one might wonder why the asymmetry between the interfaces is in favour the semantic side, pushing externalisation to the periphery.

I think the answer to this comes in the form of the design-features argument. If one does not share the general framework of biolinguistics, then they will perhaps be unconvinced by the argument from linguistics above. The design-features argument , on the other hand, has much wider scope and is not entirely dependent upon a particular linguistics school of thought. By design features I mean the kind of features one discovers upon investigating language as a system in its own right. Such features include, amongst many others, displacement, linear order, agreement, and anaphora. One may then investigate the communicative and computational efficiency of these features as they relate to language as a whole system, and ask whether these features are better optimised for communication or for computation.

Of course, many comparisons of this sort can be made, and some particular selection that depicts a conflict between communicative efficiency and computational efficiency might seem tendentious, but I think that the conflicts of the sort highlighted below, in which computational efficiency wins out, represent one of several chinks in the armour of the orthodoxy that assumes that the function of language is communication. Let us now consider the case of the explanation of the linear order of expressions. The linear order imposed on verbal expressions is not a language-specific constraint: it is not a consequence of the structure of the language faculty.

Rather, it is a necessary consequence of the structure of the sensorimotor systems and the obvious fact that expressions cannot be produced or comprehended in parallel. Assuming this is the case, then, what is the effect of such constraints on, say, the computations involved in parsing sound inputs into linguistic representations?

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If language is optimised for communication and if sound is our main source of externalisation, then one would predict that many of the features of language would respect linear order and favour operations that support it even if they conflict with computational efficiency. Closer investigation, however, suggests that this is not the case. Consider, for example, how co-reference is interpreted in sentences such as In her study, Jane is mostly productive , where her and Jane are interpreted as being co-referential. It was initially thought Langacker ; Jackendoff ; Lasnik that in order to explain the difference between, say, 1 and 2 below, a linear relationship of precede-and-command was needed, according to which the pronoun cannot both precede and command its antecedent.

The explanation used to be that in 1 the pronoun precedes and commands the full noun phrase and therefore the co-referential interpretation is blocked.

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In 2 , conversely, it was claimed that the pronoun precedes but does not command the full noun phrase and therefore a co-referential interpretation is permitted. However, as Reinhart shows, the domains over which the precede-and-command operations are defined are quite arbitrary; the parts of the expressions that are preceded or commanded by other parts often do not correspond to independently characterisable syntactic units. On independent grounds, then, it would be surprising if such an arbitrary linear relationship would turn out to be the operative co-referential explanation.

This is clear in 3 and 4 below, which cannot be explained by precede-and-command operations cf. Reinhart 36ff. In 3a the pronoun cannot refer to Mary , whereas in 3b the co-referential interpretation is permitted. However, when we consider 4 , which is the pre-preposed version of the sentences in 3 , the co-referential interpretation is blocked in both 4a and 4b.

Sign Languages

Thus, no ordering explanation such as precede-and-command can account for the difference between 3a and 3b. Or compare 5a and 5b , both of which are allowed by the relation of precede-and-command but only one of which has an acceptable co-referential reading. As Reinhart shows with a range of other examples, there is good reason to think that, instead of a linear order operation, the explanation of co-reference has to do with the structural properties of the expressions.

According to the structure-dependent analysis, coreferential interpretations are only permitted when anaphors are bound by another nominal. This binding is a structure sensitive and asymmetric relation according to which a subject can bind an object, but an object cannot bind a subject. In regard to the above examples, there is an asymmetry between the coreference options of subjects and those of objects or non-subjects , for in cases with preposed constituents forward pronominalisation is impossible where the pronoun is the subject — as in 3a and 5a — but possible where the pronoun is not the subject — as in 3b and 5b.

Thus, the hierarchical relation of binding, involving both c-command and coindexation, supplies us with a more encompassing and much improved explanation of the phenomena — it explains not only what the relation of precede-and-command explains, but also the cases that cannot be explained by invoking ordering relationships. The structural relation of c-command has been shown to be a fundamental relation in syntax that underlies many diverse linguistic phenomena cf.

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It should be noted that this holds for a specific kind of computation instantiated in the human brain — biological computation, if you will. If modern computers could consistently parse natural language expressions by methods that assume that the expressions are based on linear distance or statistical regularities, that would be an interesting and valuable outcome that could be put to numerous practical uses. However, whether or not computers can or would be able to do this is not relevant to this discussion because our brains do not work in that way: language appears to use structure-dependent operations almost entirely cf.

Moro ; These operations are often irrelevant to externalisation and in many cases are in direct conflict with the efficient operation or needs of the sensorimotor systems as they are used in communicating. Linear distance is more efficient, arguably less taxing for the parser, and simpler from the point of view of communication but is largely absent in the crucial cases where one would expect it.

As Chomsky argues, one explanation for this phenomenon is that linear distance is simply not available to the child during language acquisition; they are instead guided by a principle that dictates that there is no such thing as linear order and that only structure-dependent operations are to be considered. But structure-dependent operations cause problems for communication that would not arise if, say, linear distance was used instead. Linguistic expressions seem to be optimised for computational efficiency, they are not structured in a way that favours ease of communication.

A key source of evidence in favour of the claim that language is optimised for computational efficiency is that computational efficiency appears to be a feature of biological systems, which of course include the human brain and the language faculty within it. In other words, evidence for the computational efficiency of the human brain is also evidence for the computational efficiency of the language faculty because the latter is part of the former. The neural connections in the brain are a highly constrained and finite resource, especially the longer range ones that are subject to constraints due to volume and signal-propagation times.

There are innumerable local maxima that would do for the task at hand, but the brain appears to be structured in an optimal way that is closer or indeed at the global maximum, asymptotically close to being the best of all possible brains given the constraints at hand and the initial conditions Cherniak et al.

The optimal structure of biological neural systems was first confirmed by studying the neural system of the millimetre-long roundworm, C. Subsequent studies have observed even finer wiring optimisation in the layout of the cerebral cortex of rats, cats and macaque monkeys Cherniak et al. Since the way in which the human brain works is optimised in the above sense, and since the language faculty is in the brain, there is no reason to expect that the language faculty would not also respect the principle of efficient computation. Rather, they can be found in work across many species, from the inception of modern biology Thompson ; Turing ; Leiber to current thinking Maynard Smith ; Kauffman ; Stewart ; Gould ; Fox Keller The asymmetry in favour of computational efficiency is dramatically illustrated by the presence in natural language of structural ambiguity and garden path sentences.

These clearly cause problems for communication and so one might ask why natural language has them at all. Phillips shows that many well-known ambiguities such as John said Bill left yesterday can in fact be explained by the same computational principle Branch Right that forces certain structural biases in the parsing of expressions cf.

This suggests that externalising language with intent to communicate is a peripheral aspect of language. But we find that not only is this not the case, but that the underlying mechanisms of language are in fact structured in a way to maximise computational efficiency, which ends up causing communicative problems. There is the computational system and there is the parser, the latter of which is part of the systems that externalise language.

The closer these two are to each other, the more that is gained in terms of overall efficiency. The further away they are from each other, however, the more questions that arise as to why? I have suggested that the two are further away than is commonly thought. In order to externalise language, the parser must respect the computational and structural features of the syntax-LF bundle.


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The latter, however, causes problems for the externalisation of language in communication ambiguity, garden path sentences, etc. The problems for communication arise when the computational system, which operates along an independent path, is used in the act of communicating. In other words, impediments to successful and smooth communication are the result of the computational operations of the underlying mechanisms of language being asked to perform a function, externalising language with intent to communicate, that is not their primary function.

To recap, there is a conflict between computational efficiency and communicative efficiency. If the function of language were primarily for communication, one would predict that the language system would opt for an operation that aids in the communication of propositional thoughts, or at the very least one that does not hinder parsing or interpretation. But a look at the evidence from linguistic, comparative, neuropathological, developmental, and neuroscientific research shows that this is not the case.

This suggests that the language system is composed of computational operations that are optimised for computation, not for communicative efficiency. It follows from the above that the nature of language, when taking into account its design features and its internal structure, is not as it is widely assumed to be.

That is, language is meaning with externalisation in sound, sign, etc. Speech, sign, or any other kind of externalisation are secondary properties of language. The fundamental property of language is the internal construction of indefinitely many expressions by a generative procedure that yields a uniquely human perspective in the form of a conceptual structure on the world.

It is in this sense that language not a particular natural language but rather its underlying computational mechanisms is an instrument of thought; it provides us with a unique way of structuring the world around us, which we use for various purposes such as thinking and talking about the world.

Their arguments are not the same but the conclusion they reach is cf. Carruthers ff.

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Ryle and Slezak for criticism of this view. A current hypothesis, which I favour, is that of Hauser et al. The debate continued in Fitch et al. Therefore, a primary function of the human language faculty is to support communication. Baronchelli et al. Cummins for a good discussion of systematicity. But such limitations are due to systems outside of the language faculty but internal to the brain and thus do not change the nature of the language faculty itself. As I detail below, however, I think that narrow syntax as construed within biolinguistics is a better explanation for the specifically human type of thought.

As he argues, the relationship between the two clauses satisfy the condition of minimal structural distance and not the much simpler computational operation of minimal linear distance.

I would like to thank the two anonymous Glossa referees and the associate editor, Waltraud Paul, who provided invaluable and in-depth comments and criticisms. This article has benefited a great deal from their feedback.

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Parts of this research have been presented at the Australasian Association of Philosophy conference at Macquarie University. Akmajian, Adrian, Richard A. New York, NY: Routledge. Pragmatics: Critical concepts. Asoulin, Eran. The creative aspect of language use and the implications for linguistic science.

Biolinguistics 7. Linguistic communication and speech acts. A theory of command relations. Linguistics and Philosophy The biological origins of linguistic diversity. Berwick, Robert C. Songs to syntax: The linguistics of birdsong. Trends in Cognitive Sciences 15 3.


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Structures and Strategies (Routledge Leading Linguists) Structures and Strategies (Routledge Leading Linguists)
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