Christiansen & Chater (2017) Towards an integrated science of language

Morten H. Christiansen & Nick Chater published an excellent article in Nature yesterday: Toward an integrated science of language.

This is where linguistics as a whole is headed:

“At the heart of this emerging alternative framework are constructions, which are learned pairings of form and meaning ranging from meaningful parts of words (such as word endings, for example, ‘-s’, ‘-ing’) and words themselves (for example, ‘penguin’) to multiword sequences (for example, ‘cup of tea’) to lexical patterns and schemas (such as, ‘the X-er, the Y-er’, for example, ‘the bigger, the better’). The quasi-regular nature of such construction grammars allows them to capture both the rule-like patterns as well as the myriad of exceptions that often are excluded by fiat from the old view built on abstract rules. From this point of view, learning a language is learning the skill of using constructions to understand and produce language. So, whereas the traditional perspective viewed the child as a mini-linguist with the daunting task of deducing a formal grammar from limited input, the construction-based framework sees the child as a developing language-user, gradually honing her language-processing skills. This requires no putative universal grammar but, instead, sensitivity to multiple sources of probabilistic information available in the linguistic input: from the sound of words to their co-occurrence patterns to information from semantic and pragmatic contexts.”

The fascinating thing is that what this paragraph describes has much in common with Kenneth Pike’s Tagmemics of mid-twentieth century, at the time, quite derided by Chomskyans as unscientific.

How the times have changed.

It was the rise of cognitive psychology, computational linguistics, and dissatisfied former students of Chomsky, that led to the realization that the mathematical models mainstream generative linguistics applied to language were simply too crude and insufficient for accurate modeling of linguistic knowledge.

We’re excited about where the field is headed from here.

Morten H. Christiansen is in the Department of Psychology, Cornell University & Nick Chater is at the Behavioural Science Group, Warwick Business School, University of Warwick.