I'm Gerry Altmann, and I've been asked to take a few minutes to describe my book The Ascent of Babel for you. - Primarily, it's a book about the human mind, and how the mind works with respect to language. In effect - the book asks 'how does the mind do language?'

It is this emphasis on how the mind works that means that The Ascent of Babel is not a linguistics book. The difference between a linguist and a psycholinguist, broadly speaking, is that linguists are generally interested in language independently of the mind - the thing that produces and comprehends that language. They are interested in things like grammar and syntax, in the ways in which the words of a language can be constructed from smaller parts ('smaller', for instance, is composed of 'small' and 'er'). They are interested in which sounds one language may use that may not be used in another, or how the grammar of one language may differ from the grammar of another. A psycholinguist, on the other hand, is more interested in the mental processes that cause language to be turned into meaning, and meaning into language.

I chose the title The Ascent of Babel for a number of reasons. The story behind the Tower of Babel is well-known, and has come to represent the diversity of language. But the ascent of Babel symbolises different things. It symbolises the quest for knowledge (which was, in part, why the Tower of Babel was built in the first place). So it symbolises a kind of intellectual ascent. But the ascent also symbolises the ascent that babies embark on from birth onwards, as they ascend to adult language use. In fact, an important part of this book is the emphasis on how babies learn about language, even before they're born, and how children learn language, both spoken and written. - The Tower of Babel also symbolises the way in which language is built upwards - the foundations are cast in sound, and the summit is cast in meaning. In between are words and sentences.

The reason I wanted to write this book was that I was frustrated at the fact that, with one exception, there are no books about mind and language that can be read by a non-specialist reader. Our ability to speak to one another - to use speech and writing to enable others to see what we are thinking - to enable others, in effect, to see into our minds - is quite extraordinary. Without language, how could ideas ever be passed from one individual to another? How could cultures develop? In many respects, language is the measure by which we judge ourselves human.

Steven Pinker's excellent book The Language Instinct, was immensely popular in part because it was the first to highlight the enormity of what it is that we can do with language. But although it explained what we do with language, it didn't really explain how we do it - how the mind does it.

The Ascent of Babel deals with all the major topics in psycholinguistics, starting off with babies.

We've all heard anecdotes about newborn babies recognizing the tune to Neighbours simply because their mother, while still pregnant, used to watch it. But babies are in fact sensitive to much more - to the tunes even of their maternal language - a baby born to an English mother will be sensitive to the difference between the tunes of English and Australian, or English and Hindi. That baby will also be sensitive to the tunes that are specific to its mother - the melody that accompanies an individual's speech is as unique as a fingerprint, and babies learn that melody whilst still in the uterus.

From babies, the book moves on to children, and how they learn about words and the ways in which to string words together. Sometimes, my son, when he was aged between two and two and a half, would say something that would just stop me in my tracks - where on earth had he learned to say that? Why would he call a car 'car', a bike 'bike', a truck 'truck', and a tractor 'ooh-da-loo-da-loo'? Why, when he wanted something, did he point at it and repeat over and over again 'yeah'. It might be obvious to some, but why, and how, did he learn to do that? What's so extraordinary about children is that they don't learn by imitation, they learn by creation - they create novel uses for the language they hear.

From children, the book goes on to consider adults - how they represent and store information about the 70,000 or so words that they each know; how they use grammar, and why sometimes they don't.

Perhaps the most important chapter in the book is the one on meaning. It demonstrates how meaning can reside in a bunch of nerve cells. It demonstrates how meaning and understanding are simply neural reactions that have evolved through the individual's experience, as a child, of language and of the world in which that language is used. Exactly how those reactions evolve in response to all that experience is described in that chapter, and also in a later chapter on how artificial neurons, simulated on a computer, can learn language.

There are other chapters also on how, instead of turning sound into meaning, the mind turns meaning into sound - that is, on how we produce language as we speak it. Surprisingly, we find out there that instead of choosing the words we want to use, and then figuring out what order to put them in, we figure out an order to put them in before we choose them! It sounds bizarre and paradoxical, but that's true of so many things about the way the mind works.

There are also chapters on reading, with considerable emphasis on how children learn to read, and on language disorders - the different kinds of disorder that occur following brain damage, or during a child's development. There is an extensive section on dyslexia, for instance.

The final chapter in the book is about how languages may have evolved, how languages may differ, and how languages may die. Except for a handful of the world's languages, the other 5000 or so are under threat of extinction. Paradoxically, because of things like books... and of course television. The desire to communicate is so strong that anything that may prevent communication, such as a different language, is at risk.

So that's the book. I hope this brief tape will have given you a feel for what this book is about, why I wrote it, and why I think one doesn't need to be a student of psychology, or a student of linguistics, to find the subject as fascinating as I do.

Thank you for listening.

Copyright Gerry Altmann, 1997.



In the Beginning

On the nature of the ascent

A brief overview of "the ascent" and what it symbolises. A summary of the content of subsequent chapters.

Chapter 1: Looking Towards Babel

Introducing the mysteries of Psycholinguistics

Introduction. The distinction between Linguistics and Psycholinguistics. Discussion of the empirical and theoretical tools. In short, addressing the question: What's so interesting about our ability to understand and produce language?


Chapter 2: Babies, Birth, and Language

What babies learn about language, even before they're born

The in utero environment and what can be learned there. Newborns' sensitivities to aspects of speech and intonation. Could this sensitivity be innate? Discussion of some of the studies showing in utero learning of language-specific phenomena, and some of the studies with newborns showing their sensitivity to syllables. Why such sensitivity is so fundamental to the acquisition of the language.


Chapter 3: Chinchillas Do It Too

Learning to discriminate between different sounds

Infants can discriminate between individual sounds, even though the physical differences are so small. But adults can discriminate only those differences that are relevant to their specific language (so Japanese have different sensitivities to English). What about babies? They also discriminate only certain differences, but it's as if they know about all possible languages. Could this be innate? Probably not, as chinchillas can do it also. The fact that newborns can also correct for rate of speech is also discussed.


Chapter 4: Words, and What We Learn To Do With Them

Learning about words, and how to combine them

Identifying the sounds of the language is a prelude to associating those sounds with meaning; learning about words. Some statistics on comprehension/production vocabularies. Acquisition of knowledge about different word types. Learning meaning, and the importance of context. How do we, as young children, associate labels (i.e. words) with these different contexts? The implications for the acquisition of Grammar. Chomsky and Pinker's views on innate knowledge. What exactly constitutes innate knowledge? An alternative proposal is based on prosody and intonation (cf. Ch. 2). Discussion of the fact that infants don't simply learn, but create language (with discussion of pidgin and creole languages, and the critical period for language acquisition). This is the final chapter devoted to language acquisition.


Chapter 5: Organizing the Dictionary

Phonemes, syllables, and other ways of looking up words.

How is the mental dictionary organized? How is any dictionary organized (e.g. alphabetic, rhyming, or Chinese)? Do we first interpret the sounds as sequences of phonemes and then look these up? Do we first interpret them as syllables? What is the "currency" of lexical look-up? What is the relevance of co-articulation? If differences in the written language require different kinds of dictionary, what about differences in spoken language? Do French speakers use a different kind of dictionary to English speakers? How could we know?


Chapter 6: Words, and How We (Eventually) Find Them

Accessing the mental representations of words

Assuming we can "get into" the mental dictionary, how does the search process proceed? When we go down a written page looking for a word, we reject all the other words without reading their entries, but is the mental search similar? Discussion of the evidence supposing that the entries of "neighbouring" words are accessed. Discussion of words having more than one meaning (e.g. "bank"), and how all meanings are accessed irrespective of whether they are appropriate in the context. Discussion of how in a word like "rampart", we access "ram" "ramp" and "part" (and possible even "am" "amp", "pa" and "art"!). How do we know this? What are the implications for the amount of work we perform in recognizing the intended words? And what are the implications of all this for how we process sentences? A puzzle that is left for Chapter 13 is: What might the "entry" for a word actually be? How could it be represented in the brain?


Chapter 7: Time Flies Like An Arrow

Understanding sentences I: Coping with ambiguity

How does the meaning of a sentence depend on the meanings of the words in the sentence? How do we extract this meaning? What happens when the sentence contains ambiguous words? What is the status of the Linguists' grammar? How do we go about finding out how we resolve ambiguity, and what the psychological status of "syntax" really is? Why is "the lecturer told the student that she should have listened to to repeat the question" so difficult to understand? Discussion of eye movement studies, and other techniques for understanding the psychological processes underlying sentence processing. Discussion of the role of intonation.


Chapter 8: Who's Doing What, And To Whom

Understanding sentences II: Identifying who's being talked about, what they're doing, and who they're doing it to.

Understanding sentences requires that we identify who's being talked about, what they're doing, and who they're doing it to. But how do we identify the characters? What's the difference in meaning between "the cat" and "it"? What are pronouns for? What do they mean? Why is it that there are restrictions on their meaning? Why do the same restrictions occur in every language? And once we've identified the characters being described, at what point do we assign them their respective roles? Do we wait until the sentence unambiguously tells us (as sentences generally do) which role should be assigned to which character? Or do we jump the gun and assign roles to the different characters even before we know who to assign them to? And how do we determine this experimentally?


Chapter 9: On the Meaning of Meaning

The concepts associated with "understanding" and "meaning".

Sentences have meaning, as do words, although of a different kind. So what exactly does a sentence mean? And what's in the brain? How could meaning be represented in neurones? Discussion of the concept that the meaning of a word is simply a representation of the context in which that word can occur. And what about the meanings not of words, but of sentences? And how is this kind of meaning represented in the structures of the brain? Finally, consideration of the relationship between prediction and meaning allows us to return full-circle to issues in learning.


Chapter 10: Exercising the Vocal Organs

How we produce words and sentences

So far, we've gone from sound to meaning, but what about the other way around? The errors we make when speaking, such as "spoonerisms" and "malapropisms", can tell us a lot about how we plan, and execute, a spoken sentence. Why does it tell us so much? And what does it tell us? Why is our understanding of how we produce language so very different from our understanding of how we understand language? Why is it not simply the same process in reverse? What does the production sequence look like, and how might it come about in the brain?


Chapter 11: The Written Word

Writing systems, reading, eye movements, and Socrates

This chapter examines the differences between spoken and written language, and the implications for the mechanisms that underlie our ability to read. The alphabet is basically a phonetic spelling, so do we simply convert what we see into something like what we hear? What are the implications of irregular spellings? How do we learn to read? Are all languages the same? Can they be learned in the same way? What do the eyes do during normal reading? Do properties of the spoken word influence the reading of the written word? Do properties of the written word influence the way we hear words? Literacy, and its influence on the perception of speech. And finally, what Socrates had to say about writing...


Chapter 12: When It All Goes Wrong

Disorders of Language

Some speech errors are normal, but others are the result of a breakdown in normal processing. Some are errors of comprehension, others of production. Discussion of different kinds of aphasias. Discussion of the different types of dyslexia (developmental and acquired), and some of the properties of a language like English, as opposed to a language like Italian, that makes it particularly hard for certain kinds of dyslexic. And finally, other disorders of language.


Chapter 13: Wiring-up a Brain

Artificial brains and language learning

How could something looking like a brain learn language? Basic introduction to how neural networks can encode representations and manipulate them. How learning proceeds. Simple networks, whose task (i.e. "innate program") is simply to predict what is going to happen next, can learn about language, and develop sensitivity to syllables, different types of words, and so on. This chapter "wraps up" many of the concepts introduced in the earlier chapters, showing how something built from the same building blocks as a human brain, could learn much that is relevant about language.


Chapter 14: The Descent from Babel

Not all languages were created equal

A final collection of (selective) facts about differences between languages. How languages may have evolved, and where they're heading. And a final word on psycholinguistics.



Further Reading

For each chapter, references are provided to (i) general non-specialist reading, (ii) the academic articles describing key findings mentioned in the chapter, and (iii) academic articles (or collections) describing other material relevant to the chapter.


A more technical break-down, intended for psycholinguists who want to know a little more about the detailed content of each chapter can be read

If you spot an error in the book, please contact me. I've so far discovered two.

The Ascent of Babel is now available. For ordering information (UK and Europe), contact
Oxford University Press, or read their blurb; Orders and enquiries from the USA should be directed to OUP USA, from whose pages the book can be ordered directly. Their blurb is here.

The book can be bought online from several other locations, including Amazon, Blackwells, and The Book Place.

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Text and graphic Copyright Gerry Altmann, 1996.