Notes On Gleitman and Liberman "The Cognitive Science Of Language: Introduction"

"The essays in this volume are designed to reveal why language holds a special place in cognitive science." Move to do this involves careful analysis of some small detail about language. This in turn raises a number of fundamental questions concerning language:

Language acquisition provides a rich start to the study of language. For instance, it reveals the importance of biology. But, humans are capable of learning whatever language is used in the community in which they are raised -- doesn't this suggest that biology is not important? "What biology provides is the capacity to learn (human) language. ... This basic set-up, or at least its specifically linguistic aspects, has come to be called universal grammar." In other words, language acquistion depends upon innate knowledge of the structure of language which is applicable to any human language.

"How far apart can languages get?" In terms of surface features, such as words, phonology, etc. it seems that very large differences between languages are possible. "However, the hypothesis of universal grammar suggests that variation in grammatical systems -- unlike variation in the pronunciation of words used for a single concept -- ought to be quite limited." Indeed, as a number of chapters in Volume 1 show, there is a lot of deep similarities among languages, consistent with the universal grammar hypothesis.

The study of language requires that researchers posit abstract, descriptional structures. "Cognitive science is based on the hypothesis that these abstract structures are not (only) an elegant description of the theorist's subject matter, but also a key part of every human language user's implict knowledge of language."

"We spend a lot of time talking. Much of the reason for this love of palaver is, no doubt, the advantage of sharing words. ... Given words, it is natural enough to want to put them together." Rules for combining words are critical components of language. "This is the principle of compositionality, which is one of the major themes of these essays and indeed of cognitive science: Language is intricately structured and is interpreted compositionally in a way that depends on this structure."

Languages often use special signals to make compositional structure explicit.

What is the consequence of the notion of compositionality? "Indiviudal English sentences are considerably more complex than they appear at first; however, the overall pattern of English sentences becomes enormously simpler than it appears at first. Even better, the basic structures that we postulate for English now look a lot more like the basic structures that we postulate for other languages."

Compositionality holds for both syntax and for semantics. Intensionality is seen as the key to semantics, and leads naturally to compositionality of meanings. "The meaning of red' is its intension, the propert of redness that might apply to things that do not now exist, or are not now red, but might be as real and red as you please in some other state of affairs." However, semantic compositionality does not help us much with syntactic compositionality. (NB:This draws syntax/semantics distinction, which in the tri-level hypothesis is roughly equivalent to the independence of the algorithmic and computational levels of analysis.)

"The task of trying to interpret glossed passages in a language we do not know may give us some appreciation for the situation of peiple whose ability to process syntactic structure si neurologically imparied, eve though other aspects of their mental functioning, including their understanding of complex proposition, may be intact." (NB: This again points to syntax/semantics distinction, and relates this back to biology, which is where the chapter started.)

Complete understanding of language requires combination of perspectives. "Langauge is like the elephant palpated from different sides by blind men: too large and differentiated to understand by poking only at one end with the restricted tools of a single discipline." Again, integration of perspectives is revealed as a key theme for those of us interested in the foundations of cognitive science!

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