Summary of Foundations of Language by Ray Jackendoff
Ray Jackendoff has been thinking hard about language for 40 years. In this book, he shares his insights with readers who are willing to think hard about the issues he raises.
What Foundations of Language isand is not
This is not a “fun” language book. You will not find obscure origins of funny words, nor odd bits of English grammar. It is also not an easy book. Yet it is not quite a textbook (for example, there are no exercises). Foundations of Language is thought-provoking, enlightening, difficult and interesting. But it is not for the faint of heart. In fact, one of Jackendoff’s first issues is showing that linguistics is a complex and difficult field, and that there is a great deal of it to be learned. Yet people with no training at all in linguistics sometimes feel qualified to make statements about it, in ways they never would about (say) physics or mechanical engineering.
What is the audience for Foundations of Language?
Although I cannot say for sure, I imagine that Ray Jackendoff has two audiences in mind: First, linguists, and second, the interested lay person. I am not a linguist, but I believe that, to linguists, Foundations of Language will be part of an ongoing debate about how linguistics works, how syntax, semantics and phonology relate to each other, and so on. To the lay person (e.g. me) Foundations of Language is a good (if deep) introduction to many issues of language and linguistics, starting with how amazingly complex language is, and how much is known about how we use it.
What is Foundations of Language about?
Foundations of Language is subtitled Brain, Meaning, Grammar, Evolution and that subtitle tells some of what the book is about. How is language set up in the brain? How do words, phrases and sentences mean things? How does grammar work? and How did language evolve? The main linguistic areas are syntax (loosely, grammar), phonology (how things sound), and semantics (meaning). Each of these is treated in considerable detail.
Jackendoff rails against the syntactocentric views of linguistics that have dominated the field at least since Chomsky started writing, half a century ago, and places much more emphasis on the interrelations between syntax, semantics and phonology. But Jackendoff is also concerned with broader issues. Foundations of Language is divided into three parts: Psychological and biological foundations, Architectural foundations, and Semantic and contextual foundations. Even from the titles of these parts, it is clear that Jackendoff is concerned with how linguistics relates to other fields, including psychology, biology and philosophy.
Who wrote Foundations of Language?
Ray Jackendoff is the Seth Merrin professor of philosophy at Tufts University. He got his PhD from MIT in 1969. He is also a classical clarinetist.
Summary of Foundations of Language
If you like thinking about language, and aren’t afraid of challenging books, this is for you!