14.383, Review: Theoretical Ling: Anderson & Lightfoot (2002)

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LINGUIST List:  Vol-14-383. Fri Feb 7 2003. ISSN: 1068-4875.

Subject: 14.383, Review: Theoretical Ling: Anderson & Lightfoot (2002)

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Date:  Thu, 06 Feb 2003 23:30:16 +0000
From:  Phaedra Royle <phaedra.royle at mail.mcgill.ca>
Subject:  The Language Organ: Linguistics as Cognitive Physiology

-------------------------------- Message 1 -------------------------------

Date:  Thu, 06 Feb 2003 23:30:16 +0000
From:  Phaedra Royle <phaedra.royle at mail.mcgill.ca>
Subject:  The Language Organ: Linguistics as Cognitive Physiology

Stephen R. Anderson, and David W. Lightfoot (2002) The Language Organ:
Linguistics as Cognitive Physiology. Cambridge University Press,
Paperback ISBN 0-521-00783-6, xix+263pp, $24.00.

Announced at http://linguistlist.org/issues/13/13-2382.html

Phaedra Royle,
School of Communication Sciences and Disorders, McGill University.

In The Language Organ (hereafter TLO), Anderson and Lightfoot aim to
position Linguistics squarely into the realm of biological sciences,
where the authors believe it should be. The authors want to convince
the reader of the biological basis of the cognitive faculty we call
''language'', and show that the organization of the language ''organ''
is complex. The authors address in turn, the history of language
study, basic issues in linguistic research, syntax, phonetics,
phonology, morphology, language change, language acquisition and the
biology of language in order to provide support for the notion that
the study of language ''...is every bit as ''physiological'' as the
study of processes that take place in the kidney, even though the
''organ'' involved is defined...in functional rather than anatomical

To linguists, the innateness hypothesis does not come as a surprise,
and is often implicitly assumed. However, we don't have to search as
far a field as the general public to find a significant body of people
who do not believe that there necessarily is an innate language
faculty. A case in point is the domain of cognitive psychology, where
language representation and processing theories run the gamut between
connectionist (where patterns arise as a consequence of the input, but
are in no sense innate rules) and rule-based models, with dual-route
models (incorporating rule- and association-based processes)
positioned somewhere in the middle ground between the two extremes.

The reader's interest will be piqued by the comment, stated boldly in
the book's forward, that ''we need to understand the ''processes,
activities and phenomena'' characteristic of our mental life, the
organization, development, and interaction of cognition. ... to do
that we have to look at the right things; and in the case of language,
that means studying language as a highly structured kind of knowledge
[or I-language] rather than as a collection of external events [or
E-language].'' (xiii) Anderson and Lightfoot proceed to analyze
research in different sub-domains of Linguistics with the stated goals
of convincing the non-specialist of the biological origins of
language, and of reminding the specialist of the importance of the
innate and internal nature of language, not to be confused with it's
external manifestation(s).

The premise of TLO is that Linguistics does not belong in the
Humanities, nor in the Social Sciences but rather in the ''hard
sciences'' on par with Biology. This is based on the notion that
Linguistics is not the study of E-language (or external manifestations
of language) but rather I-language (the internal ''knowledge'' of
language). The book is intended to show (or remind) the reader what
the difference is between E- and I-language and how to avoid the
E-language trap. For example, in Chapter 5 ''Describing linguistic
knowledge'' the authors present arguments against the use of
phonological rules in favor of Optimality Theory (hereafter OT), while
presenting loanword data from Fula. Fula is a language spoken in West
Africa and contains many borrowings from French. As those who have
studied borrowing know, borrowing languages modify the phonological
structure of loanwords in order for them to obey the phonology of the
borrowing language. Anderson and Lightfoot argue that rule-based
accounts of loanword adaptations are insufficient as descriptions of
I-language.  If a language (like Fula) does not independently have a
representation for a specific phonetic segment (say, /v/), there is no
reason for the existence of a rule in that language converting /v/ to
something else.  Anderson and Lightfoot conclude that ''[t]he
regularities of sound structure seem to have a reality whether or not
the language can be argued to contain rules to modify its own forms so
as to make them conform.''(97) They conclude that the constraint-based
approach of OT manages to capture the universal, cross-linguistic, and
innate nature of speaker's linguistic representations.

It is interesting to note the parallels between OT and Connectionist
approaches to language representation and processing. Both integrate a
notion of evaluation of multiple outputs and the idea of the best fit
being the output of the system. However, major differences do
exist. Most importantly, OT specifies innate and universal conditions
on well-formedness (NoCoda and so on), while Connectionist approaches
believe in the emergent nature of linguistic ''rules''. That is,
patterns appear based on the input rather than on innate properties of
the language organ. Despite these differences, it appears to me that
OT theorists could (and should) use the computational tools developed
by Connectionist modelers in order to be able to model their
theoretical assumptions, and to see which account will provide a
better match for linguistic data in domains such as acquisition,
loan-word borrowing (and probably others). But I digress.

Anderson and Lightfoots's book arrives at a time where a number of
linguists are reconsidering issues in the field (see for example, Hale
and Reiss, 2000, and Jackendoff, 2002). In particular they question
what Linguistics is, how we study language, what type of data is
relevant to the study of Linguistics, and where Linguistics is heading
as a science.  The authors review a number of different areas of
linguistic investigation (syntax, phonology, morphology, acquisition,
language change, etc.) while attempting to provide a unified,
theoretical, approach to the study of Linguistics. The only area they
do not explicitly address is semantics. In fact, this book could be
considered complimentary to Jackendoff's Foundation of Language, as
the authors have decided to leave aside a thorough discussion of
semantics, referring the readers to previous Jackendoff articles (his
more recent book had not been published at the time of publication of
the present book). Anderson and Lighfoot's goal is to present an
account for a large number of linguistic data with a restricted number
of innate constraints (on syntax, phonology and so on).

Considering the goals of the authors, the book is quite succinct - a
bit less than 300 pages for ten chapters. However, the theoretical
arguments presented are thorough and to the point. No content is lost
in the name of brevity.  The discussion is thorough and elegant. For
example, in the syntax section, they manage to account for a number of
seemingly very different phenomena (constraints on 'that' deletion,
traces, incorporation, 'wanna' contraction, and so on) with a few
simple principles. Over and over again, they show that approaching the
study of language from the point of view of E-language is misleading
because of the isomorphy problem-linguistic knowledge often is not
isomorphic with external manifestations.

On a number of occasions, Anderson and Lightfoot make cavalier
statements about language without seriously backing up their
claims. For example, they state that children come to language with
the predetermined knowledge on ''the nature of clitics, and the fact
that they cannot by themselves satisfy the requirement that phrases be
represented by at least one phonological word [and that this] is
contributed by the linguistic genotype and is part of what the child
brings to language acquisition.'' (31) It might be the case that
children have the ability to recognize clitics based on innate
knowledge, but this is a bit of a leap of faith. It is highly
improbable that children have a representation for ''clitic''. I know
this is not what the authors are trying to say but their phrasing is
unfortunate, and the inexperienced reader will find this type of
assertion daunting. Another example can be found in chapter 6
(Phonetics and the I-linguistics of speech) where the authors endorse
a Motor Theory of Speech Perception without discussing why, but rather
stating that they are convinced by the arguments presented by
proponents of Motor Theory (Liberman & Mattingly 1985, Mattingly &
Studdart-Kennedy, 1991). One wonders what is the point of presenting a
theory that is not discussed. It does not add anything to the book
because it is simply a statement. No implications can be drawn from

TLO is intended for a number of different audiences. In spite of this,
the author's statement that it is available to the uninitiated reader
may be a bit misleading. The discussion of disadvantages of different
approaches might seem a bit out of reach of the non-linguist, or even
the neophyte. It would probably be more appropriate for an advanced
Theories of Language class at the undergraduate level, or even a
graduate seminar in Linguistics. TLO could be a useful tool for
researchers with an understanding of linguistic issues (for example,
neurologists, cognitive scientists, and so on) and that are interested
putting their work into perspective, or in bringing their knowledge up
to date in domains that are not their specialty. The chapters could
also be used as quick and ready introductions to more recent areas of
theoretical linguistic inquiry such as Optimality Theory and

A final caveat is that a number of typos were found in the text.
Fortunately this has little consequence for general understanding.
However, one typo was found in the French examples in the discussion
of borrowing. This makes one wary of the other unknown language
examples, since the non-native speaker cannot evaluate whether the
examples and transcriptions are accurate, or not.

Hale, Mark & Reiss, Charles (2000) Phonology as Cognition, in
Burton-Roberts, N., Carr, P., & Docherty, G. (Eds.) Phonological
Knowledge: Conceptual and Empirical Issues. Oxford University Press,

Jackendoff, Ray (2002) Foundations of Language: Brain, Meaning,
Grammar, Evolution. Oxford University Press.

Liberman, A. M. & Mattingly, I. G. (1985) The motor theory of speech
perception revised. Cognition, 21, 1-36.

Mattingly, I. G. & Studdart-Kennedy, M., eds. (1991) Modularity and
the motor theory of speech perception. Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence


Phaedra Royle holds a Ph.D. in Linguistics from the Université de
Montréal. Her interests lie in psycholinguistics, language disorders
(Specific Language Impairment), language acquisition and
morphology. Her thesis investigated lexical access in
language-impaired French-speaking adolescents and adults. She is
presently carrying out postdoctoral research on early language
acquisition in French-speaking children with and without language
delay, at McGill University in the School of Communication Sciences
and Disorders.


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