What is Language ?

Ray Jackendoff, Seth Merrin Professor of Philosophy and Co-Director of the Center for Cognitive Studies at Tufts University, will give a conference on “What is language” Monday, June 21st, 7:30 pm, at UQAM, Pavillon Judith-Jasmin, Studio théâtre Alfred-Laliberté, salle J-M400, 405, rue Sainte-Catherine Est, Montréal (Métro Berri-UQAM).

This conference is the opening conference of the Summer Institute on the origins of language.

Access to this conference is free. To attend to the following eight days of conferences on “the origins of language” (download the schedule), you will need to register.

Abstract : A biolinguistic approach to language should be asking questions such as : How can language be gracefully integrated with the rest of cognition ? What makes a brain capable of computation ? What is that computation like in real-time terms ? How does the genome build a brain that does this ? However, despite the name, most biolinguists have bypassed psychology and biology and focused on “first-principles” questions such as How perfect is language ?, where perfection is defined in terms of elegance, lack of redundancy, and efficiency of algorithmic computation, none of which are characteristic of brain computation.

I will compare the biolinguistic approach embodied in the Minimalist Program, committed to building syntactic structure by means of binary Merge, with an alternative approach based on constraint satisfaction and a parallel architecture in which phonology and semantics play equal roles with syntax. I will show that the latter approach is to be preferred on multiple grounds internal to language, as well as with respect to integration of language with the rest of the mind/brain and with respect to evolutionary plausibility.

I will further present evidence that the syntactic component of language has a layered structure, with more “primitive” means of mapping between sound and meaning operating alongside of the more sophisticated mappings we are accustomed to considering in syntactic theory. These more primitive mappings constitute a scaffolding that is revealed in language acquisition, in language processing, and in language deficits. They therefore might also be considered as “fossils” of a plausible protolanguage in the evolution of the language faculty. Such layered structuring is altogether plausible in a parallel architecture, but not within the Minimalist Program’s vision of the language faculty.

Ray Jackendoff is Seth Merrin Professor of Philosophy and Co-Director of the Center for Cognitive Studies at Tufts University. He is Past President both of the Linguistic Society of America and of the Society for Philosophy and Psychology, and a Fellow both of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. His books include Semantics and Cognition ; Foundations of Language ; Language, Consciousness, Culture ; Simpler Syntax (with Peter Culicover) ; and A Generative Theory of Tonal Music (with Fred Lerdahl).


Institut des sciences cognitives

Fondé en 2003, l'Institut des Sciences Cognitives de l'UQAM vise à favoriser la recherche et le développement de compétences dans le domaine des sciences cognitives, à en partager les connaissances, à faciliter les échanges interdisciplinaires et à animer la communauté locale.


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