Alistair Knott, "Sensorimotor Cognition and Natural Language Syntax" (MIT Press, 2012)


When big claims are made about neurolinguistics, there often seems to be a subtext that the latest findings will render traditional linguistics obsolete. These claims are often met with appropriate scepticism by experienced linguistics practitioners, either because experience tells them not to believe the hype, or (in a few cases) because they were already obsolete and were managing just fine anyway. Alistair Knott's claim in Sensorimotor Cognition and Natural Language Syntax (MIT Press, 2012) is extremely atypical: it is that at least one strand of traditional linguistics, namely Minimalist syntax, is in fact more relevant than even its defenders believed. He argues that the necessary constituent steps of a reach-to-grasp action are, collectively, isomorphic to the syntactic operations that are required to describe the action with a sentence. Although this particular case is the focus of his discussion here, he also believes that the parallelism is more widespread, and that in fact Minimalism may have articulated a profound and general truth about the way human cognition works. To defend the parallel, this book surveys a wealth of research, covering both the neuropsychology of the relevant sensorimotor processes and the motivation for the linguistic analysis. In our interview, we discuss some of the particular challenges of positing this interdisciplinary synthesis, and look (perhaps optimistically) at the potential for the resolution of long-standing debates about the nature of the human syntactic capability.

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