PLM2012 Coverage: Dirk Geeraerts: Corpus Evidence for Non-Modularity

The first plenary talk at this year’s Poznań Linguistic Meeting was by Dirk Geeraerts, who is professor of linguistics at the University of Leuven, Belgium.

In his talk, he discussed the possibility that corpus studies could yield evidence against the supposed modularity of language and mind endorsed by, for example, Generative linguists (you can find the abstract here)

Geeraerts began his talk by stating that there seems to be a paradigm shift in linguistics from an analysis of structure that is based on introspection to analyses of behaviour based on quantitative linguistic studies. More and more researchers are adopting quantified corpus-based analyses, which test hypotheses using statistical testing of language behaviour. As a data-set they use experimental data or large corpora. In his talk, he discussed the possibility that corpus studies could yield evidence against the supposed modularity of language and mind endorsed by, for example, Generative linguists (you can find the abstract here)


One further trend Geeraerts identified in this paradigm shift is that these kinds of analyses become more and more multifactorial in that they include multiple different factors which are both internal and external to language. Importantly, this way of doing linguistics is fundamentally different than the mainstream late 20th century view of linguistics.

What is important to note here when comparing this trend to other approaches to studying language is that multifactoriality goes against Chomsky’s idea of grammar as an ideal mental system that can be studied through introspection. In the traditional view, it is supposed that there is some kind of ideal language system which everyone has access to. This line of reasoning then justifies introspection as a method of studying the whole system of language and making valid generalizations about it. However, this goes against the emerging corpus linguistic view of language. On this view a random speaker is not representative for the linguistic community as a whole. The linguistic system is not homogenous across all speakers, and therefore introspection doesn’t suffice.


The main thrust of Geeraerts’ talk was that research within this emerging paradigm also might call into question the assumption of the modularity of the mind (as advocated, for example by Jerry Fodor or Neil Smith): The view of the mind as a compartmentalized system consisting of discrete components or modules (for example, the visual system, language) plus a central processor.

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Evolang Previews: Cognitive Construal, Mental Spaces, and the Evolution of Language and Cognition

Evolang is busy this year – 4 parallel sessions and over 50 posters. We’ll be posting a series of previews to help you decide what to go and see. If you’d like to post a preview of your work, get in touch and we’ll give you a guest slot.

Michael Pleyer Cognitive Construal, Mental Spaces, and the Evolution of Language and Cognition Poster Session 1, 17:20-19:20, “Hall” (2F), 14th March

Perspective-taking and -setting in language, cognition and interaction is crucial to the creation of meaning and to how people share knowledge and experiences. As I’ve already written about on this blog (e.g. herehere, here), it probably also played an important part in the story of how human language and cognition came to be. In my poster presentation I argue that a particular school of linguistic thought, Cognitive Linguistics (e.g. Croft & Cruse 2004; Evans & Green 2006; Geeraerts & Cuyckens 2007; Ungerer & Schmid 2006), has quite a lot to say about the structure and cognitive foundations of perspective-taking and -setting in language.

Therefore an interdisciplinary dialogue between Cognitive Linguistics and research on the evolution of language might prove highly profitable. To illustrate this point, I offer an example of one potential candidate for such an interdisciplinary dialogue, so-called Blending Theory (e.g. Fauconnier & Turner 2002), which, I argue,  can serve as a useful model for the kind of representational apparatus that needed to evolve in the human lineage to support linguistic interaction. In this post I will not say much about Blending Theory (go see my poster for that 😉 or browse here ), but I want to  elaborate a bit on Cognitive Linguistics and why it is a promising school of thought for language evolution research, something which I also elaborate on in my proceedings paper.

So what is Cognitive Linguistics?

Evans & Green (2006: 50), define Cognitive Linguistics as

“the study of language in a way that is compatible with what is known about the human mind, treating language as reflecting and revealing the mind.”

Cognitive Linguistics sees language as tightly integrated with human cognition. What is more, a core assumption of Cognitive Linguistics is that principles inherent in language can be seen as instantiations of more general principles of human cognition. This means that language is seen as drawing on mechanisms and principles that are not language-specific but general to cognition, like conceptualisation, categorization, entrenchment, routinization, and so forth.

From the point of view of the speaker, the most important function of language is that it expresses conceptualizations, i.e. mental representations. From the point of view of the hearer, linguistic utterances then serve as prompts for the dynamic construction of a mental representation. Crucially, this process of constructing a mental representation is fundamentally tied to human cognition and our knowledge of the world around us. Continue reading “Evolang Previews: Cognitive Construal, Mental Spaces, and the Evolution of Language and Cognition”

Language, Thought, and Space (V): Comparing Different Species As I’ve talked about in my last posts (see I, II, III, and IV) different cultures employ different coordinate systems or Frames of References (FoR) when talking about space.  FoRs

“serve to specify the directional relationships between objects in space, in reference to a shared referential anchor” (Haun et al. 2006: 17568)

As shown in my last post these linguistic differences seem to reflect certain cognitive differences:

Whether speakers mainly use a relative, ego-based FoR, a cardinal-direction/or landmark-based absolute FoR, or an object-based, intrinsic based FoR, also influences how they solve and conceptualise spatial tasks.

In my last post I also posed the question whether there is a cognitive “default setting” that we and the other great apes inherited from our last common ancestor that is only later overridden by cultural factors. The  crucial question then is which Frame of Reference might be the default one.

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Language, Thought, and Space (IV): Comparing Different Cultures

In my last post on the relationship between language, thought and (thinking and talking about) space I wrote that one of the most interesting, but also one of the most difficult questions is to what extent linguistic differences in talking about space reflect conceptual and perceptual differences.
Researchers at the Max-Planck-Institute for Psycholinguistics (Nijmegen, Netherlands) and at the Max-Planck-Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology (Leipzig, Germany) have done very interesting experiments that shed light on this question
As I mentioned in a previous posts (see here) work done by Stephen Levinson and others on how different cultures talk about and conceptualize space has shown that not all of them employ a bodily, egocentric frame of reference or coordinate system as their dominant organizing principle for their experiences and thoughts. Speakers of “several indigenous languages of Australia, Papua New Guinea, Mexico, Nepal, and south West Africa,” in contrast, organize the axes of their dominant coordinate system by absolute principles such as fixed landmarks (e.g. uphill vs. downhill) or cardinal directions (e.g. move the chair to the north). In addition, there are also langouages that primarily use “intrinsic,” object-centred Frames of Reference, such as in “The dog is at the front of the library.”
Differences between Relative and Absolute Speakers in Non-linguistic Spatial Tasks
In a set of clever experiments Levinson and his colleagues have also shown that speakers of relative and absolute languages differ in how they solve non-linguistic spatial tasks.

What Makes Humans Unique? (II): Six Candidates for What Makes Human Cognition Uniquely Human

ResearchBlogging.orgWhat makes humans unique? This never-ending debate has sparked a long list of proposals and counter-arguments and, to quote from a recent article on this topic,

“a similar fate  most likely awaits some of the claims presented here. However such demarcations  simply  have  to  be  drawn  once  and  again.  They  focus  our  attention, make us wonder, and direct and stimulate research, exactly because they provoke and challenge other researchers to take up the glove and prove us wrong.” (Høgh-Olesen 2010: 60)

In this post, I’ll focus on six candidates that might play a part in constituting what makes human cognition unique, though there are countless others (see, for example, here).

One of the key candidates for what makes human cognition unique is of course language and symbolic thought. We are “the articulate mammal” (Aitchison 1998) and an “animal symbolicum” (Cassirer 2006: 31). And if one defining feature truly fits our nature, it is that we are the “symbolic species” (Deacon 1998). But as evolutionary anthropologists Michael Tomasello and his colleagues argue,

“saying that only humans have language is like saying that only humans build skyscrapers, when the fact is that only humans (among primates) build freestanding shelters at all” (Tomasello et al. 2005: 690).

Language and Social Cognition

According to Tomasello and many other researchers, language and symbolic behaviour, although they certainly are crucial features of human cognition, are derived from human beings’ unique capacities in the social domain. As Willard van Orman Quine pointed out, language is essential a “social art” (Quine 1960: ix). Specifically, it builds on the foundations of infants’ capacities for joint attention, intention-reading, and cultural learning (Tomasello 2003: 58). Linguistic communication, on this view, is essentially a form of joint action rooted in common ground between speaker and hearer (Clark 1996: 3 & 12), in which they make “mutually manifest” relevant changes in their cognitive environment (Sperber & Wilson 1995). This is the precondition for the establishment and (co-)construction of symbolic spaces of meaning and shared perspectives (Graumann 2002, Verhagen 2007: 53f.). These abilities, then, had to evolve prior to language, however great language’s effect on cognition may be in general (Carruthers 2002), and if we look for the origins and defining features of human uniqueness we should probably look in the social domain first.

Corroborating evidence for this view comes from comparisons of brain size among primates. Firstly, there are significant positive correlations between group size and primate neocortex size (Dunbar & Shultz 2007). Secondly, there is also a positive correlation between technological innovation and tool use – which are both facilitated by social learning – on the one hand and brain size on the other (Reader and Laland 2002). Our brain, it seems, is essential a “social brain” that evolved to cope with the affordances of a primate social world that frequently got more complex (Dunbar & Shultz 2007, Lewin 2005: 220f.).

Thus, “although innovation, tool use, and technological invention may have played a crucial role in the evolution of ape and human brains, these skills were probably built upon mental computations that had their origins and foundations in social interactions” (Cheney & Seyfarth 2007: 283).

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