Foundations of Language

April 3, 2009 at 3:40 am (Uncategorized) (, , , , , )


This was a fascinating view of language and a proposed structure of how it works in our minds.  For decades a large chunk of linguistics has been centered around syntax\grammar.

As a student of Noam Chomsky during his time at MIT, Jackendoff is very familiar with the syntax-centric viewpoints which have dominated the field since Chomsky’s Syntactic Structures in 1957.  What Jackendoff has to offer is a 3 part parallel system of language which does house language but also offers suggestions for how our three main subsystems of language interact : phonology (speech and hearing), syntax (grammar) and semantics (meaning).

The interesting thing about this system is that our language is not just a big black box of “language”.  We don’t simply have a “grammar box” in our heads but rather subsystems which are very modular.  It is at this point that as a programmer, I find that Jackendoff’s explanation of our modular components of language to fit nicely under the paradigm of Object Oriented Programming.  After reading this, I was struck by the mapping of our language structures into this framework and found that other people felt the same way as well.


A diagram of our linguistic architecure from p.199 (image from Google Book Search)

Each module does not have complete access to the others, but instead they have an “interface component” which passes information back and forth between them in parallel.

This is the most flexible and most likely architectural diagram of our language that I have been exposed to so far and certainly a welcome change from the “grammar box” view which seems to be exhausted at this point without a valid explanation and home for meaning (semantics).

This is definitely a technical volume that I would not recommend to nonlinguists.  As a mere armchair linguist myself, I had a difficult time but still enjoyed the fresh notions Jackendoff presents here.

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