Thursday, August 11, 2005

Language and Cognitive Science

When I applied to grad schools, I applied both to linguistics programs and cognitive science programs, depending largely on the faculty at the school and the research they were doing. So I always thought of myself as interested in cognitive science, and I said so periodically to people when I started my linguistics program. What I did not know was that there is a particular school of linguistics called "Cognitive Linguistics." It has a set of associated beliefs or hypotheses which it is exploring, and moreover, one of our faculty members is a "Cognitive Linguist." Whenever people here hear the word "cognitive" they think of this school. I like this prof, having taken a course from him, we organize the cognitive science colloquium together, and he is the prof I will be doing the music/language research with this fall. I debated forever on whether or not I wanted to ask him to be my advisor. However, I don't really belong to this Cognitive Linguistics school, and I am only sorta interested in meaning, which is perhaps this school's central topic. Since I don't affiliate with this "Cognitive" school, I have had a hard time explaining how I am interested in cognitive science to people who equate the two. All I could say was that I am cognitive in the sense that I think studying the brain has something to do with studying language. Over the last few weeks, I have begun to figure out exactly how I am a cognitive linguist, though perhaps not a Cognitive Linguist.

I believe that the way language works will depend upon exactly how its pieces fit together in the brain. It is these interfaces among neurons which will be part of the true explanation of language. The exact way that the inner ear transforms frequency into neural impulses will have an effect on how we use intonation. The way that the brain controls the muscles of the tongue will be important to understanding phonology. The way that the brain remembers words will be important to understanding morphology. If speaking uses procedural memory and not declarative, then there should be similarities between speaking and other behaviors which are procedural. And it will make a difference if procedural memory is in fact different from declarative. When information is passed from one part of the brain to another, it will pass it in a certain form, and this will be important to understanding language. It is in this way that I am a cognitive linguist.

A week or so ago I had a dream dissertation; a dissertation which I am almost 2 years away still from even starting. I recently reviewed a paper on tonal languages called a Formal Functional Theory of Tone by Myers and Tsay. It is part of a trend in phonology lately to make phonetic facts explicit parts of a formal, testable phonological theory (Boersma, Hayes, Steriade, etc.). I like the idea better than any other theory of tone I am yet aware of, though I have my doubts about the formalism, Optimality Theory, in its present form. This model had been developed for other parts of speech, but not yet for tone. Extending it to include tone is what Myers and Tsay did here. I am interested in intonation, and so I have dreamed of extending this model into intonational phonology. My dream dissertation would do this, but went one step further. It would ground the actions (such as lower voice box, tense vocal folds, push more air through larynx) in their neurological controls. It would do the same for how the changes in pitch are heard through the cochlea and passed up the central auditory pathway. I even had a title for the dissertation: Formal Functional Intonation: An Essay in Theoretical Neurology.

Sounds cool anyway.

I should note that I am in no way prepared to manage such an undertaking at this time. I guess that is what classes are for. Actually classes are often for learning why this is a dumb idea before you embark.

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