Vol. 5. No. 1 R-20 April 2001
Return to Table of Contents Return to Main Page

The Articulate Mammal: An Introduction to Psycholinguistics (4th ed.)

Jean Aitchison (1998)
London: Routledge
Pp. iii + 308
ISBN 7-5600-1927-7 (paper)
US $24.99

Recently, due to the great popularity of two books by MIT linguist Steven Pinker, [1] The Language Instinct and How the Mind Works, the field of psycholinguistics has received a lot of attention. This book, The Articulate Mammal, which first appeared in 1976 and is now in its fourth edition, has also contributed to a general interest in the subject. Aitchison, who is Rupert Murdock Professor of Language and Communication at Oxford University, begins the book with a cautionary note. She rightly points out that the field of psycholinguistics "is in many ways like the proverbial hydra--a monster with an endless number of heads: there seems no limit to the aspects of the subject that could be explored. This is a rather unsatisfactory state of affairs. As one researcher expressed it: 'When faced with the inevitable question, "What do psycholinguists do?," it is somehow quite unsatisfactory to have to reply, "Everything"'"(p. 2). [2]

In order to narrow the subject matter of psycholinguistics, Aitchison concentrates on three key areas in the book. The first area is what she calls the "acquisition problem," which pertains to the controversial question of whether humans pick up language because they are born furnished with particular linguistic knowledge or they acquire language because they are intelligent and skilled problem solvers. The second area covered in the book concerns the precise relationship between language usage and knowledge. The third subject discussed is the question of how speech is comprehended and produced. She intends to cover all of this by "considering four types of evidence: animal communication, child language, the language of normal adults, the speech of dysphasics" (p. 3).

In contrast to most introductory books on psycholinguistics written by psychologists, Aitchison states that her book is "an attempt to provide an introduction to the subject from the linguist's point of view--although inevitably and rightly, it includes accounts of work done by psychologists" (p. 2). Aitichison differentiates between the psychological and linguistic approaches to psycholinguistics by their methodology. Psychologists use the traditional scientific method, that is, they test hypotheses by means of carefully controlled experiments. Linguists test hypotheses mostly by checking them against instinctive utterances, and also generally believe that the methodology used by psychologists is at times too rigid and distorts results.

Chapter 1, "The Great Automatic Grammatizator," concerns one of the most contentious issues in psycholinguistics: the nature vs. nurture question about language acquisition. Aitchison presents the positions of both camps, as well as what Chomsky has said about the matter. In this chapter, she also makes some important and frequently overlooked distinctions about the term innate: "Unfortunately, the word 'innate' has given rise to a considerable amount of confusion. First, to call Chomsky an 'innatist' wrongly implies that those who disagree with him are 'non-innatists.' Yet his opponents have never asserted that nothing is innate. All human skills, even apparently unnatural ones, make use of innate predispositions. . . . The issue under discussion is whether an innate language exists independently of other innate inabilities" (p. 21). Aitchison also points out that innate to Chomsky does not mean "ready-made for use" but rather "genetically programmed" (p. 21). [-1-]

The next four chapters, "Animals that Try to Talk,""Grandmama's Teeth," "Predestinate Grooves," and "A Blueprint in the Brain," explore in detail how humans are pre-programmed for language. Her conclusions are that no animals share all the features of human language, that there is "hard biological evidence" (p. 261) that humans are innately programmed for language and that language is biologically controlled behavior, "following an inner 'time-clock' as it emerges and develops" (p. 65).

Aitchison's own position, which is very similar to, but not the same as Chomsky's, is that both camps in the nature/nurture controversy are correct. "Nature triggers off the behavior, and lays down the framework, but careful nurture is needed for it to reach its full potential. The dividing line between 'natural' and 'nurtured' behavior is by no means as clear cut as was once thought. In other words, language is 'natural' behavior--but it still has to be carefully 'nurtured' in order to reach its full potential. In modern terminology, the behavior is innately guided" (p. 90).

In chapters 6 and 7, "Chattering Children" and "Puzzling it Out," Aitchison writes about a central matter in psycholinguistics, the problem of exactly how children learn language and why they progress so quickly while learning it. She presents evidence which she believes proves that children "automatically 'know' that language is rule-governed, and that they seem to make a succession of hypotheses about rules underlying the speech they hear around them" (p. 134).

Chapter 8, "Celestial Unintelligibility," is an explanation, using a story about interstellar travel and the planet Jupiter, of why Chomsky changed his beliefs regarding transformational grammar as well as details about his current theory, which involves parameters and modularity. Chapter 10, "The White Elephant Problem," describes "attempts by psycholinguists in the 1960s and 1970s to test whether a transformational grammar was used in the comprehension and production of speech" (p. 262).

Chapters 10 and 11, "The Case of the Missing Fingerprint," and "The Cheshire Cat's Grin," discuss the extremely complex subject of speech, how humans plan and produce it, and how we understand it. Among the areas that Aitchison talks about are the role of the lexicon, the "perceptual strategy" approach, the "slips of the tongue" phenomenon and speech errors, dysphasia, and how words and syntax are planned and assembled.

The final chapter, "Banker's Clerk or Hippopotamus?," touches on the future of psycholinguistics. Aitchison gives a brief review of the main themes of her book and outlines future prospects in the three areas on which her book has concentrated: acquisition, the relationship between language use and knowledge, and speech production and comprehension. She ends the book on an optimistic note, comparing psycholinguistics today to "a flourishing tree, whose branches shoot out in all directions, and which is likely to get taller and stronger still" (p. 265). This statement is in contrast to the situation 50 years ago, when she claims that psycholinguistics was "a seedling compared to the more mature areas of linguistics and psychology" (p. 265). [-2-]

All in all, this book is a helpful and informative general introduction to psycholinguistics, presupposing no prior knowledge of the subject. Aitchison's exposition is extremely clear and concise, as she has the rare ability to reduce complicated and technical topics to simple sentences. This is a talent not to be scoffed at, for the book certainly drives home what a strange, quirky, complex, and frequently illogical or counterintuitive thing language learning is, and how difficult it is to capture aspects of it in succinct and accurate sentences. (As an ex-philosophy major it greatly interested me that many of the tumultuous issues described by Aitchison in this book as currently engaging psycholinguistics ultimately turn upon conceptual interpretations of problems that were first raised by rationalist and empiricist philosophers in the 17th century).

Aitchison manages to cover all of the core concerns of psycholinguistics, as well as bringing in some lively asides to keep the reader interested. For example, I have been long interested in the topic of sex differences in the brain and the implications for language learning; in her chapter on the biological evidence for innate language capacity, Aitchison mentions that these differences might be explained by "variations that probably reflect different hormonal influences on developing brains" (p. 64), an intriguing point that I had not come across before.

Her story in chapter 8 about Jupiter's stick insects is a bit forced, but it does accomplish its purpose of explaining precisely why Chomsky changed his position regarding transformational grammar. I found her brief discussions of Chomsky's parameter setting theory and recent work on optimality theory by Archangeli and Langendoen to be so fascinating that it has made me go out to read more on the subject. [3]

End Notes

[1] Editor's note: For more on Steven Pinker and his work, see: http://www.mit.edu/~pinker/

[2] Aitchison is quoting from Maclay (1973).

[3] See, for instance, Chomsky (1995) and Archangeli & Langendoen (1997).


Archangeli, D. & Langendoen, D. T. (1997). Optimality theory: An overview. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Chomsky, N. (1995). The minimalist program. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Maclay, H. (1973). Linguistics and psycholinguistics. In B.J. Kachru (Ed.). Issues in Linguistics. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Pinker, S. (1994). The language instinct. New York: HarperCollins.

Pinker, S. (1997). How the mind works. New York: Norton.

Ronald Gray
Beijing Language and Culture University, Beijing, China

© Copyright rests with authors. Please cite TESL-EJ appropriately.

Editor's Note: Dashed numbers in square brackets indicate the end of each page for purposes of citation..

Return to Table of Contents Return to Top Return to Main Page