Language Unlimited: “Syntax is where the magic happens.”

“Syntax is where the magic happens. It takes the words we use to slice up our reality, and puts them together in infinitely varied ways.” — from Language Unlimited, by David Adger.

If I had to pick one paragraph as the thesis statement of this entire amazing book, I would pick the paragraph above. Read that paragraph again: it encapsulates what Adger describes and explains. In particular, what is the real essence of human language? How does it differ from animal communication? How does it differ from other human skills? What’s Noam Chomsky’s role in all this? How can a finite language be infinitely creative? Are there things that all languages do? Are there things that no languages do?

This is not light reading: you won’t be able to breeze through it. But it’s not a textbook either. There are no exercises, no problem sets. It won’t be a slog, it just requires some care and time. And if you don’t read too fast, you’ll appreciate the author’s sense of humor.

Although Adger doesn’t actually use the word recursion, that’s really the key to the whole thing. Language is basically like fractals. Syntax accomplishes recursion through embedding, as in the Boxer programming language and — tooting my own horn for a second — my masters thesis from 1969, “The Development of Embeddings in the Speech of Young Children.” I suppose that connection is one of the reasons Adger’s book resonated with me.

Also, Lynne Murphy’s brief but thorough review is well worth reading! But first you may want to read an excerpt from the actual book, to get a flavor not only of the writing but also of Adger’s use of examples:

Categories: Books, Linguistics