Neurology and language

rmallott at percep.demon.co.uk rmallott at percep.demon.co.uk
Tue Feb 22 06:23:46 EST 2000

The following forwarded comment is on the recent extended discussion in
sci.lang of the future of linguistics (originated  under the sceptical
heading 'Wither linguistics?'):

            I have only just come upon and come to the end of reading
this interesting but labyrinthine thread. The important question is the
significance and promise of current neurological research for progress
in linguistics. Given the intensive investigation of brain-function for
language using the remarkable techniques of PET, fMRI, MEG and ESP (the
subject of a paper not long ago by Victoria Fromkin), students of
language perhaps should be prepared to accept as their basis that
language is the product of brain organisation, and must have an extended
evolutionary past. As neurological research becomes increasingly
sophisticated, the evidence which has to be taken into account in any
theory of language function is accumulating rapidly. The work of
Pulvermuller, 'Electrocortical distinction of vocabulary types', and
others using similar research protocols, allows one to begin to picture
how from the intersection of lexical and syntactic processes in the
brain the continuous stream of well-formed and semantically valid speech
can be produced. In the brain different categories of words, content
words, function words, vision words, action/motor words, are associated
with topographically different patterns of excitation; the brain seems
to be categorising the perception of words in ways very similar to the
standard analyses of the lexicon. With this topographical
categorisation, one can begin to see how there must be processes for
associating the different categories in ways which are equivalent to the
meaning-content of a sentence, within the very large context represented
by the persisting structure of dynamic memory (Schank's term). Gallese
and Rizzolatti's research on mirror neurons is also encouraging (to be
the subject a conference in July  'Mirror Neurons and the Evolution of
Brain and Language). If the neurology and the less formalistic
approaches of contemporary linguistics can begin to make sense together,
a genuine and comprehensive 'Science of Language' may come into being
much sooner than is often supposed.

Robin Allott


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