Cosma Shalizi on Ray Jackendoff

Cosma Shalizi reviews Foundations of Language: Brain, Meaning, Grammar, Evolution by Ray Jackendoff:

Still, since we’re all good materialists and mechanists these days, we have to suppose that language is implemented in the brain somehow, and it would be nice to know how. Put a little differently: my version of English has a certain structure to it; therefore there must be something in my mind, in my brain and its interaction with its environment, which corresponds to that structure, just as is true of my ability to throw a frisbee, cook qorma-e-behi, or find my way around downtown Ann Arbor. If there are various ways of describing the mathematical structure of my version of English, which there are, it would be nice to know which one most closely corresponded to the mental mechanisms involved. These could, of course, be totally idiosyncratic, but that would be very odd, and it seems more reasonable to assume that the way I implement English is very similar to the way other speakers of my dialect do. It’s a bigger leap, but it’s not unreasonable to assume that the way I implement my native language has got basically the same organization as the way my cousins in Tamil Nadu implement theirs, even though English and Tamil are not related languages.

Thus the enterprise of generative grammar: characterize the structure of human languages in ways which illuminate the mental mechanisms involved in its use. Jackendoff has devoted his professional life to this ambitious undertaking — in his book The Linguistics Wars, Randy Allen Harris describes him as “Chomsky’s conscience”, the guy who did the hard work of filling in the messy details needed to make Uncle Noam’s proposals actually work, nor has his commitment to generative grammar (as opposed to Chomsky) weakened. But Foundations of Language is not intended just as an incremental advance in generative grammar, or even as a summary of what has been achieved, but rather as a fairly significant reformulation and reorientation.

More here.