Mind your language 3

November 30, 2007

It is well known that in 1866 the Linguistic Society of Paris declared that it wanted to hear nothing more about the origin of language. Michael Bulley wants to go further and hear nothing more about the scientific study of all of language.

Bulley conflates linguistics with psycholinguistics. Hence he jumps from a critique of Chomsky's transformational grammar to dismissing attempts to understand how we process language as though they're the same enterprise. One moment he is talking about Chomskyan minimalism, the next he says that we "just think of the words and say them". Chomsky a long time ago distinguished between competence and performance; Bulley wants to obliterate that distinction to belittle both linguistics and psycholinguistics. It's a bit like dismissing engineering and saying we can't build bridges because we don't like string theory.

Bulley's greatest vitriol is reserved for the scientific study of meaning. First, he seems to think that science studies only "real things", without saying what a real thing is, and that "concepts are things that don't exist". He dismisses meaning as just being electrochemical activity in the brain, but of course all human experience is "just" electrochemical activity in the brain. The only way out of this difficulty is to say we have souls that aren't connected to our brains, and word meanings live just in our souls.

Oddly enough, though, it's our scientific understanding of meaning that's progressed most over the past few years owing to advances in neuroscience, particularly brain-imaging techniques such as fMRI, combined with case studies of people with brain damage.

Bulley is also dismissive of the idea that there is any genetic basis to language, or that it is a biological phenomenon. Again, I'm not sure what the alternative could be. What does Bulley make of the famous KE family of London, who have circumscribed impairments of language that can be mapped through heritability analysis to a single dominant gene? What does he make of specific language impairment in general, where children are born with difficulty in learning and using language? Or the idea that most types of developmental dyslexia probably have some genetic basis? Or that a specific gene, the FOXP2 gene, is strongly associated with spoken language skills and whose mutation might have played a pivotal role in the evolution of language? Or more generally that damage to specific brain regions leads to the loss of language abilities in a predictable way?

The most telling sentence is: "Take a written sentence: each time it is read, it means something different, since we are all different and everyone is always changing." A moment's reflection shows that this has to be wrong. There's something paradoxical about writing a sentence saying that language has no fixed meaning. Language is for communication; of course we might all have slightly different associations to particular words (I think someone must have given me a strong electric shock the first time I heard Wittgenstein, given the response it produces in me now), and language changes over time, but words have core meanings we use to exchange information. If I shout "rubbish!" you know what I mean. If you don't, you should see a doctor.

Trevor Harley, Dean, School of Psychology, Dundee University.

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