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Fall 2008, Issue 9

How Language Works

Ray JackendoffThe arrival of Ray Jackendoff, PhD, in the Department of Philosophy in 2005 added strength to the university’s emerging cognitive sciences program. Jackendoff is the Seth Merrin Professor of Philosophy and co-director (with Daniel Dennett) of the Center for Cognitive Studies. His research goal is to articulate a theory of how language works.

Jackendoff is an interdisciplinary researcher who has made major contributions not only to his primary field of linguistics but also to philosophy, psychology, anthropology, and music. He earned his PhD in linguistics from Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1969, studying under Noam Chomsky and Morris Halle. After a year as a lecturer at the University of California, Los Angeles, Jackendoff made Brandeis University his base for the next 35 years. He became a professor emeritus at Brandeis in 2006.

A major push in Jackendoff’s recent work has been the formulation and dissemination of a theory of the parallel architecture of language. This theory proposes that language is built on multiple systems—including a grammatical structure system, a sound structure system, and a meaning structure system—and that all these systems interconnect in the brain to create a person’s unique understanding of language. The parallel architecture theory differs from mainstream language theory, which postulates that language is a product primarily of grammatical structure. For Jackendoff, parallel architecture is a more logical theory that takes into account current research into language. He is collaborating with Gina Kuperberg of the psychology department, whose experimental work supports the parallel architecture theory. The two are working on a project on semantic coercion (described in Kuperberg’s profile in this issue of Research News).

Another of Jackendoff’s projects concerns the concepts involved in social and cultural cognition. “I’ve been exploring notions like intention and obligation, various moral values, etiquette, reputations, and how those are interwoven in a certain kind of logic that we use for guiding our interactions with other people,” says Jackendoff. “A central piece of this is the notion of the social group—who’s in the group and who’s out of the group and how you treat them differently, and what are your obligations within the group as opposed to outside of the group. Social understanding is fundamental in human interaction, all the way from cliques in junior high school to nations at war.” Jackendoff is looking at social and cultural cognition through a linguistic lens, using what has been learned through the study of language as a jumping off point for this new endeavor. He believes that social and cultural cognition is an exciting area for new researchers. His interdisciplinary course “Cognition of Society and Culture” is open to graduate and undergraduate students. “To have kids who are biology majors and kids who are computer science majors and kids who are IR [international relations] majors interacting with one another, it was fabulous,” Jackendoff comments. “They learned so much from each other, just saying ‘You can think about it like that?’”

Jackendoff has also been advancing the cognitive science program in the Department of Philosophy. This program brings together people from several disciplines, including philosophy, psychology, computer science, and child development. A new major in cognitive and brain science was offered in September 2007, and a minor became available in September 2008. Jackendoff was amazed by the large number of prospective students at a recent Tufts open house for his talk entitled “Is the Brain a Biological Computer?” Admissions had expected 40 to 50 people, and 150 to 200 showed up. Jackendoff believes the cognitive science major will be very popular.

Conferences are one means of promoting the interdisciplinary nature of linguistics and cognitive science. Jackendoff has been involved in several held recently at Tufts—one for linguists on a technical problem in the field, one with the psychology department on building meaning from language, one on visual cognition, and one on music, language and the mind. The conference on music cognition was held in part to celebrate the 25th anniversary of A Generative Theory of Tonal Music, a book on the grammar of music that Jackendoff co-authored with composer Fred Lerdahl. More information is available at http://musicandlanguage.tufts.edu.

When asked if he would like to find a collaborator with a particular expertise, Jackendoff replied, “Actually, the problem I’d really like to understand probably involves some kind of mathematics that doesn’t exist yet. The theories we have of language understanding involve these really elaborate kinds of mental representations, that are kind of fancy data structures. Somehow those have to be computed by the neurons.” He wonders how to represent the computational power language requires, and would love to work with someone interested in developing a mathematical theory of mental representations “that encompasses everything from sound systems to meanings of language to visual understanding of the physical world, to get all those down to a common tool kit of representational or logical or computational structure.” The computational models of neural architectures that he is familiar with don’t take into account all that is currently known about language structure and language processing.

For more information on Jackendoff’s research, please go to http://ase.tufts.edu/philosophy/people/jackendoff.shtml

For more information on the Center for Cognitive Studies, please go to http://ase.tufts.edu/cogstud/index.asp.



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