Ray Jackendoff:
PATTERNS IN THE MIND (Harvester Wheatsheaf, 1993)

(Copyright © 2014 Piero Scaruffi | Legal restrictions )
Following Chomsky, Jackendoff thinks that the human brain contains innate linguistic knowledge, the easiest way to explain how it is possible that children can learn a language, a mathematically impossible feat given the complexities of language. A universal grammar shared by all human brains constrains what language can possibly be, and therefore helps children's brains learn how a language works. That also explains how children learn sign language: children's brains expect the same organization in sign language that they expect in spoken language.

Processing the phonological structure of language has to do with recognizing words and sentences in that sound wave, and viceversa how to organize the sound wave to express words and sentences. The phonological structure is therefore the interface between thought on one hand and the auditory pattern (input) or the vocal pattern (output) on the other. This is not trivial because the acoustic signal of someone's voice speaking to us is not broken down into sentences and words: it tends to be a continuous flow of sounds. In the 1920s the Austrian-Russian linguist Nicholas Trubetzkoy introduced the "phoneme" as the elementary unit of speech, but his associate, the Russian linguist Roman Jakobson, founder in 1926 of the "Prague school" of linguistics, showed that the phoneme is defined by a set of distinctive features ("Observations on the phonological classification of consonants", 1939). Jackendoff believes that "speech is encoded in the brain as a sequence of distinctive-feature configurations". Jackendoff believes that auditory perception consists in the three processes: understanding who is speaking, what is being said, and in which tone it is said; and he believes that three separate, independent modules in the brain take care of those three functions.

The experience of spoken language is constructed by the hearer's mental grammar: speech per se is only a meaningless sound wave, that only a hearer equipped with the proper decoding device (the universal grammar) can turn into syntactic structures.

The acoustic signal is then analyzed for its syntactic properties. Jackendoff shows that syntactic structure is independent of both sound and meaning. The internal grammar turns sensory patterns into meaning.

Children effortlessly understand what is a word within the continuous noise of spoken language: their brain is hardwired to look for words, and words that create sentences.

However, the real focus of the book is not in language: it is (as mentioned in the very first page) in the quest for what makes humans unique. It is not just brain size (in fact, other animals have bigger brains as proportion of the body).

Jackendoff argues that the same argument about universal grammars can be applied to all facets of human experience: all experience is constructed by unconscious genetically determined principles that operate in the brain.

Language is not the exception, but instead it fits nicely with the other cognitive faculties, operating under a general property of brain functions. Vision too is controlled and enabled by a mental grammar, by a genetic predisposition to recognize objects and situations: just like we can understand a virtually unlimited set of sentences so we can understand a virtually unlimited set of visual situations. The basic principles of visual perception are innate as much as the basic principles of language.

These same conclusions can be applied to thought itself, i.e. to the task of building concepts. Concepts are constructed by using some innate, genetically determined, machinery, a sort of "universal grammar of concepts". The reason that we are capable of organizing the world into concepts is because we (all human brains) are predisposed to organize the world into concepts and to recognize a similar organization in other people's brains.

Human nature is therefore defined by a set of "unconscious patterns" (or specialized modules) that allow us to think a virtually unlimited number of thoughts, to speak a virtually unlimited number of sentences, to recognize a virtually unlimited number of situations, etc. Without some kind of innate module to guide, direct, prune and so forth our mental life, it would be difficult to speak, see and think.

The human experience, therefore, is largely determined by unconscious processes in the brain, genetically determined processes that define and constrain what we can think, speak and see.

Language is but one aspect of a broader characteristic of the human brain. The brain contains several modules, each specialized in a cognitive function and each driven by a "universal grammar".

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