... this is an expanding selection of pics and of some of my shorter pieces of writing ... and other bits and pieces ... in German and mainly English ... and other strange languages ... COME BACK AND CHECK IT OUT ... COMMENTS WELCOME

Friday, March 29, 2013

A review of the second Special Issue of Biolinguistics Vol. 6, No. 3 – 4 (2012) on the Embodiment of Language

A review of the second Special Issue of Biolinguistics Vol. 6, No. 3 – 4 (2012) on the Embodiment of Language

In the editorial ‘Introducing Embodiment of Language’, the editor, K.K. Grohmann, makes the unusual admission that the topic of this special issue left his band of reviewers baffled to such a degree that more suitable reviewers had to be found – and that the original instigator of the issue, R. M. Allott from Oxford University, pulled out as guest editor. One wonders why? Hopefully not because of a case of dis-embodiment.

As to the raison d’être of the topic itself, the editor says being ‘intrigued’ about the ‘emerging field of “Embodiment of Language”, especially as it includes research on ‘mirror neurons’ which seem to have something to do with language. This in turn awakened my interest as our son is currently completing his PhD thesis in linguistics which proposes, amongst other things, that ‘pragmatics’ is as innate (embodied) as syntax, mediated via mirror neurons that seem to provide a biological foundation for neo-Gricean pragmatics. Of course I have lots of interesting discussion with my son, especially as I subscribe to the Chomskyian school of thought.

So what is this emerging field all about? A programmatic summary is one from the original conference at Oxford University:

The embodiment of language (as well as cognitive embodiment) is a much-debated topic. It offers a different approach to language function in the brain from the hitherto widely accepted account in terms of words as symbols, parts of an essentially psychologically researched conceptual system. Progress in neuroscience, notably with the discovery of mirror neurons but also with refined neuroimaging techniques, has opened up the possibility that words in the brain are not simply labels for concepts but integral parts of perceptual and motor organisation (embodied semantics).

From a scientific and common sense point of view it has always been clear that the Cartesian ‘cogito, ergo sum’ arises from the brain but because hitherto we cannot figure out the mechanics of the brain, we have no choice but to deal with the output of the brain, namely the so-called mind – hence the scientific investigation of the mind as psychology (and linguistics therefore being part of psychology, as Chomsky famously postulated). Now neuroscience – and neuro-linguistics - seem to make such progress that we can put our fingers on language itself. Chomsky has of course always maintained that linguistic theories should be in conformity with what we know about biological-computational systems.

Equally obvious to me is that we meet with a paradox here: the snake biting its tail. Everything we know, we know through language. How can we possibly know language through language? How can we describe a biological-computational system, namely the human brain, and end up with language? It’s not that we shouldn’t try, and indeed Chomsky has been the most convincing linguist of our time in positing a theory of language that at a basic level conforms to current biological knowledge but at the same time is a sophisticated model of language as a mental representation. For example the principle of binary Merge operations seems to conform to basic concepts of neuroscience in that neurons ultimately operate with “on” and “off” switches. On the other hand we must be clear about the relative paucity of knowledge we have about the brain despite what seems to be progress in neuroscience. It would be putting the proverbial cart before the horse if we now proclaim that we can deduce language from what we now know about the workings of the brain – and unfortunately this is exactly what this special issue of Biolinguistics seems to be about. What seems to me even more unfortunate is the focus on language evolution via purported human brain evolution – for we know even less about either, and as such end up with a type of speculation which Chomsky describes as ‘nothing is impossible but many things are unlikely’.

In the course of these odd pursuits one is doubly puzzled by the first – programmatic? – contribution to this special issue, namely Bernard H. Bichakjian’s ‘Language: From Sensory Mapping to Cognitive Construct’ which opens with the old and baseless refutation of Chomsky by Evans and Levinson:

            [t]he claims of Universal Grammar … are empirically false, unfalsifiable, or misleading in that 
            they refer to tendencies rather than strict universals. Structural differences should instead be 
            accepted for what they are, and integrated into a new approach to language and cognition that 
            places diversity centre stage (2009:429)

and then going on to show how embodied ‘perceptual’ language morphed (= evolved) into disembodied ‘conceptual’ language, thereby heaping contradiction upon contradiction, and in a strange way confirming Chomsky’s innateness theory by trying to disprove it. In other words Bichakjian first suggests that ‘incipient’ speakers had a very much embodied language based on perception which then ‘evolved’ to become more ‘efficient’ as ‘conceptual’ language. Apparently languages – at least language families – evolved in their own peculiar ways so that they end up as pretty much unrelated by anything resembling UG, quoting Dunn et al, 2011:

            We show that each of these [four] language families evolves according to its own set of rules, 
            not according to a universal set of rules. That is inconsistent with the dominant ‘universality 
            theories’ of grammar; it suggests rather that language is part of not a specialised module distinct
            from the rest of cognition, but more part of broad human cognitive skills.

So we are back to cognitive linguistics of old. Nothing new here. Even so one of the more surprising supporting examples given by Bichakjian is the ‘evolution’ of writing which moves from the perceptive pictogram to the conceptual alphabet we have today, and took a long time to achieve, says Bichakjian, more than two millennia. The word ‘evolution’ is here misused in its Darwinian sense for everything evolves all the time in the sense of ‘change’ – including of course the surface features of language. To cite writing as an example of ‘evolution’ of language – starting with the mythological ‘incipient speaker(s) – is as ludicrous as suggesting that that the evolution of the Internet is an example of the evolution of human cognition – starting from the mythological incipient thinker(s). There are also some outright dangerous implications when suggesting, as does Bichakjian, that the so-called evolution from the perceptual to the conceptual afforded the human species with ‘selective advantages’ using the example of changes in measurement ideas:

… these anthropomorphic units of measurement, molded on the perception of the outside world,
 have been replaced with the conceptually devised metric system, which has considerable 
selective advantages.

One should remind Bichakjian that the Americans still use aspects of the ‘anthropomorphic units of measurement’ such as ‘foot’ and are no worse off than those other highly advanced peoples who use the ‘conceptual’ metric system. More importantly, one should remind the author that ‘writing’ does not bestow a Darwinian selective advantage, since as much rubbish is written as it is spoken. Bichakjian comes close to racism when he claims that certain ‘incipient’ grammatical features (like certain noun classes) are still present in aboriginal (sic) languages and ‘survive’ as certain features in languages such as German and French. If taken this to its logical conclusion, the speakers of aboriginal languages are stuck at the level of perceptual evolution while the Germans and French have made the grade as conceptual speakers. We know for sure that this is false, based on the simple observation that if we take the aboriginal baby and bring it up in a German or French speaking family, the child will have no difficulty whatsoever in acquiring one of these supposedly superior conceptual languages. In other words, the brain of the aborigine child is as fully ‘evolved’ as that of anyone else on this earth. The equally unpalatable alternative is to say that the aboriginal child does have brain power to acquire any language on earth but when exposed to a ‘primitive’ language the child will regress cognitively, at least in terms of its measurement terminology. Ipso ergo, Chomsky is right in assuming that the language capacity is like an organ, situated in the brain, and just like the human heart or lungs have not ‘changed’ (or become more efficient) in the last hundred thousand years or so, neither has the language capacity. Therefore all extant languages are at the same level of competency, for even if there were some languages more sophisticated than others, Chomsky’s noted ‘poverty of stimulus’ puts to shame any notions of sophisticated or more evolved input. Of course humans have ‘changed’ technologically in many ways over this time, and they keep on changing – some say with increasing speed towards species extinction, contrary to the expectation that humans and their language is, according to Bichakjian, ‘an instrument that keeps evolving — becoming ever more cerebral and, by so doing, ever more efficient.’ On the scale of Darwinian evolution, humans are only a blip on the clock, and if one shares the pessimism about the (very short) human history in it, one can always quote Russell:

After ages during which the earth produced harmless trilobites and butterflies, evolution progressed to the point at which it generated Neros, Genghis Khans, and Hitlers. This, however, is a passing nightmare; in time the earth will become again incapable of supporting life, and peace will return. (Unpopular Essays, 1950)

In conclusion, Bichakjian’s conclusion below is entirely wrong:

It is our cerebral nature that explains the developments that were discussed in the foregoing, and
 they in turn support and confirm the view that language is not an instinct or a steady-state 
attribute coded in our genes, an organ as it was once claimed (Chomsky 1980: 37), but an 
instrument that keeps evolving — becoming ever more cerebral and, by so doing, ever more 

On the positive side, the author does unwittingly confirm the status quo by claiming the ‘evolution’ from an embodied perceptive language to an disembodied conceptual one, echoing the old body and mind dichotomy and/or the biology versus psychology one, thereby lagging behind Chomsky and others who have long solved the problem by asserting that the mind arises from the brain – just nobody at this stage quite knows how, and perhaps never will (language as paradox). Bichakjian to his credit doesn’t mention neuroscience once, and thereby seems to negate the whole enterprise of ‘embodiment of language’ in the first place. I don’t want to give the impression as if the whole quest is hopeless (citing again and again Chomsky’s dictum that science is like the drunk looking for his keys under a lamp post because that’s where the light is) hence I repeat one of my ‘conceptual’ speculations about language and mind in the brain: the hyperbolic accumulation of knowledge and its storage in the brain may have come about by some subtle changes, namely the collapsing of neurological pathways into cyber-highways, i.e. if I compute or think about, via my language, a certain problem many times, I will organise the storage retrieval by the shortest and fastest neurological pathway, thereby setting up cognitive hierarchies that allow me to shortcut computation to the point where only new and puzzling information intervenes. Note that computers can only increase the speed of computation (and possibly surpass the computation speed of the human brain) but they cannot replicate the human biology of being able to merge a multitude of neurological pathways into super-highways – of course I have absolutely no neuro-scientific proof for this assertion. In passing one should also remind contemporary linguists that Chomsky is the only one who has contributed a major bit/byte to computer science, commonly known as the Chomsky Hierarchy, whereby formal languages are organised as ‘regular, context-free, context-sensitive and recursively enumerable’. It is worth paying attention to a brain like Chomsky’s. In exercising his brain he has obviously managed to collapse quite a few neuron pathways into major highways, thus being able to analyze vast amounts of scientific data and being able to synthesize a credible theory of language, allowing him to be the science genius he is generally acknowledged at being. All human brains are capable of such cerebral feats in principle but few actually do the rigorous exercises needed to get there, maybe in analogy to the physical feats achieved by exceptional athletes. Linguists like Bichakjian thus strike me as slow runners who claim that the exercise regime of the world champion runner is all wrong. As a silly aside one may add that in sports one can enhance – à la Lance Armstrong – one’s performance with certain drugs, while in cerebral contests like the proverbial linguistics wars, nobody worries about how you stimulated your brain to come up with credible theories of language. Chomsky’s advice on this aspect of academic life is to peddle as fast as possible, so you won’t fall off the bicycle.

Having made my point of view abundantly clear, lets move on to the next article by Valentina Cuccio, entitled ‘Is Embodiment All That We Need? Insights from the Acquisition of Negation’.

Following Bichakjian’s strategy to propose a grand theory that is then supported by snippets of data, Cuccio declares:

The aim of this paper is to present the hypothesis that speaking is a complex ability realized by means of at least two different mechanisms that are likely developed at different and consecutive steps of cognitive and linguistic development. The first mechanism has a neural explanation grounded in the notion of embodied simulation. The second implies socio-cognitive skills such as Theory of Mind. In order to fully develop the second mechanism, a symbolic communication and interaction with a cultural community are needed. This hypothesis will be tested by looking at the acquisition of linguistic negation.

Negation is of course an important aspect of any descriptive linguistic enterprise but to use it to support above hypothesis is like claiming that the mechanics of the left foot is a test case for the overall theory of human physiology – of course it is. The point is that there are myriads of other aspects that could still falsify the hypothesis. Data driven research assembles as complete a picture as possible and only then a hypothesis or theory is proposed to cover all the known aspects. It is of course quite impossible to assemble all known research about language(s) – knowing also that there are still many more gaps in the knowledge – and then arrive at a credible theory of language. Chomskyian linguistics is often accused to be overly theory driven which when applied to specific languages fails to account for certain data. This Popperian obsession is often exercised by unearthing obscure language data known only to one researcher – e.g. Everett’s Piraha controversy – and used to ‘falsify’ a major theory. On closer analysis such data often turn out to be misleading and can in fact be incorporated into the recognised paradigm. Chinese anaphora, for example, are a more credible challenge for the Minimalist Program and while many linguists grapple with it, there are many solutions proposed, some of which fit the model while others don’t, giving rise to a vigorous scientific debate which is the nature of science in general. A good starting point is that a general theory covers most of the known facts but not necessarily all of them.

In any case Cuccio also follows Bichakjian in this strange case of disembodying embodiment by first stating that ‘cognition and language are embodied’ and then follow up saying that this ‘embodiment’ may not be enough to explain linguistic ability, hence the additional disembodied necessity of the ‘Theory of Mind’ which is mediated by a ‘symbolic communication and interaction with a cultural
Community’. If Cuccio were to admit that we simply do not know how exactly the mind arises from the brain, hence in the meantime (or forever) seek recourse in a sort of disembodied psychology, I would concur. As Cuccio seems to make a principled distinction in terms of the old dichotomy, I do not concur, for the putative ‘symbolic communication and interaction with a cultural Community’ arises from the brain as much as anything else. Does Cuccio provide a proof for her contention in terms of negation?

She starts with the not so surprising observation that in child language acquisition negation proceeds from the concrete to the abstract. The concrete involves early ‘rejection’ and refusal (“no, I don’t want to eat this banana”) and the abstract involves ‘denial’ (“no, this is not a banana”). Cuccio explains that the concrete phase corresponds to the ‘simulative embodiment’ mechanism of language use, i.e. the motor neurons ‘simulate’ the action and as such correspond to the same neural activity that occurs when the action is performed in reality. Cuccio then contends that the abstract uses of negation, like denial, cannot be simulated that way, hence need different neural mechanisms (sic) which seem to be associated with the above ‘cultural community’ by inferring the meaning via mind-reading of others. The author goes on to support this idea with observations from autistic children who seem to have difficulty in ‘mind-reading’, hence perform poorly in this use of negation. Strangely enough Cuccio ascribes the famous mirror neurons as belonging to the simulative mechanisms, thereby unable to ascribe any specific neurons to the mind-reading processes, making it almost disembodied again. One would have thought that autism as a neurological disability may in fact involve the pathological lack or damage of mirror-neurons that other authors ascribe to the ability to ‘empathise’ with other minds.

It is an interesting idea to limit the definition of ‘language embodiment’ to ‘simulative’ processes, thus associating motor-neurons with language, and then requiring other neurological processes to account for more abstract or ‘higher’ cognitive language tasks. The trouble is that this dichotomy can again be kidnapped for the old body-mind dichotomy, giving rise to disembodied souls, spirits and other ghostly/ghastly thoughts and beliefs that defy (or ‘deny’ – excuse the pun) rational thought. Personally I do not get the point as to why human communication needs something called higher-order ‘mind-reading’ in order to correctly infer what the other person is saying or writing. When the child says ‘no, I don’t want to eat this banana’ (where mother’s request was ‘please at this banana’) it doesn’t need to read the mind of the mother more or less when confronted with the situation of mother putting an apple in front of the child and saying ‘please eat this banana’ and the child denying (correcting) her mother by saying ‘no, this is not a banana’. Sure the mother may be joking or committed a faux-pas but by the same token the request to eat the real banana may have all sorts of hidden messages in it as well that need ‘mind-reading’. Straightforward communication is devoid of the necessity to read the ‘ineffable’ (see last article of this issue) mind of the other (cf. Gricean rules of implicature). This applies even more so to scientific communication. I do not have to second-guess Chomsky’s mind when I read his articles. I do not ascribe weird mental motives to Cuccio and Bichakjian, thinking they make all this stuff up in order to score brownie points over Chomsky. I just ‘deny’ the probability of their arguments. Even the most sophisticated arguments put forth by Chomsky and the like are grounded in the embodiment of language, arising from the language organ somewhere in the brain. Trying to figure out what someone is ‘really’ thinking as opposed to what they are saying is just another occasion of using one’s brain and language capacity. There are no disembodied language processes. Cuccio may well be correct though in asserting that there are various different neurological processes that account for various uses of language (parole) whilst language itself (langue) is much more likely a confined and constrained computational system in the brain (hence Chomsky’s metaphor ‘organ’).

The next article by Marco Fenici entitled ‘Embodied Social Cognition and Embedded Theory of Mind’ makes the same assertions as Cuccio but testing his thesis via the False Belief Test (FBT) in child cognitive development. Fenici does go into more detail what exactly is meant by ‘embodiment’ but in the end it comes down to the statement that echoes Cuccio:

I will claim that early social cognitive abilities are probably embodied inasmuch as available evidence is consistent with their implementation by cognitive processes integrating sensory–motor information. On the other hand, I will argue that late social cognitive abilities are embedded in social and dialogical practices — and, in particular, that the ability to pass FBT at age four denotes the acquisition of a minimal capacity to explain people’s reasons to act.

Fenici concedes that ‘late’ development may also be partially ‘embodied’ but nevertheless argues for an at least partial disembodiment which is ‘embedded in social and dialogical processes’. One wonders why the obsession to cling to at least a bit of disembodied cognition and language (esp. if one equates language and cognition, as I do). If what seems like lower-order thought/language being based on bodily simulation, why should so-called higher-order thought/language be based on something ethereal and ephemeral? What is so special about ‘social and dialogical practices’ that elevates them above embodiment? Does the detection of False Belief not entail a simulation of sorts: “this banana is an apple” as a False Belief is grounded on simulation as much as “Dilige et quod vis fac” (Augustine). Those who want us to believe in False Beliefs do so by manipulating our emotional intelligence, instilling fear and offering a security blanket by way of a community of false believers (‘the church’) who then must defend their beliefs to the death.

Fenici also concedes that passing the FBT relies on ‘language acquisition’ but then goes on to say that this isn’t enough, that there needs to be some ‘dialogical’ practice – which goes without saying. The common game theory analogy (à la Wittgenstein) is that in order to play the game you need to know the rules of the game before you can play it. What happens afterwards is not a function of the rules of the game alone: practice makes the master of the game. The analogy equates to ‘language competence = langue = grammar = rules of language = language acquisition device = biolinguistics VERSUS ‘language performance = parole = functions of language = x. The ‘x’ indicates what we don’t know about why one of the many functions of language seems to be the generation of ‘false beliefs’. That autistic children seem unable to pass the FTB (presumably the ‘Sally-Ann marble test’) does say something about the inability to put oneself into frame-of-mind of Sally who doesn’t know what the observer knows – but does it prove one way or the other that the whole scenario does or doesn’t arise from a biological brain of all concerned? Fenici makes the case that certain aspects of language performance (‘dialogical practice and social enculturation’) take place in an dis-embodied realm of cognition because we cannot find the connection between these types of cognitive abilities and the human body (whereas we seem to be able to posit bodily connections for ‘lesser’ cognitive abilities). Since autism and other degenerative brain diseases are obviously of yet unknown biological-neurological origins we cannot simply turn around and say that the healthy (normal) brain is somehow not the immediate origin of what passes as ‘normal’ behaviour and ‘normal’ cognitive ability such as passing the FTB. Pathology has always been the prime vehicle for trying to figure out how the ‘healthy’ human body works. To figure out how the ‘healthy’ mind works has hitherto been the realm of psychology, from Freud’s investigation into hysteria to the FTB by Baron-Cohen, Leslie, and Frith (1985) in their study of theory of mind in autism. Fenici no doubt makes a valuable contribution to this field but contributes nothing to the theory of the ‘embodiment of language’ as a possible aspect of biolinguistics, as originally conceived by Chomsky.

The next article by Leonardo Fogassi & Pier Francesco Ferrari entitled ‘Cortical Motor Organization, Mirror Neurons, and Embodied Language: An Evolutionary Perspective’ is thankfully more down to biolinguistics as various neurological explanations for language are proposed. From the outset my main criticism is that ‘language’ seems to end up as a by-product of various neurological processes, be they motor and/or other sensory processes. There can be little doubt that language (as a bodily organ in the brain, as proposed by Chomsky and others) has inputs from many parts of the brain and the authors come close to this notion when they concede that ‘according to some linguists, syntax function can be defined as a regulator of language (Pinker & Jackendoff, 2005)’. Hence ‘syntax’ must reside somewhere in the brain ‘regulating’ all the inputs and outputs. It’s a bit sad that the authors cite Pinker and Jackendoff as ‘some linguists’ who in fact are not well known as defenders of syntax models being central to language. Chomsky as the supreme syntactician is only cited as part of the Hauser et al. publication on ‘The faculty of language: What is it, who has it, and how did it evolve?’ But never mind, let’s have a look at Fogassi & Ferrari’s section on ‘Action Sequences and Syntax’ which seeks to equate hierarchical action sequences with sentences being a hierarchical sequence of words:

The hierarchical sequencing of motor acts into a specific action (for example, (a) grasping a piece of food, (b) bringing it to the mouth, and (c) biting it) aims to a superordinate behavioral goal (eating the food). If the order of the motor act is changed (e.g., biting the food with the mouth, bringing the hand to the mouth, and grasping the food with the hand: c–b–a) the action goal can change (take the food out of the mouth). Similarly, the meaning of a phrase is given by the sequential organization of words. By changing the position of the words in a sentence, its meaning changes or is lost.

The example given is a bit bizarre, especially the notion of changing the sequence. It is well known that computational models of language that parse a sentence as a string from left to right, will fail. Language is full of disjoint/discontinuous features and either way it is overly simplistic – and most probably wrong – to say that ‘by changing the position of the words in a sentence, its meaning changes or is lost’. Synthetic languages like Latin are famously independent of word-order, i.e. one can change ‘the position’ of certain words without changing the meaning at all. What the authors mean to say is that there might be a correlation between the ‘motor act’ and the ‘verbal expression’ of that motor act. Such a claim seems eminently reasonable if only because we can visualize the similarity without difficulty. Indeed it would be most concerning if there was no match between the two. The real question is how the ‘syntax’ module manages the input from the motor neurons and transforms it into an equivalent sentence. As we know that this is a human-specific feat, it seems rather speculative that the authors claim that the ‘syntax’ organ in the brain developed from enhanced use of motor activity – surely primates ‘eat’ in the same sequence of ‘human eating’ and eat as much, if not more than we do but never got around to verbalizing the process. Surely, the syntax organ must have developed in an evolutionary process but to put it like Fogassi & Ferrari do in their concluding remark below, seems somewhat vacuous:

Thus, although the transition from action to language could have been long and may have required a complex adjustment of the mechanisms involved in sequence organization, nonetheless the existence of a motor substrate endowed with a motor meaning, organized in chunks and accessible by visual and acoustic higher order input, seems an important prerequisite for both language construction and its comprehension.

Practically all evolutionary processes are ‘prerequisite’ for the next step, from lower to higher animal species, but what caused the unique syntax (language) leap in the human brain remains as unanswered as ever. The best description we have so far, in my mind at least, is that of the old Marxists who argued for the famous leap from quantity to quality.

The next article ‘From Gesture to Speech’ by Maurizio Gentilucci, Elisa De Stefani & Alessandro Innocenti is a densely argued research paper that proves its point that there is a close neurological connection between speech and gesture but then suffers from an immediate misconception of language, namely that ‘speech’ equates language. It might sound quite appealing – as the authors do – to suggest that gestures (especially to do with ingestion) trigger certain movements on the mouth which in turn trigger the formulation of syllables which in turn combine to make words – and voilà, we have speech and language. It has been noted by others (e.g. Samuels) that vocalisation is common to many species, hence it is questionable that vocalisation itself leads to human language. It seems far more logical to assume instead that language/syntax arose as an organ in the brain which then used the vocalisation ability to turn language into speech. It may well be that vocalization in itself arose in the ways explained by above authors but then jump the gun and proceed to explain language evolution as arising from this process as well. It is well established by Chomskyian linguistics that the PF interface is the last step of language output as speech, constraining language in many ways such as motor skills and phonotactics. Gentuluci et al. make a good case for a feedback loop in that gestures are obviously very important in the expression of language – as speech – and that speech and gestures are very much interlinked. Once the language/syntax organ in the brain was fully established there was no doubt a secondary feedback loop established between language/syntax and gestures themselves, as evidenced by sign language as a substitute for vocalized speech. It is noteworthy in this context that fully fledged sign language is only in minor ways connected to the natural arm and hand gestures, as say, in the ingestion process as proposed in the previous article (‘sign languages are not mime – in other words, signs are conventional, often arbitrary and do not necessarily have a visual relationship to their referent, much as most spoken language is not onomatopoeic’ says Wikipeadia). As such language/syntax gives rise to sign-language as much as to speech – not the other way round.

The next article (one of two on the subject of colour) by Loïc P. Heurley, Audrey Milhau, Gabrielle Chesnoy-Servanin, Laurent P. Ferrier, Thibaut Brouillet & Denis Brouillet, entitled ‘Influence of Language on Colour Perception: A Simulationist Explanation’ tackles the intricate and supposedly neural connections between perception, simulation and language.

While we can readily follow the argument of ‘simulation’ in the sense given by another set of authors (Michiel van Elk, Marc Slors and Harold Bekkering (2010)) as:

Following the notion of communicative motor resonance during speech perception several studies have shown that reading verbs referring to concrete action results in the recruitment of effector-specific regions of primary motor and premotor cortex, comparable to the activation observed when moving the effector most strongly associated with these actions.

We (I) find it more difficult to understand how this could apply to colour. In the first instance psychology and linguistics have long grappled with these notions, and indeed biolinguistics arose from one of these battlegrounds, namely when Eric Lenneberg first postulated linguistic innateness via colour codification experiments. Since then countless colour studies have taken up positions between biolinguistics and cognitive linguistics, now followed by neurolinguistics. Given that languages are replete with more or less complex colour terminology, one wonders how this comes to be in the first place. Of course one can summon various ecological reasons like the well-established notion that Eskimo perceive many shades of white (snow and ice) while those in luxuriant tropical environments may perceive the rich hues of green and blue much more extensively than their arctic counterparts, and so on. While the physiology of colour vision makes no such distinctions, it is of course conceivable that the actual use of colour vision very much depends on the environment and as such gives rise to linguistic labels we are familiar with. It is also conceivable that it is not so much the colour itself which we perceive, label and memorize but the common objects imbued with the colours in question – take the orange colour of the orange as an obvious example. Our authors (i.e. Heurley et al.) do make exactly this observation when they say:

In short, these various experiments and also others (see Bramão et al. 2011 for a review) suggest
 that colours stored in memory can facilitate or disrupt perception of objects presented in colour.
Moreover, they demonstrate that this influence is produced by reading the linguistic stimuli that 
denotes colour related objects, suggesting an interaction between memory, language, and object

Unfortunately they then jump to conclusions that are unwarranted. In the first place it may also be conceivable that objects can be ‘simulated’ as much as action sequences, assuming a sort of memory-colour-photo-copy we make of an object like an orange. It is also feasible that once such an object is stored in the memory, it may then, as the authors say above, ‘facilitate or disrupt perception of objects presented in colour’. These are performance issues that have nothing to do with language per se. If and when I have ‘orange’ in my lexicon, I will of course ‘use’ it in many ways but my syntax-box will no doubt assign ‘orange’ to either a noun or adjective category, thereby delineating its uses from a purely grammatical point of view. When I retrieve ‘orange’ from the lexicon to slot it into a sentence and proceed to the semantic interface I may well light up regions in my brain that store experiential ‘simulations’ of the term ‘orange’ and as such confuse or facilitate my semantic interpretation – for example my recent realisation that not all oranges are orange but can be quite green. Lexical labelling may well be directly associated with ‘simulation’ storage in the brain, and a feedback loop may operate subsequent to its acquisition but language as syntax has no conceivable recourse to such ‘simulation’, precisely because language is an organ in the brain that is independent of any other system. To operate (use, perform) the language as syntax system requires input from the lexicon in the first place and memory and practice in the second place. As such Heurley et al. should restrict their claims to the lexicon alone and not make claims about ‘language’ as in their conclusions

… the possibility that language can influence perception through a simulation process (and also the reverse influence) … According to this approach memory, knowledge, language and perception function in a coordinated way which can either alter or facilitate perception.

Language in the Chomskyian sense cannot and does not ‘function’ in a way that can ‘alter or facilitate perception’ – unless one defines ‘function’ as the Saussurean parole. If so, Heurley et al. make uncontroversial observations about the use of language.

Next in line is ‘Digitized Fossil Brains: Neocorticalization’ by Harry J. Jerison who thankfully asserts even in his abstract that he is writing about ‘the evolution of language as a hominin specialization’, thus saving us from the assumption that language is an amalgam of various motor and cognitive skills. The author provides evidence for the growth of the neocortex in primates and humans and speculates that in the ultimately much larger human brain, it was the neocortex that provided the blueprint for human language. This article shows both how much we know about the brain and its evolution and how little – if next to nothing – we know about the physical evolution of language. My guess is that neurolinguistics will never rise above the basic tenets of biolinguistics, leaving us with the black box best explained with mental representations that have logical links with laws of nature.

Following the paper by Gentilucci et al. on ‘gesture and speech’ it is perhaps not surprising that this is followed up by Manuela Macedonia & Katharina von Kriegstein on the topic of ‘Gestures Enhance Foreign Language Learning’. On the surface of it this seems an uncontroversial claim even though one generally associates gestures much more with the production of speech rather than with the learning of a foreign language. A bit more mysterious is their ‘proposal’ in the abstract that they ‘propose the use of gesture as a facilitating educational tool that integrates body and mind’. Does the disembodied ‘mind’ arise again? The funniest comment is then the authors’ assertion that ‘gestures accompanying foreign language items enhance their memorability and delay their forgetting’. First, what are ‘language items’ and second, what on earth is a ‘delay in forgetting’? I always thought that ‘learning’ is indeed predicated on ‘not forgetting’ – hence a failure to learn is equal to forgetting. Anyway it is very nice of the authors to suggest ways and means to ‘delay’ the failure to learn. On a more serious angle it has been known for ever that various likely and unlikely associations aid memory, e.g. learning of vocabulary of a foreign language, and as explained by the authors as ‘over the past three decades, laboratory research has shown that action words or phrases such as cut the bread are memorized better if learners perform or pantomime the action during learning than if they only hear and/or read the words’. It would have been better to try to explain how this works for actual foreign language acquisition (as it sure works for native language acquisition), for if I am learning a foreign language like German and the near equivalent phrase to learn is schneide das Brot, how does it help if I mime the action which I already have in my memory from my native language? Maybe the Germans cut bread differently? The point I am trying to make that in this instance the accompanying gesture may or may not facilitate the memory up-take of the foreign phrase. The use of flashcards is widely known in teaching reading/writing to native speakers but the use of the same aid is questionable in its effectiveness for foreign language learners, precisely because the visual image – like a gesture – is already in the memory bank. If anything we need to disassociate our image cum gesture if needed as a memory aid: perhaps a bizarre image/gesture will do the trick better! When Macedonia and Kriegstein discuss the actual strategy of ‘the body as a learning tool’ in foreign language teaching/learning, they quite bizarrely accuse Chomsky and Co. as having hindered its development due to:

theories based on a universal grammar (Chomsky 1959) considered language learning to be an innate process (Fodor et al. 1974; Chomsky 1975). Accordingly, like mother tongue acquisition, foreign language was thought to emerge by mere listening and without tools of instruction because it results from innate processes (Feyten 1991; Krashen 2000). Explicit explanation and vocabulary teaching by any means, and therefore, also by action, were considered superfluous. Although there were other opinions in the field sustaining that child language acquisition and adult foreign language learning are fundamentally different (Bley-Vroman 1990), the mainstream followed the mentalistic view of a core grammar present in the learners’ minds. This view implicitly ruled out the body as a possible learning device …

The authors demonstrate a very poor understanding of the ‘innate’ acquisition process because the ‘mere listening’ was in fact the ‘poverty of stimulus’ that led Chomsky and Co. to assert that a native language cannot be leant by input but is acquired via an innate Language Acquisition Device (LAD). There is also the perennial misunderstanding of ‘universal grammar’ as a ‘mentalist’ construct that has no basis in the biological make-up of the human species: the very notion of ‘biolinguistics’ means that language resides in the brain and that any descriptions and explanations thereof must be constrained by what we know about biological and computational systems in the brain. Nobody from UG/MP/biolinguistics has ever ‘ruled out the body as a possible learning device’ whatever the limited merits of the strategy may be. When I play ‘Simon says’ with my ESOL class, I do get some mileage out of practising the English names for body parts and movements thereof but I am equally aware that various proficiency levels will treat the input (language and body part gestures) differently: beginners will use the translation method and the combined language+gesture may well aid the speed of translation but may equally hinder it if the gestured association in their native language is at odds with what I do, i.e. point to the ‘forehead’ and the German learner of English (at beginner level) will latch on the ‘head’ and correctly translate it as ‘Kopf’, thinking I mean the ‘head’ as opposed to the German ‘Stirn’. Such lexical conundrums need careful ‘verbal’ explanations rather than vaguely pointing in the direction of the desired object. There is also the problem of the use of gestures as an idiosyncratic device, or even as a characterization of certain extrovert people who ‘speak with their hands’, and on top of all that there is the well know problem of cultural differences in body-language. Even so nobody would argue against using gestures as a learning aid, and as such it is quite a bizarre claim by Macedonia & von Kriegstein that their proposal is somehow a new idea arising from the supposedly new paradigm of the ‘embodiment of language’.

The next article entitled ‘Bidirectional Influences of Emotion and Action
in Evaluation of Emotionally-Connoted Words’ by Audrey Milhau, Thibaut Brouillet, Loïc Heurley & Denis Brouillet again suffers from the this strange assumption that until the recent advent of the ‘embodiment of language’ campaign everyone else suffered from the delusion that language and cognition were ‘disembodied’ phenomena, something like ghosts and spirits dreamt up by religious fundamentalists. In their programmatic abstract they say that

… the bidirectional character of influences between language and action will be addressed in both behavioral and neuropsychological studies, illustrated by the specific case of emotionally-connoted language. These reciprocal effects are grounded on the motor correspondence between action and the motor dimension of language, emerging from a diversity of source such as adaptive motivation, past experiences, body specificities, or motor fluency.

On one hand one can only agree with the authors on the uncontroversial claim that ‘emotionally-connoted language’ is somehow ‘grounded on the motor correspondence between action and the motor dimension of language’ but on the other hand the authors seem to hark back to the bad old times of ‘behaviour’ and ‘neuropsychology’. Do we get a new equation of ‘behaviour = language’ à la Skinner? Such an approach was famously debunked by Chomsky as a potentially dangerous if not neo-fascist attempt to ground language as manipulative action - as so enthusiastically embraced by the advertising industry and all Orwellian state-run propaganda departments. To employ ‘neuropsychology’ as an intermediary between ‘neurology’ and ‘psychology’ merely attests the problem at hand: how does ‘psyche’ arise from the ‘neurons’ and how does the proverbial mind arise from the brain? The term ‘biolinguistics’ is also an intermediary between ‘biology’ and ‘linguistics’ and attests to the Chomskyian research project to explain the latter by the former – and not the former by the latter as a retrograde project by the likes of Skinner. When it comes down to the substance of the authors proposals we also see some extreme claims, like ‘one major contribution of embodied approaches is the redefinition of memory as a memory of processes and no longer a memory of content’. It would be wholly uneconomical to claim that lexical memory is purely process based, i.e. I remember the term ‘hammer’ only via the re-enactment of hitting myself on the thumb with it and I uttering the emotionally-connoted language “effing shit!”. Indeed one should correctly assume that ‘process’ is impossible without ‘content’. That the authors travel down the dangerous road of ‘behaviour = language’ is further evidenced by their descriptions of ‘motivation’ quoting Elliot as follows:

Elliot (2006: 112) explains: Positively evaluated stimuli are inherently associated with an approach orientation to bring or keep the stimuli close to the organism (literally or figuratively), whereas negatively evaluated stimuli are inherently associated with an avoidance orientation to push or keep the stimuli away from the organism (literally or figuratively).

Such stimulus-response explanations are fine for the Pavlovian dog but fail miserably for language (as per Chomsky above). The authors cite many so-called research findings, some of which are laughable as being evidence for behaviour and language being interlinked on a one-way street, like this one:

            They were listening to an auditory message explaining this reform, and while listening, they had 
            to move their head either horizontally or vertically, under the cover story of judging the quality
           of headphones. Results showed that participants who had shaken their head vertically were more
            convinced by the message than the ones who had shaken their head horizontally.

This is the advertiser’s dream come true: subliminal messages will sell the product, like it or not. There is no doubt that people always try to manipulate other people by devious means if the message itself is a load of nonsense, like ‘this car is your dream come true’ because the beautiful blond in the ad shook her head vertically. Where and what exactly is the loaded and embodied ‘re-enactment’ when the lovers say to each other “I love you”? What emotional highs did Einstein achieve when he figured out
E = mc2? To the credit of the authors, they do advocate a ‘bi-directional’ association between ‘embodiment’ and language inasmuch language can trigger the associated bodily process. I suppose they would agree that psychosomatic diseases are as real as the opposite effect of the 60s slogan ‘make love not war’ can have: by saying it first you can actually find a way of putting it into action. Sadly, as we all know, the world by and large still operates on the exact, psychosomatic opposite - make war not love – (distorting language along the way of Orwellian newspeak) because not enough people seem to have access to the intelligent political messages by the likes of Chomsky and other syndicalist anarchists. Hopefully Milhau et al. will from now on proceed in the same direction, biolinguistically and otherwise.

For the next article I’ll declare my bias first: I am anti-vivisection and for animal-rights; I am a vegetarian whenever I have the choice, hence will not go to war against meat-eaters. As such I don’t really know what the point is of ‘The Human-Fostered Gorilla Koko Shows Breath Control in Play with Wind Instruments’ by Marcus Perlman, Francine G. Patterson & Ronald H. Cohn, especially as I also dislike the practice to keep animals in captivity to teach them stupid tricks (I fully endorse Heathcote Williams for his passionate treatises on elephants and dolphins, not to speak of pathetic royal blood sports and President Obama killing a poor old fly with great relish). I do have some admiration for people like Jane Goodall – who is quoted in the text – who spend a life-time studying animal behaviour, thus providing insights of animals are all about. The authors quite bizarrely accuse her of not getting it right when she observed that ‘even Jane Goodall, after many years observing the chimpanzees at the Gombe Reserve, came to the conclusion that, “the production of sound in the absence of the appropriate emotional state seems to be an almost impossible task for a chimpanzee”, especially as the authors set out to prove that ‘human-fostered’ Koko the Gorilla does have breath control and thus can utter sounds at will. They even cite the detestable practice of humans giving primates cigarettes to smoke – as evidence of breath control. The authors then jump to the conclusion as some others do in this special edition, in that ‘speech’ equates language, and since speech requires breath control, the primates, especially human-fostered ones, may well have been or are on the way to acquire speech and language. This is of course total nonsense. The only amusing point the authors make is to maintain that developing breath control is adaptive for its flexibility, rather than for any function (or set of functions) in particular’ (as claimed by Fitch). In other words, evolutionary adaptation can be for fun (like playing wind instruments) and profit, not profit alone.

With the next paper entitled ‘Three Ways to Bridge the Gap between Perception and Action, and Language’ the author Jean-Luc Petit announces his grand scheme in the abstract as to ‘assess the remaining distance from neuroscience to a science of language’. I am a bit puzzled by the word ‘remaining’ as it seems to suggest that there is only a small gap to close. I’d say that this is a wide chasm that may never be crossed, reminding me of a Leonard Cohen lyric that says something like ‘we’ve burnt all the bridges so now we don’t have to cross them ever again’. By way of a bit of extended metaphor we submit is that some linguists burn the bridges in their enthusiasm to cross them, setting themselves up for a Sisyphusian task. Petit doesn’t make it easy for himself either as he demands a three-way highway across the ‘remaining’ divide, although I have no real idea what he means by ‘from an eidetic standpoint, one must build the transition between perceptive, pragmatic and semantic morphologies’. Does he mean that we have a photographic memory for embodied action sequences which we then translate into and/or associate with language? What does he mean by ‘morphologies’? Forms in general or in the narrow context of linguistics? His next question is more to the point but equally mysterious: ‘from the point of view of subjective experience, one must understand how it is possible that we move from our sensory and kinaesthetic experiences to verbal expressions of a
sense that could be shared by others.’ One hopes that Petit concurs with his friends Milhau et al. in that there is a bi-directional relationship between language and experience inasmuch we use language to make sense of our ‘sensory and kinaesthetic experiences’ – rather than the other way round. Indeed one may answer his question in this way: it is through the language capacity that we share as humans that we succeed in communicating our idiosyncratic experiences in a way that is comprehensible to others. Of course this doesn’t answer the question how this works at the level of neuroscience nor at the level of biolinguistics, nor at the level of psychology. I am also worried by Petit’s use of the term ‘verbal behaviour’ which seems to locate his paradigm in the realm of behaviourism I so decried above.

In his main text he seems to spend quite some time explaining how the current paradigm of ‘embodiment’ has saved us from the mentalese ‘disembodied’ theories of cognition, again forgetting that biolinguistics has done this job already and, in my view, a whole lot better than the ‘embodiment of language’ scenario. Petit, as some authors have done above, again cites Chomsky as somehow being responsible for all the ‘mentalese’ claptrap we have had to suffer under. Accordingly Chomsky’s ‘strict’ distinction between ‘competence’ and ‘performance’ led to the postulation of a ‘brain-machine’ that is ‘indifferent to its program’. In other words, competence being indifferent to performance. Petit calls this an ‘ideology’ and goes on to say that ‘a recent alternative to this ideology, the identification of linguistic information processing with neural dynamics itself and its laws of association is yet another form of embodiment of language (cf. Pulvermüller 2002)’. At least Petit seems to concede that Chomsky’s ‘brain-machine’ is also somehow embodied. The purported progress seems to be the integration of competence and performance in this ‘yet another form of embodiment of language’. I think the point Petit misses is that the ‘brain-machine = competence’ is in fact ‘indifferent’ to the ‘program = performance’, for as by computer analogy the hardware is of course designed with the potential of being programmed but ultimately the hardware is totally indifferent to the actual program installed on it. Even if this is splitting hairs, there can be no doubt that some computer scientists concentrate on hardware while others specialize in software. Chomsky never said that ‘performance’ wasn’t worth studying. He simply concentrated on ‘competence’ as a stand-alone module, and rightly so. Petit repeats the old jealousy of applied scientists complaining about the arrogance of theoreticians who pay scant attention to the practical applications of their research.  

Petit as a philosopher then poses the question if we are now stuck in a kind of limbo in ‘that everything happens as if current neuroscience sought a basically inadequate substitute for this phenomenology in authors who hesitate between behaviorism and cognitivism, between mentalism and physicalism, between computation and simulation’? It seems we can solve this mind-body dichotomy only via ‘Merleau-Ponty, the One Acceptable Phenomenologist’ as he alone seems to build a bridge between body and mind, perhaps as a kind of Nietzschean ‘beyond good and evil’ concept. All this philosophizing, I must say, seems to lead down the proverbial garden path, and whilst, for once, I do not necessarily share Chomsky’s point on such matters, namely that French post-structuralists/deconstructionalists/etc. tend to produce a lot of incomprehensible verbiage, I do get the feeling that Monsieur Petit does on occasion become so dense in his prose so as to become obtuse. Petit quoting Husserl in German – presumably as a sign of polyglot sophistication amongst clever philosophers -  does the same for me, e.g. ‘Der erste und einfachste Ausdruck ist der des leiblichen Aussehens als Menschenleib, er setzt natürlich „Sehende” und “verstehende” voraus” …’ (BTW “verstehende” should be quoted properly with a capital “V”, denoting a noun like “Sehende”), namely either stating the obvious by means of unnecessarily complex sentence structure, or else stating something that is incomprehensible. I do like sophisticated language play in the style of Nietzsche but am sorry to say that I find Husserl lacking in that department. Petit does of course credit ‘Husserl’s overcoming of a prior Cartesian solipsism which posed communication as inessential to thought promoted body expression to the status of linguistic expression and his subsequent foundation of subjective experience in intersubjectivity involved the founding of expression in communication’ thereby giving the Cartesians like Chomsky a bad name. Again a bizarre notion when we assume we are all engaged in something called ‘biolinguistics’. When coming back to neuroscience and/or neurolinguistics Petit is far too optimistic in stating that ‘for the first time in history of the knowledge of man we see on the basis of data of empirical research a possibility to trace the uninterrupted course of events inside the organism that goes from perception and action to communication through language’ – we are nowhere near that possibility. To cite a few neurological ‘embodied’ processes that seem to have parallels in language are far too vague to account for language per se. Petit again brings Husserl to the rescue by proposing that morphology, syntax and semantics give rise to a sort of  ‘incompleteness-dependence’ grammar that elevates ‘nothing’ to a mysterious binding force between morphemes, words and phrases, resulting in a sentence with ‘meaning’. That certain prepositions and spatio-temporal deixis in general can ‘be reconstructed by equations of differential geometry’, as suggested by Petit, is nothing new in cognitive linguistics where this is used as evidence of the embodiment of language. The neuronal simulation of such processes AND its translation into human language is the crux of the matter – the point being that according to Chomskyan linguistics at least, it is not the neuronal processes of perception and action that give rise to language but that there is a human-specific language capacity in the brain that puts all this and so much more into words, phrases and sentences.

In the end Petit concedes that all this ‘is a bet made by a neuroscience of language that would aspire to naturalize our phenomenological experience of meaning’ – a ‘risky’ business. Using German metaphors, he says that Lebenswelt is far more wide-ranging than Einfühlung (empathy via mirror neurons), hence speech/language conveys far more than bodily simulated functions. Even basic social speech acts cannot be accounted by the ‘embodiment of language’.

In conclusion Petit reverts back to an extended dualism of body and mind, indeed a ‘trinitarian’ approach (no doubt to be ridiculed as a ‘holy trinity’):

(i)             neurophysiologic investigation of the organic substrate of the continuous linkage between perception and action, and language;
(ii)           eidetic-geometric morphodynamics as norm a priori backing the transformation of forms/schemes in syntactic or semantic structures; and
(iii)          transcendental constitution of the Lebenswelt of a community of perceiving-acting personal subjects who interact by words and
gestures drawing on bodily capabilities and other operations of meaning-giving.

Petit is apologetic by imposing item (iii) for the imposition is a phenomenologist philosopher’s one, treading on the toes of the hardened empirical scientist who have already nailed item (i) and are supposedly on the way to crack item (ii) – none of which is true, as far as I can see. The seeming incompatibility between this tripartite assembly is further excused by Petit as arising from the philosophers’ Erlebnis (italics added by me) which he explains as ‘the lived experience of an unresolved tension between ultimately possibly incompatible approaches which nonetheless impose themselves as contingent context of the quest for truth’. As a native speaker of German I am forever hopeful that the Germans will eventually fulfil their role as Dichter and Denker, hence I do appreciate the French philosopher’s predilection for German Zeitgeist terminology but I’m damned to know what Erlebnis has to do with the price of fish or biolinguistics for that matter, other than Husserl using this fairly common word occasionally in his treatises. Sure, for the purpose of translation, languages are littered with lexical gaps, and occasionally one may elevate a word to a technical term used in the target language so as to avoid to have to use lengthy paraphrases – Erlebnis seems highly questionable for this purpose as it is simply translated as ‘lived experience’ as indeed Petit does in the first place. His added ‘philosophical’ meaning is as idiosyncratic as anything I have ever read, and as far as I can determine, lacks actual meaning. Since when do scientists and/or philosophers tell the truth about language?

Having spent quite some time on critiquing this paper I must admit that it was the most enjoyable, if quixotical, read so far.

The penultimate article by Claudia Repetto, Barbara Colombo & Giuseppe Riva, entitled ‘The Link between Action and Language: Recent Findings and Future Perspectives’ again opens with a bizarre anti-Chomsky statement that assigns him to the dustbin of linguistic history. It is worth quoting the authors’ introduction as it reveals their bias:

            Traditional theories of cognition are based on the idea that knowledge is represented in the brain
            in the form of concepts and stored in memory system as semantic information. Concepts, from 
            this perspective, are conceived as amodal, abstract and arbitrary (Fodor 1975), then independent
            from the brain’s modal system of perception (e.g., vision, audition), and action (e.g., movement,
            proprioception). Chomsky’s theory of language (Chomsky 1965) is completely aligned with this
           view: The theory of Universal Grammar considers language as a corpus of abstract symbols
           combined together according to formal syntactic rules; two properties, among others, are 
          distinctive of human language, the generativity and compositionality.

In more recent years, nevertheless, a radically different conception of knowledge has been taken
 into account, that brings together data from different methodological approaches such as
 neurobiology, brain imaging, and neuropsychology: the theory of Embodied Cognition (Wilson
 2002; Gibbs 2006). According to the embodied cognition hypothesis, concepts are not amodal
 and knowledge relies on body states and experiences. Therefore, there is a tight link between
 concepts, action, and perception, to the extent that conceptual knowledge is mapped within the
 sensory-motor system. The notion that cognition is grounded in action and perception is 
encapsulated in the term ‘embodiment’.

For a start it shows how much the authors are out of touch with the biolinguistics program and the Chomskyian Minimalist Program – by quoting Chomsky’s 1965 ‘Aspects’ volume, which no doubt was a major treatise in the history of linguistics but has long since been further elaborated as a theory of language that locates language in the brain as the modus operandi. The implicit claim that Chomsky’s theory of language is ‘amodal’ when in fact it should be ‘modal’ according to the authors is a false claim. Chomsky has quite a modular conception of language even though he is mainly interested in the syntactic mode of language. It is not entirely clear if the authors also reject the notion of ‘generativity’ as being distinctive of human language but if they do, they do so at their peril. For what is the alternative? A finite set of learnt language behaviours linked to ‘concepts, action, and perception, to the extent that conceptual knowledge is mapped within the sensory-motor system’? This leads to the simplistic, if not fascist, behaviourism decried by Chomsky so long ago. The creative aspect of language – its capacity to generate an infinite number of new sentences – cannot be constrained by the sensory motor-system which in humans is often far less sophisticated than that of other animal species. Universal Grammar never envisaged language as a ‘corpus of abstract symbols’ in the sense of some airy-fairy mind game. Even Wittgenstein’s game theory of language is far more sophisticated than that of the authors’. Modern Chomskyian approaches like binary ‘merge’ as a fundamental syntactic operation are closely aligned to computational theories that work well for fundamental biological cum neurological processes.

As pointed out again and again in the previous incarnations of this article, the notion that language is also ‘grounded in action and perception’ is not disputed by anyone. Perhaps sadly so, as the daily banality of life and death seems ever more ‘grounded in action’ of the military sort giving rise to Orwellian newspeak. Maybe this is a human condition we will never escape even though language is creative enough to envisage the ‘better world’ as also advocated by the likes of Chomsky.

It seems quite ridiculous to suggest, as the authors do, that ‘the mind is no longer confined to the brain but also includes other body parts, such as hands, legs, eyes’ thereby claiming to have discovered something new. It is perhaps instructive to note that ‘neurolinguistics’ once upon a time referred to the new-age idea of ‘neuro-linguistic programming’ as developed by renegade linguists Bender and Grinder, to make a big deal out of eye-movement and how it reveals your innermost thoughts such as hoping your kissing the frog will turn your fortunes around and set you up with a prince of your dreams. For if motor-movement links directly to language – as it sometimes no doubt does – we should be able to predict by the movement as to what the subsequent thought – as expressed by language – is. When you point the gun at me and demand that I raise my arms, and I do so, you may well deduce that I am thinking of giving myself up. On the other hand this may be a trick, reminiscent of the joke whereby three ex-world leaders (say, Kohl, Blair and Bush) are condemned to death by firing squad by Mexican rebels, and they ask for their last words, and first-up Kohl shouts ‘revolution’ whereby the rebels panic and let him escape, and second-up Blair shouts ‘earthquake’ and again the rebels panic and he escapes, and last-up Bush exclaims ‘fire’! The idea being in this context that language can simulate dangerous motor-experiences that can trigger either real motor-panic or the motor-action of pulling the trigger.

When Repetto et al. go on to discuss the literature of current TMS studies, they attempt to account for ‘contradictory’ data such as:

For example, Papeo et al. (2009) reported an increase of MEPs recorded while participants read action verbs compared with what happened while they read verbs describing abstract concepts; in contrast, Buccino et al. (2005) described a reverse situation during language comprehension: MEPs recorded from hand muscles was lower while participants heard hand-related action verbs compared to foot-related action verbs, indicating an effector specific inhibition.

Research like this is no doubt very interesting but the conclusions drawn are far to general in terms of predicting linguistic patterns as related to MEPs. Consider for example the ancient idea - as espoused now by theosophical healing methods – that one can generate heat in one’s limbs by mental control, or for example that artificial limbs can be controlled by mental activity: these are as yet poorly understood processes and it is quite unclear if language is involved at all. Do I simulate the limb’s movement to grasp the egg, or do I tell myself in so many words “I will now grasp the egg!” (or is it better to use the present tense?). That through language I may be able to command my motor-movements may well be on the cards to a certain extent but to claim that the reverse is true is quite illogical. My actions may be supported by language (e.g. “heave-ho!”) but my actions do not give rise to my language, especially when it comes to the vast realm of my language that has absolutely nothing to do with any of my motor skills. To explain above contradictory results, Repetto et al. revert to speculation with regards to the many imponderables of experimental design. My son who just completed a PhD thesis in experimental second language acquisition, just concentrating on a single item (the acquisition of the Chinese anaphor ziji by learners of Chinese from English and Korean backgrounds) found that issues like timing can have a significant effect on survey responses, and the 500 ms quoted by Repetto et al. may well be a crucial difference to how responses are encoded. Furthermore, as also somewhat acknowledge by the authors, there are an infinite number of possibilities on how to frame linguistic tasks, hence an infinite number of possible responses. Of course the authors prefer to believe that the task variety can be so severely constrained that one researcher can compare them all:

Tomasino et al. (2008) compared systematically the effects of different timings of stimulation during different kind of tasks (silent reading, motor imagery and frequency judgments) and found that M1 plays a role only during motor imagery, so they concluded that the recruitment of motor networks during language understanding is not required, but it occurs only when explicit motor simulation is requested.

I am sure that Tomasino, as many others, must be aware that experimental design for language research must be as multi-faceted as language is itself, as otherwise one reduces language to a mono-syllabic instrument for communicative action processes (as preferred by army instructors around the world). Even so Tomasino above found that no conclusions could be drawn. The authors also present another example which unwittingly perhaps demonstrates yet another contradiction:

Recently TMS protocols have been employed to discover the role of morpho-syntactic features on the activity of M1: Papeo and colleagues (Papeo et al. 2011) compared MEPs recorded during reading tasks of action vs. abstract verbs presented using the first or the third singular person (I vs he/she); they found an increase of MEPs amplitude selectively for the action verbs at the first person, deriving from these data that motor simulation is facilitated when the conceptual representation of the verb includes the self as agent. Furthermore, a sensitivity of the primary motor cortex to the polarity of sentences was high-lighted: Active action-related sentences suppressed cortico-spinal reactivity compared to passive action-related sentences, and either active or passive abstract sentences (Liuzza et al. 2011).

Whilst it seems logical enough that ‘first-person’ action sequences trigger higher MEPs than those of ‘third’ persons, there must be something wrong with the observation of the second part, namely that ‘active’ sentences ‘suppress cortico-spinal activity’ while ‘passive’ sentences do not. The authors characterise the ‘active-passive’ distinction as ‘sentence polarity’ which is a highly questionable description. Traditionally the term ‘voice’ is used in grammar to account for this distinction (and there are not just two voices to be accounted for either, as is well known to grammarians). The point here is, however, that so far all the literature seemed to point to the idea that ‘action’ in words triggers motor-responses in the form of MEPs, so why would active sentences ‘suppress’ cortico-spinal reactivity? Did the authors mix up the results (I haven’t checked Liuzza et al. 2011)? Or is there something weird going on here? Jokingly I have sometimes suggested that ergative languages and those speakers giving prominence to the marked passive voice in English are more sympathetic people than those action-driven maniacs who speak accusative (sic)  languages and  who currently rule the roost. Maybe the proverbial mirror-neurons kick into action if we imagine ourselves in the role of the victim (the ‘subject’ of a passive sentence) rather than that of the ‘actor’ (the subject of an active sentence)? Sadly, as we know, speakers of ergative languages can be as ‘active’ and violent as anybody from the accusative languages. To prove my speculative assertion we could design an interesting experiment!

Indeed ‘mirror-neurons’ are the next topic in Repetto et al.’s paper. This whole idea about sympathetic/empathetic mirror-neurons is quite fascinating, inasmuch we can read each others minds and complete half-finished sentences on behalf of our interlocutors, not to speak of body-language and smiles and tears and the like. To be able to simulate and replicate an action or skill in our brain – encoded in addition in language perhaps – seems to be the domain of higher animals, and perhaps the ability to learn in the abstract is only in the human domain, presumably as it can be reinforced or is driven in the first place via our language capacity. It is of course far too early to jump to any conclusions, for neither the brain nor language – that arises from it – is well understood, as in fact acknowledged in part by the authors:

            Nevertheless, it is noteworthy that there is not a strong consensus about a somatotopic 
            organisation of action words meaning representations, and this fact is not astounding    
            considering that the organization of the premotor cortex is still poorly understood.

For that reason one has to be sort of thankful for any research results even if they only confirm what anyone could have predicted, as for example the following observation:

“if understanding action words involves mentally simulating one’s own actions, then the neurocognitive representation of word meanings should differ for people with different kinds of bodies, who perform actions in systematically different ways” (i.e. right- vs. left-handers): This prediction has been corroborated by fMRI data which showed a preferential activation of the right premotor cortex during lexical decision on action verbs for left-handers, and the opposite pattern of activation for the right-handers.

Maybe at this juncture it is worthwhile to cite Chomsky again, namely the idea that ‘intuitions’ and deductive reasoning about language – especially when one is a linguist of the calibre of Chomsky – should be taken at face value. As such Chomsky related the story of his erstwhile thesis topic on Hebrew which his then mentor Zellig Harris imposed on him, requiring him to do fieldwork with Hebrew speakers, only to realize that he himself (as a speaker of Hebrew) had already all the answers without having them to be elicited from others. In other words I don’t need to do empirical research on what is glaringly obvious. One might include in this category the above topic on right-left handiwork as well.

In the final part of this paper Repetto et. al suggest that Virtual Reality (VR) scenarios could be great research tools in determining the relationship between language and action. After all we can simulate just about any action as VR, from flight simulators to ‘shoot’em’ video games that have now become reality in drone warfare. Indeed the authors make a rather coy reference to this fact:

Thanks to different input devices participants could virtually perform any action, even those typically not performable in an experimental setting (to jump a rope, kick a ball, or shoot something, for example).

There have already been reports of drone war-fare operators experiencing the same or similar ‘feelings’ as real soldiers in combat, even using the same (primitive) language that is associated with killing the enemy. No doubt the US Army is already providing research grants to find out what exactly the relationship is between action and language in these VR contexts. One hopes that Repetto et. al will resist the temptation – which even MIT couldn’t resist and still doesn’t resist, despite of Chomsky having joined RESIST a long time ago.

Whilst it is obvious what I think of such VR scenarios, I will not deny that some VR applications may indeed be useful research tools in biolinguistics. I seriously doubt however that Repetto et. al have thereby opened up some new and amazing avenue for research, for VR never really lives up to the real thing. The idea of remote controlled robots - like the American drones, and more benignly medical-surgical robots – are not science fiction anymore but at the same time add absolutely nothing to our understanding of language. Neither does pure VR.

The last article in this special volume is by Nicholas Unwin, entitled ‘The Language of Colour: Neurology and the Ineffable’. I suppose this belongs to the category of solving some sort of paradox, like Derida’s famous question if the unforgivable may be forgivable – thus asking if the ‘ineffable’ can be effable? When one compares this article to the other one above on colour, namely the one by Loïc P. Heurley et al., one is struck by the latter’s assumption that the language of colour is indeed linked to neurological events, simulating real colour perception (the physiology of it), while Unwin revisits the old conundrum, asking if there is a connection at all, calling it a ‘body-mind’ problem. Since Unwin makes a convincing case for the ‘embodiment’ of the language of colour, one might as well congratulate him and leave it that – for there is no real argument to the contrary, however much Unwin seems to do battle with it. To maintain that the language of colour (and therefore language itself) is living proof of cultural – if not cognitive – relativity is of course still a hot topic for the relativists but hardly one of interest to bio-linguistics where the matter has been settled ever since Lenneberg (as mentioned in my review of the first article on colour). Unwin really makes his life more complicated than need be: his examination of colour-related terminology like as ‘warm, cool, sharp, fresh and citrusy’ as needing to be confirmed by neurological processes:

            I shall argue that an ideal sort of explanation of why red should look warm is that there be some 
            appropriate neurological connections between the visual and tactile parts of the brain (currently,
            the issue is undecided).

Unwin questions the common assumption that ‘red’ is ‘warm’ because of its association with fire when a gas-flame is blue (the colour of water and ice, hence a cold colour). If the history of language is parallel to the history of homo sapiens we can assume that the language of colour was once of the earliest feats of encoding natural phenomena. That a burning wood fire is red-hot cannot be some vague metaphor alone: it is a fact deeply ingrained in our consciousness. The relatively recent discovery of natural gas yielding a blue flame does in no way detract from ‘red’ being a warm colour. Of course humans and human language change, so why not the language of colour? Maybe in a thousand years red will have lost all its association with a burning wood fire – the blue flame having taken over. Quite obviously there are myriads of possible colour associations, both idiosyncratic and ecologically determined – and I don’t doubt cultural influences such as fashion colours – and as such it seems rather futile to want to track down all the neurological processes in terms of bodily simulation and/or perception. In fact what Unwin demonstrates is the state of knowledge we have in terms of how the brain generates language, namely very much in its infancy if anything at all. That the brain generates language is inescapable – it’s a scientific fact. Chomsky revolutionized linguistics by suggesting some clever syntax formulae that can generate language, in analogy to what we know the very basic biological principles to be. To be really dramatic: Chomsky delivered us from the past and current intellectual darkness that maintains that the mind – hence language – is a phenomenon somehow unconnected to the living brain of humans.

The embodiment of language being a new research trend in linguistics, as claimed in this special issue, is greatly exaggerated, especially when quite a few authors state that Chomsky and his school of linguistics are somehow in opposition to it. That language is embodied is simply a catch-phrase that is easily subsumed in the term of bio-linguistics. The idea that we are at the stage of pin-pointing neurological processes in regards to language is also greatly exaggerated by research using neuro-imaging – however advanced the techniques may be – in association with language stimuli, especially as this type of research seems to fall back to an outdated – if not perverse -  behaviourist model of language. At this stage neuro-imaging is still a very crude instrument to investigate language with, especially as we hardly know what the basics are of our motor processing skills. To neurologically test for ‘verbs of action’,  ‘negation’, ‘false beliefs’, ‘the language of colour’ and the like (as exemplified in this issue) seems light-years away from yielding meaningful results vis-à-vis wholesale claims about language and its syntax. There is nothing wrong with educated guesses, theories and even speculation in the absence of empirical certainty: it makes for interesting reading. To jump to vast conclusions in the face of a paucity of meaningful data, on the other hand, makes a reader like me irritated and dismissive of the content of this Special Issue on the so-called Embodiment of Language.

No comments:

Post a Comment