Wednesday, May 17, 2006

More Linguists on Starlings and Recursion

Those of you still interested in the Gentner et al. paper on starlings learning a context-free grammar might want to read this letter submitted to Nature (and immediately rejected) by Ray Jackendoff, Mark Liberman, Geoff Pullum, and Barbara Scholz (via Language Log). This is the letter's conclusion:
The Gentner experiment may help us understand animal pattern recognition and learning abilities, some of them possibly prerequisites for linguistic abilities; but the implications are being considerably exaggerated, especially in popular media accounts with headlines like "Songbirds May Be Able to Learn Grammar."
Ray Jackendoff is definitely someone to take seriously when discussing issues related to the evolution of language (which is not to say that the others aren't; I'm just less familiar with their work). His book Foundations of Language is one of my favorites in cognitive science, largely because of the incredibly lucid and level-headed discussion of the evolution of language in Chatper 8. It may be the only evolution of language discussion out there with those qualities. It helps, of course, that Jackendoff backs it up with 7 chapters of theoretical discussion, clear even to a nonlinguist (though I wouldn't recommend it for people with no background in linguistics). So, when Jackendoff speaks on this topic, I listen.

36 comments:

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I borrowed this book from my school library. Can't wait to read it now... haven't heard much about it other than your site...

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How much of a linguistics background do you have? After the first couple chapters, it's pretty heavy, though very clear for nonlinguists.

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