October 2008

Language Throws a Curveball

Linguist Ray Jackendoff looks for the underlying mechanisms of speech and thought-and finds them in baseball

By Taylor McNeil

Baseball has been called a metaphor for life, but here’s an interesting twist on that cliché. Baseball, linguistics expert Ray Jackendoff says, illustrates how we use and think about language.

“We say that we think in words, but what we experience when we hear these words in our heads is the sound patterns of the words,” says Ray Jackendoff. Photo: Alonso Nichols

Most youngsters know how to play the sport—or at least the basics. But think about all they have to know about the game, says Jackendoff, the Seth Merrin Professor of Philosophy and co-director of the Center for Cognitive Studies at Tufts.
“You have to know about rules, teams, team loyalty, abstract things like balls and strikes, cooperation and competition,” he says. “You’re actually cooperating with the other team in playing the game, and at the same time you’re competing. You’re also cooperating with your team and competing.”

All that seems obvious. The deeper question is how all those things are learned. Baseball is a perfect example of what it means to be human: to have an innate ability to understand complex, multi-layered rules and actions, just like speaking a language.

“In baseball, you sort of have a microcosm of all of this really complicated stuff in human thought, besides the physical part,” Jackendoff says. “Things happen in multiple domains at once: there’s the physical action of a ball being hit and a guy tracking it and catching it; in the abstract domain, there is a fly out, so the batter is out.”

“We make up this artificial domain, and all of sudden it creates this logic of its own,” he says.

It takes us back to that primary question: how do humans learn to communicate, and how exactly does that communication occur? That’s the issue that Jackendoff has puzzled over throughout his career, in 12 books and numerous scholarly papers, as well as in his teaching.

Here’s one way to think about it. When we speak, we’re making sounds that travel as vibrations through the air and are intercepted by other people, whose brains convert those vibrations into sounds, which are then interpreted as having meaning. “We make these noises, and the other person reads your mind,” Jackendoff says.

The generally accepted view in the field of linguistics is that there is a biological predisposition to learning language—an ability hardwired in humans. The theory was developed by Noam Chomsky, with whom Jackendoff did graduate studies at MIT.

But Jackendoff begs to differ from Chomsky in one key area. “Chomsky’s conception of language is all based around syntax—around grammatical structure—and that meaning is built from the grammatical structure of language,” he says. That’s missing the point, says Jackendoff, who argues that meaning “is really the structure of thought, and you don’t need language to have thoughts.”

Take, for example, how chimpanzees organize as societies and solve problems—navigating around their world, knowing what foods are OK to eat and which to avoid. “It’s obviously thought,” Jackendoff says. “The kinds of things that they do require many of the same sorts of cognitive structures that humans require and that we happen to express in language.”

OMG—Is This Language?

At the beginning of his linguistics research career, Jackendoff quickly found himself veering off on a tangent, applying concepts from linguistics to music. He had been a keen amateur clarinetist from a young age and, inspired by Leonard Bernstein’s 1973 Norton Lectures on the possibilities of applying Chomsky’s insights to music, he began working with a colleague, Fred Lerdahl.

The culmination of that collaboration, the 1983 book A Generative Theory of Tonal Music, was groundbreaking for its effort to develop a grammar for music, and spurred a great amount of work in the field. (It also resulted in a conference at Tufts this past July, celebrating the 25th anniversary of the book’s publication, with scores of speakers from around the world.)

A pattern soon emerged in his work. Fully understanding the underlying structures that explain language meant exploring avenues outside the straight and narrow of the field. Next stop: consciousness.

“We say that we think in words, but what we experience when we hear these words in our heads is the sound patterns of the words,” Jackendoff says. “It’s in English. It has stress, consonants and vowels.”

But that’s not the work of thinking. “What’s doing the work is the unconscious part, where the thought is going on. Words that you experience as your thoughts are the puppet show, and the real work is going on backstage.”

In other words, it’s not about the words in your head; it’s about the unconscious structures that are making the connections.

Picture this flashing on your cell phone: “omg, where r u?” The message isn’t in English, per se, but it can be quickly decoded. It turns out that language is a lot like that. “We’re finding more and more places where language is not explicit, now that we know where to look for them,” Jackendoff says.

“Imagine my wife says to me, ‘Are you going to be near a mailbox today?’ I know what that means,” even though it is not explicitly stated, he says. Or think about a more subtle example: “The light flashed until dawn.”

“Now, if you say ‘the light flashed’ it means once, and if you say ‘the light flashed until dawn’ it means multiple times—but you don’t say multiple times anywhere in the sentence. That’s a piece of meaning that is nowhere in the words,” he says.

“What I’ve come to believe is that meaning has its own structure, and the grammar is there to make it explicit enough to hearers so that they can figure it out. But it’s not all there in the grammar.”

Who’s on Second?

This semester, Jackendoff is teaching a course called “Cognition of Society and Culture,” reflecting another of his interests: language’s relation to culture. “As a linguist I’m interested in a system of meaning, and therefore in a system of thought, and culture is one of the universes about which we think,” he says.

“There’s all this understanding we have about how to function in society,” he says, involving intentions, obligations, values, reciprocity and notions of fairness. “We must have learned it, but there must be some basis—it doesn’t come out of nowhere.” Is it hardwired like the language instinct, or is it learned?

“In the case of social understanding, we find it in the primates in a way we don’t find it in language,” he says. “So there’s an evolutionary foundation to build on in understanding human behavior.”

Which brings us back to baseball. “There’s the fundamental question of human creativity: how do we make up games?” says Jackendoff. “It’s a whole new conceptual domain that has its own logic—here’s what you have to do when there’s a runner on second base.”

There are multiple levels of meaning “all going on at once that you need for your understanding.” He says he hopes to develop that premise more, “as a way of dealing with the complexity of everyday human thought.”

Who knew that the likes of Red Sox slugger David Ortiz could teach us so much about ourselves?

Taylor McNeil can be reached at taylor.mcneil@tufts.edu.

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