Sensorimotor Cognition and Natural Language Syntax
408 pp., 7 x 9 in, 66 b&w illus.
- Published: October 19, 2012
A proposal that the syntactic structure of a sentence reporting a concrete episode in the world can be interpreted as a description of the sensorimotor processes involved in experiencing that episode.
How is the information we gather from the world through our sensory and motor apparatus converted into language? It is obvious that there is an interface between language and sensorimotor cognition because we can talk about what we see and do. In this book, Alistair Knott argues that this interface is more direct than commonly assumed. He proposes that the syntax of a concrete sentence—a sentence that reports a direct sensorimotor experience—closely reflects the sensorimotor processes involved in the experience. In fact, he argues, the syntax of the sentence can be interpreted as a description of these sensorimotor processes.
Knott focuses on a simple concrete episode: a man grabbing a cup. He presents detailed models of the sensorimotor processes involved in experiencing this episode (drawing on research in psychology and neuroscience) and of the syntactic structure of the transitive sentence reporting the episode (drawing on Chomskyan Minimalist syntactic theory). He proposes that these two independently motivated models are closely linked—that the logical form of the sentence can be given a detailed sensorimotor characterization and that, more generally, many of the syntactic principles understood in Minimalism as encoding innate linguistic knowledge are actually sensorimotor in origin.
Knott's sensorimotor reinterpretation of Chomsky opens the way for a psychological account of sentence processing that is compatible with a Chomskyan account of syntactic universals, suggesting a way to reconcile Chomsky's theory of syntax with the empiricist models of language often viewed as Mimimalism's competitors.
Is language embodied? Alistair Knott gives a resounding 'Yes' through the surprising combination of the Minimalist Program of syntactic analysis and the sensorimotor mechanisms of the brain. He provides a thoroughgoing account of brain mechanisms for the execution and perception of the reach-to-grasp and for learning and memory of sensorimotor sequences, integrating theory and data to ground a novel and detailed account of the nonlinguistic origins of language.
Michael Arbib, University of Southern California
Knott works through one example in great depth to illustrate an ambitious goal: how can one link, mechanistically, current linguistic work in syntax with a range of neurobiological and psychological concepts and processes? The sensorimotor account of logical form developed here is a provocative hypothesis about how to connect the infrastructure of syntactic theory with embodied cognition. The argument covers a wide range of data across many fields and exemplifies the promise and the complications of interdisciplinary work on language.
David Poeppel, Professor of Psychology and Neural Science, New York University
A ground-breaking and foundation-building look at the underpinnings of human language syntax. Knott masterfully weaves profound inspiration with rigorous and careful argumentation to craft an innovative, predictive picture of how sensorimotor computation could underlie linguistic computation. This work opens up untraveled avenues for interdisciplinary research. A major advance.
Viviane Deprez, Laboratory for Language, Brain and Cognition, L2C2, CNRS; Department of Linguistics, Rutgers University