The following is a break-down of the contents which puts names to the main empirical studies and theoretical models which are described in each chapter. There is a large amount of other material contained in each chapter also. This summary is intended for psycholinguists who might want to know a little more about what exactly is covered in the book. Consequently, names, studies, and theories are sometimes mentioned in this summary without further elaboration.

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

Linguistics vs. Psycholinguistics; the role of experimentation; examples of empirical techniques (non-nutritive sucking in babies; cross-modal priming in adults).


Chapter 2: Babies, Birth, and Language

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

The in utero environment of the baby; Mehler et al.'s non-nutritive sucking experiments showing language-specific sensitivity to prosody; DeCasper et al.'s studies showing postnatal preferences for pre-natal stimulation, and in utero studies showing equivalent sensitivities; the Bertoncini et al. experiments showing babies' sensitivity to syllabic structure; the relationship between prosodic and syllabic structure. Why sensitivity to these structures is paramount.


Chapter 3: Chinchillas Do It Too

Learning to discriminate between different sounds

Voice onset time. The McGurk effect; categorical perception in adults; categorical perception in infants; categorical perception in other species; categorical perception and rate adaptation (in adults, infants, and other species).


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

Learning about words, and how to combine them

Rate of vocabulary growth; correlations with brain development; acquisition of meaning; some of the Markman studies (the whole-object and the mutual exclusivity assumptions); relationship to associative learning; differential acquisition of verbs and nouns; some of the Naigles and Gleitman studies; the relationship between verb learning and syntactic acquisition; syntactic acquisition and linguistic rules; the learnability paradox and the importance of learning about constituent structure; issues of innateness (Pinker vs. Gleitman); a role for prosody (some of the Morgan studies); and finally, the creative aspects of acquisition and phenomena such as creolization.


Chapter 5: Organizing the Dictionary

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

Adult vocabulary size; the role of the syllable in lexical access; the Mehler et al. and Cutler et al. studies on English and French; the syllable as the domain for co-articulation; the Marslen-Wilson and Warren study on co-articulation and lexical activation; and finally, reconciling the syllable data and the co-articulation data.


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

Accessing the mental representations of words

Morphology; Marslen-Wilson's cohort model (with a brief nod towards Morton's logogen model); accessing words before their acoustic offset; "activation" as a better metaphor than "access"; cross-modal priming and the Zwitserlood study on parallel activation; frequency effects; the role of acoustic mismatch; context-sensitivity and phonological assimilation (Gaskell's study); theoretical accounts of such context-sensitivity (phonological rules vs. a version of distributed context-sensitive representations); activation of multiple meanings; the Swinney and Tanenhaus et al. studies; and finally, the Shillcock and Tabossi studies demonstrating access of spurious words (the 'bone' in 'trombone' and the 'nudist' in 'the new discovery').


Chapter 7: Time Flies Like An Arrow

Understanding sentences I: Coping with ambiguity

The fact that ambiguity passes by unnoticed (and that there are 180+ interpretations of the chapter title); the role of grammar as a set of conventions; the language-specificity of grammar; syntactic ambiguity; the obligatory captions, newspaper headlines, and church bulletins (!); examples of 'minimal attachment' and 'right association'; alternative hypotheses regarding 'parsing preferences'; the role of context in children's understanding of sentential structure (the Crain studies); the equivalent role in adults (the Altmann et al. studies); 'constraint-satisfaction' accounts; a role for prosody; and finally, on the psychological reality of uninterpreted syntactic structure.


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 pronouns; the distributional and referential properties of reflexives and non-reflexives; implications for 'universals' and innateness; interrogative and relative pronouns; gaps; the Tanenhaus and Boland studies on gap-filling and thematic role assignment; (language-specific) constraints on extraction; implications for the role of grammatical knowledge in theories of processing.


Chapter 9: On the Meaning of Meaning

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

The meaning of words as knowledge of the situations in which that word applies; meaning as the accumulation of experience; meaning as neural activity; the meaning of sentences; the 'language of thought'; Johnson-Laird's mental models (and Garnham's data); mental models as analogs of the real world; mental models as neural activity; building mental models (or causing the appropriate neural activity); reference to the model; inference; the role of prediction and expectation; prediction and meaning; and finally, on whether we could ever tell whether an alien truly 'understood'.


Chapter 10: Exercising the Vocal Organs

How we produce words and sentences

What 'drives' a conversation; conversational turn-taking; cues to the change-of-turn (the Beattie and Cutler study) ; the given-new structure of utterances; reference and choice of referring expression; speech errors; implications of such errors for how syntax (specifically, word order) is realized in production; speech errors and implications for the 'units of production'; the Baars et al. elicitation study; stages in production (a synthesis of the Garrett/Dell/Levelt models); how elements can be queued prior to their utterance (and how patterns of neural activity might encode these queues); implications of pause patterns for production (the Ford and Gee & Grosjean analyses); and finally, the more recent production priming experiments of Schriefers/Meyer/Levelt.


Chapter 11: The Written Word

Writing systems, reading, eye movements, and Socrates

Evolution of writing systems; hieroglyphics, syllabaries, and alphabetic systems; children's learning; phonics vs. whole-word instruction (or 'look-and-say'); associating meaning with orthography; the dual-route model; van Orden's studies on phonological mediation; frequency effects; the relationship between child and adult reading; eye movements; language-specific facts about saccades and fixations; saccadic suppression; perceptual span; the Rayner and McConkie studies; optimum viewing position and the O'Regan studies; and finally, literacy and phonological awareness (the Morais studies).


Chapter 12: When It All Goes Wrong

Disorders of Language

Causes of brain damage; localization of language function within the brain; aphasias; pure word deafness and blindness; the associated neural deficits; anomias; category-specific deficits; disorders of syntactic comprehension and production; dissociations between the two and implications for how syntax is realized during production; jargonaphasia; acquired dyslexias; deep dyslexia; phonological dyslexia; surface dyslexia; dysgraphia. Developmental dyslexia; phonological awareness and dyslexia; Olson's intervention studies; possible cognitive deficits underlying developmental dyslexia; specific language impairment (SLI); the Gopnik studies (and refutations); and finally, other 'impairments' including stuttering and disordered hearing (with associated problems in articulation).


Chapter 13: Wiring-up a Brain

Artificial brains and language learning

Basic neural function; the structure of artificial neural networks; propagation of activation in a neural network; the relevance of the initial randomization of weights; back-propagation of error; Jordan and Elman's simple recurrent networks; Elman's simulations showing emergent categories; the role of prediction and why it 'works'; the relationship between Elman's work and (1) the nature of meaning (Chapter 9); (2) thematic role assignment (Chapter 8); (3) constraint-satisfaction and syntactic ambiguity resolution (Chapter 7); (4) the Cohort model, and context-sensitive effects of acoustic mismatch (Chapter 6); and (5) the acquisition of meaning (Chapter 4); and finally, limitations on generalizability.


Chapter 14: The Descent from Babel

Not all languages were created equal

How languages evolved; the language 'family tree'; linguistic diversification and migration; selective examples of differences between languages (in grammar, phonology, and orthography); and finally, dying languages (and how some, e.g. Hebrew, have been preserved)



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.



The Ascent of Babel is available now. For ordering information, or an inspection copy, contact Oxford University Press, whose blurb about the book can be found here.

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ęCopyright Gerry Altmann, 1997.