What Language Meansit’s not about grammar, it’s about thought, says a leading linguist c
When we speak, we make 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. The linguist Ray Jackendoff, who has had decades in which to think of clever ways to sum it all up, expresses the essence of language as follows: “We make these noises, and the other person reads your mind.” Of course, how we know which noises to make is a study in itself, one that has absorbed Jackendoff, the Seth Merrin Professor of Philosophy and codirector of the Center for Cognitive Studies, for much of his career.
Among linguists, the accepted view—developed by Noam Chomsky, with whom Jackendoff studied at MIT—is that humans have a biological predisposition to learn language. But Jackendoff and Chomsky part company over one key point, the question of where meaning comes from. According to Chomsky, meaning is built from the grammatical structure of language, but to Jackendoff, meaning “is really the structure of thought, and you don’t need language to have thoughts.”
Chimpanzees, for example, clearly think—they organize in societies, solve problems, and figure out which foods to eat—but they don’t have speech. “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,” Jackendoff says.
Early in his research career, Jackendoff, a keen amateur clarinetist, veered off on a tangent. 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 fruit of that collaboration, the 1983 book A Generative Theory of Tonal Music, was groundbreaking for its effort to develop a grammar of music, and spurred a great amount of work in the field. (It also resulted in a conference at Tufts this past July, celebrating the book’s 25th anniversary, with scores of speakers from around the world.)
A pattern soon emerged in his work. To fully grasp the underlying structures that explain language would mean venturing outside the mainstream of linguistics. 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.”
It’s possible to decode language even when the meaning isn’t explicit. “Imagine my wife says to me, ‘Are you going to be near a mailbox today?’ I know what that means.” Or take 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.” The meaning, then, lurks somewhere beyond the words. “What I’ve come to believe,” Jackendoff says, “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.”
Jackendoff is teaching a course called “Cognition of Society and Culture.” Why? Because culture, like language, is a system of thought, he says. “There’s all this understanding we have about how to function in society”—understanding of intentions, obligations, values, reciprocity, and notions of fairness. “We must have learned it, but there must be some basis,” he says. “It doesn’t come out of nowhere.”TAYLOR McNEIL is the news editor in Tufts’ Office of Publications and the editor of the online university newspaper the Tufts Journal.