Finding language in the brain

Finding language in the brain

Giosuè Baggio writes:

What exactly is language? At first thought, it’s a continuous flow of sounds we hear, sounds we make, scribbles on paper or on a screen, movements of our hands, and expressions on our faces. But if we pause for a moment, we find that behind this rich experiential display is something different: the smaller and larger building blocks of a Lego-like game of construction, with parts of words, words, phrases, sentences, and larger structures still.

We can choose the pieces and put them together with some freedom, but not anything goes. There are rules, constraints. And no half measures. Either a sound is used in a word, or it’s not; either a word is used in a sentence, or it’s not. But unlike Lego, language is abstract: Eventually, one runs out of Lego bricks, whereas there could be no shortage of the sound b, and no cap on reusing the word “beautiful” in as many utterances as there are beautiful things to talk about.

It’s tempting to see languages as mathematical systems of some kind. Indeed, languages are calculi, in a very real sense, as real as the senses in which they are changing historical objects, means of communication, inner voices, vehicles of identity, instruments of persuasion, and mediums of great art. But while all these aspects of language strike us almost immediately, as they have philosophers for centuries, the connection between language and computation is not immediately apparent — nor do all scholars agree that it is even right to make it. [Continue reading…]

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