Sensorimotor Cognition and Natural Language Syntax
Alistair Knott is Associate Professor in the Department of Computer Science at the University of Otago, New Zealand.
A proposal that the syntactic structure of a sentence reporting a concrete episode in the world can be interpreted as a description of the sensorimotor processes involved in experiencing that episode.
How is the information we gather from the world through our sensory and motor apparatus converted into language? It is obvious that there is an interface between language and sensorimotor cognition because we can talk about what we see and do. In this book, Alistair Knott argues that this interface is more direct than commonly assumed. He proposes that the syntax of a concrete sentence—a sentence that reports a direct sensorimotor experience—closely reflects the sensorimotor processes involved in the experience. In fact, he argues, the syntax of the sentence can be interpreted as a description of these sensorimotor processes.
Knott focuses on a simple concrete episode: a man grabbing a cup. He presents detailed models of the sensorimotor processes involved in experiencing this episode (drawing on research in psychology and neuroscience) and of the syntactic structure of the transitive sentence reporting the episode (drawing on Chomskyan Minimalist syntactic theory). He proposes that these two independently motivated models are closely linked—that the logical form of the sentence can be given a detailed sensorimotor characterization and that, more generally, many of the syntactic principles understood in Minimalism as encoding innate linguistic knowledge are actually sensorimotor in origin.
Knott's sensorimotor reinterpretation of Chomsky opens the way for a psychological account of sentence processing that is compatible with a Chomskyan account of syntactic universals, suggesting a way to reconcile Chomsky's theory of syntax with the empiricist models of language often viewed as Mimimalism's competitors.
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