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Linguistic Society of America

Psycholinguistics: A New Approach by David McNeill


Review by: Samuel Fillenbaum
Language, Vol. 66, No. 2 (Jun., 1990), pp. 388-392
Published by: Linguistic Society of America
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388

LANGUAGE, VOLUME66, NUMBER 2 (1990)

SIDMAN, RICHARD, and MURRAY SIDMAN. 1965. Neuroanatomy: A programmed text.

Boston: Little, Brown.


Program in Speech and Hearing Sciences
City University of New York
Box 365, Graduate Center
33 West 42nd Street
New York, NY 10036-8099

[Received 20 November 1989.]

Psycholinguistics: A new approach. By DAVIDMCNEILL.New York: Harper &

Row, 1987. Pp. xi, 290.


Reviewed by SAMUELFILLENBAUM,
University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

'Psycholinguisticsis the science of how individualthinking,which is private


and flows continuously, relates to a social institution that is public and the
productof tradition-that is, languageitself (2). The task McNeill sets himself
is to lay out (what he regards as) the basics of that science, of the dialectic
between individualand socially constituted sources of value. This synthesis
he hopes to accomplish by bringingtogether a synchronic viewpoint with a
diachronic one. The spontaneous gestures that accompany speech are to be
the principalsource of informationabout mentalprocesses duringthinkingand
speaking. In McN's words, 'by examininggesture productionwe can see in
comparativelypure, undistortedform, the mental operations of speakers as
they utilize the linguisticcode' (210). Indeed, his account of speech-concurrent
gestures and the use of gesture data to infer 'intrinsicvalue' representswhat
is most importantand distinctive about this book.
Let me say somethingabout the generallayout of the book. An introductory
chapter sketches out the two approaches to language that he proposes to
unify-the Saussureanlinguisticparadigmand the Vygotskianpsychology of
language approach-and indicates the crucial role that gesture data will play
in that endeavor. This is followed by a chapteron the 'Linguisticsof language',
which seeks 'to present modernlinguistics in terms of Saussure's conception
of languageas a synchronic-contrastivenetwork of symbols' (22). Then there
are two chapterson the 'Contextof speaking',responsive to the fact that what
is said is always situated and context-sensitive. The first of these deals with
the social context of speaking,and considersideas originatingfrom philosophy
and sociology, rangingfrom a considerationof aspects of speech-act theory
(in particularlookingat the notion of illocutionaryforce) to an account of turntaking. The second of these chapters deals with the informationalcontext of
speakingand is principallyconcernedwith mattersof cohesiveness and deixis
or pointing, where 'cohesiveness connects sentences together, whereas pointing connects sentences to a vantage point' (52). These first four chaptersprovide a settingfor Ch. 5, 'Producingand understandingspeech', which, together
with Ch. 7, on 'Gestures and signs', constitutes the main content and contribution of the book. I want to make one or two commentson these background
chapters. While much that is presented here is of importancein its own right

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REVIEWS

389

and revealingly and pertinently discussed-see, e.g., the section on illocutionaryforce or the discussionof deixis-there is also muchthatis very difficult
and mysterious, especially in the chapter on the 'Linguistics of Language'
(Montague grammar,for instance, is presented in a page or so), or that is
unmotivated(at least to me); see, e.g., the couple of pages on 'experimentson
pronouninterpretation'.Equallyimportant,I could not see any close connection between most of what is discussed in these chapters and the content of
the central chapters (5 and 7), to be consideredpresently.
Ch. 6 ('Linguistic determinism:The Whorfianhypothesis') is a fascinating
but in the end inconclusive mix of critical analysis of experimentalwork and
suggestions as to conditionsthat need to be met for work really to be relevant
to the issue (which conditionshave hardlyever been met), togetherwith some
very open-ended speculations regarding 'examples of linguistic forms that
(might) embody cultural models'-where, of course, the critical word is
'might'. All this comes with some brilliantif tangentialcommentsusing a 'Goethean hypothesis' to try to account for the sequence of color categories discovered by Berlin & Kay (1969),viz., that this sequence 'correspondsto how
the colors of objects changewhen the intensityof lightfallingon them changes'
(188). Notwithstandingthe rationale provided in the first paragraphof this
chapter, I am still not sure of its role or place in the book, for all its intrinsic
interest.
The last chapter('Action, thoughtand language')asks, again, why linguistic
actions are carried out simultaneouslywith two different forms of thought:
'Why is imagistic thinkingupacked by syntactic thinking?'(251). McN offers
a numberof suggestions or 'reasons', but I think the central claim is that imagistic and syntactic thinkingmust be synthesized so as to make thinkingintersubjectiveand thus to make communicationpossible.
The linguistic act is a synthesis of the analogical(global and imagistic)and
the synthetic (segmented and linear). Ch. 5 asks how this 'synthesis of individually constituted(intrinsic)and socially constituted(purelinguistic)values'
(84) is accomplished.McN assumes that, with regardto 'internalpsychological
computations', productionand understandinginvolve virtuallythe same processes and so can be handledtogether, and that the 'referentialgestures that
spontaneously occur with speech' provide critical informationabout the 'internal structureof linguisticacts'.
As mentioned before, symbols have intrinsic value and linguistic or contrastive value; in addition,they 'are affectedby the contextualwhole' of which
they are part, and, centrallyfor McN, 'symbols have spontaneousgenerativity-the ability to occur without inputs that triggerthem' (84). As he puts it,
'spontaneityof inner speech symbols is the key to generativity,the ability of
surface sentences to occur withoutinputs. Thinkingis not the "input"to some
other process that evokes the inner speech symbol. Rather, the symbols of
inner speech are what, along with imagery, CONSTITUTE thinking'(100). In appropriate environments,the 'symbols of inner speech appear to be self-activating', it is not a matterof responses to inputs. Wordsthat are self-activating
McN calls 'smart' words: 'the hypothesis is that "smart" symbols tend to be

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390

LANGUAGE,VOLUME66, NUMBER 2 (1990)

inner speech symbols' (100). Smart words or symbols have two critical (and
defining)properties:(a) they are 'self-activatingin appropriateenvironments',
which requiresthat they be sensitive to thoughtpatternsnot yet linguistically
coded; and (b) they 'can select other symbols'. Smart symbols therefore are
doubly context-sensitive-sensitive 'to the evolving thought environmentnot
yet coded linguisticallyand to the potentiallinguisticenvironment'(100).
Above I have triedto use McN's own languageas much as possible for two
reasons. First, because I think that these ideas regardingthe spontaneity of
inner speech symbols and self activation and self organizationin speech are
central to his account, and second, because I am not secure enough in my
understandingof what he is getting at to attempt any substantialrephrasing.
Of the two properties characterizing'smart' words, the second-'sensitivity
to linguisticpotentialand ability to select other words'-has been considered
before in the frame notion (and its congeners), as McN notes. But the first'sensitivity to not yet categorizedimagisticthinking'-which is also absolutely
necessary to his account, has not been investigated,at least in any guise that
I know. Indeed, McN himself is hardput to find supportingevidence, and the
three experiments he does cite can hardly bear the interpretiveburden put
upon them. In effect, McN has two difficult, if related, tasks before him. He
needs to spell out much more fully what he means by 'self activatingin appropriate[nonlinguistic]environments',and, given such an elaborate and enriched account,he needs to indicatewhatkindof supportingevidence is already
available and especially what sorts of experimentsmightbe conductedto provide furtherrelevant evidence.
This is essential, because the notion of 'self activating symbols' is central
to the theoretical analysis he offers of the 'various majorphenomenaof psycholinguistics'. It is also important,critically,because he arguesthat the dominant class of models in currentpsycholinguistics,viz., information-processing
models, cannot 'explain or even formulateas a problemspontaneousgenerativity: the ability of linguistic structuresto take shape in speech production
without inputs that trigger them' (133). In McN's words, 'Information-processing [IP] models all PRESUPPOSE input from the outside. This input is not
explained by the model and, apartfrom triggering,it plays no role in the operations of the model (145) ... in all these theories there is necessarily a PRESUPPOSED ultimate input of "informationalor cognitive phenomena," that is
meaning or thought' (146). On McN's account, however, there is no sharp
separationof 'computationaloperationsfrom interpretation'.A smartsymbol
'selects and classifies an environmentof thinkingnot yet linguisticallycoded ... it also takes
in its environment,alteringitself as it altersthe environment... Whereasan IP "input"triggers
an operationbut does not furtherparticipatein it, an "appropriateenvironment"becomes
partof the mentaloperationcarriedout by the symbol.The environmentis the settingin which
the "smart" symbol self activates, but in turnthe environmentis alteredby the symbol and
the symbol is alteredby the environment'(147).

McN is surely exhibitinga basic problemthat faces IP models, namely, how


to articulatethe computationaland interpretiveaspects of the theory (and the
natureof the latter). But his own solution, which denies any such in-principle

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REVIEWS

391

separationor distinction, can only provide a viable alternativeif it can spell


out muchmorefully whatis entailedby the notionsof self activationandmutual
interactionbetween differentforms of thinking.
Finally, I turn to the issue of gestures (mainlypresentedin Ch. 7, but really
pervadingand permeatingthe book). Spontaneousgestures, movementsof the
hands and arms, are used by McN 'to open a second channel of observation
onto mental processes (the first being speech itself)', allowing us to 'see, in
comparativelypureundistortedform,the mentaloperationsof speakersas they
utilize the linguisticcode' (210). Why this privilegedstatus for gestures? McN
offers two arguments.First, gestures and sentences 'share a stage of development before speech takes on its socially constituted form' and contrastive
value-since gestures synchronizewith speech and anticipatespeech. This is
to establish 'the likelihood that gestures and speech have a common mental
source' (213). Second and crucially, 'gestures exhibit this stage without distortionbecause they lack direct social regulation'(210) ... The 'privilegedstatus
of gestures derives from the absence of social standardsfor the performance
of gestures' (213).
Why should gestures be so revealingwith regardto intrinsicvalue? Because
'gestures are non-arbitrarywith a naturalbasis in thinking... [Thus]in iconic
gestures the hands are nonarbitrarysymbols: shape and movement are determined by the meaningsthe hands convey' (16), and in metaphorics'gestures
exhibit images of abstractconcepts ... a picturablevehicle of a metaphorfor
the abstract meaning' (231) '... Not having a level of socially constituted pho-

nologicalor morphologicalstructure,iconic gesturescan directlyexhibitmental


operations' (214). Gestures, while concurrent with speech, show something
different from speech; they convey meaning in a 'fundamentallydifferent
form-global and synthetic rather than linear and segmented'. These global
and synthetic properties are the 'propertiesof the imagistic thinkingbehind
gestures' (19).
Obviously this is playing for very high stakes, and McN presents a rich,
valuable typology of gesture types (this descriptionand analysis of gestures is
followed up and further developed in McNeill et al. 1990. Just because the
stakes are so high, a numberof questions need to be raised. McN claims that
gesture data providea directaccess to the mentaloperationsof speakers,allow
us to get at the global imagisticunderlyingnatureof thought. But we have no
other independentaccess, and because of that lack there is always the danger
of readingback or translatingthe data of gesture simply into the data of underlying analogical,imagisticthought. Second, for the moment grantingMcN
his argument,the naturalquestion is: what do gesture data reveal in a general
SYSTEMATIC way about the nature of mind and intrinsic value? While McN
discusses with insighta (small)numberof examples, he does not really in any
explicit way lay out the generalyield of the gesturalwork-if gestures provide
us such a wonderfulwindow, what is the worldlike when we look throughthat
window? Finally, and perhapsmost important,McN argues that gestures can
provide the revealing illuminatingnondistortedinformationthey do 'because
they lack direct social regulation'.But if this is so, then how can the watcher

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392

LANGUAGE, VOLUME66, NUMBER 2 (1990)

or audience decode, or, better, understandthem? (The very inappropriateness


of the term 'decode' here signalsthe problem.)WhileMcN deals at length with
gestures from the point of view of the speaker or actor, he says very little
indeed on this from the perspective of the listener or watcher, and he says
almost nothing about how the latter can come to interpretspeech-concurrent
gestures appropriately.This problemdesperatelyneeds to be addressed.
This book is often difficult, even opaque. I have reservationsand concerns
about the way it phrases problemsand the solutions it offers. Nevertheless, I
think it well worth while to strugglewith it, because McNeill worries in different, unique ways about basic, importantmatters, such as the relation between thinkingandlanguage,andbecause he looks at sources of evidence about
languagethat are usuallyneglected, particularlygestures. He forces significant
issues to our attentionin a provocative way.
REFERENCES
BERLIN, BRENT, and PAUL KAY. 1969. Basic color terms: Their universality and evo-

lution. Berkeley: University of California Press.


MCNEILL, DAVID; ELENA T. LEVY; and LAURA L. PEDELTY. 1990. Speech and gesture.

Advances in Psychology: Cerebral control of speech and limb movements, ed. by


Geoffrey Hammond. New York: Elsevier North Holland, to appear.
L. L. ThurstonePsychometricLaboratory
CB #3270 Davie Hall
The Universityof North Carolina
ChapelHill, NC 27599-3270

[Received 12 January1990.]

BACH.State University of
Informallectures on formal semantics.By EMMON
New York Press, 1989. Pp. x, 150. Cloth $29.50, paper $9.95.
Reviewed by M. J. CRESSWELL,
University of Massachusetts and
Victoria University of Wellington

Those of us who work in model-theoreticsemantics are sometimes asked


what we do. Usually a few platitudeswill quicklyhalt furtherquestioning,but
for a serious enquirerone would like a little book that does not demand any
previous experience of logic, linguistics,or philosophy.EmmonBach has written such a book. Withinits short length we have a nontechnicalpresentation
of the syntax and semanticsof the first-orderpredicatecalculus, an indication
of how to supplementit by the additionof times and possible worlds, generalized quantifiersand other such devices; and a discussion of what sorts of
entities are needed in the semanticsof naturallanguage.
The book is based on a series of lectures given at TianjinNormalUniversity
in the summerof 1984.The first lecture, on the semanticsof standardpredicate
logic, will be quite straightforwardto those familiarwith the material.I suspect
that someone without a knowledgeof logic who would like a good understanding of these matterswould need to look at a more technical introduction,but
Bach is pretty explicit that the purpose of the lectures is motivational,and I

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