Books : reviews

Spencer Kelly.
Language and the Mind.
Great Courses. 2020

rating : 3 : worth reading
review : 23 January 2021

Explore the evolution of language and its development in each of us.

This is the course guidebook that accompanies the 24 lecture “Great Course” of the same name. It is essentially an abbreviated transcript of each lecture, some related reading, and some “questions to consider”. (I watched the lectures, which is what I am reviewing here, and am using the book simply as an aide-memoire.)

This is about language as a system in the mind, and beyond. So rather than delving into history and linguistics, it delves into evolution and the use of language as a social tool. This makes it nicely complementary to some of the other courses in this series, for example, the lectures by John McWhorter.

I particularly like the systems view. Kelly describes three axes of a systems model of language, covering mechanism, function, and levels of analysis. Each of these has components at different scales: both mechanism and function can be considered on evolutionary, historical, developmental and ‘moment to moment’ timescales; the levels of analysis are at biological, psychological and social scales, and these different levels interact in complex and different ways, within and between axes. So, for example, we get moment to moment speech production, the development of this capability as the person matures, and how the capability may have evolved; we get a description of biological processes in the brain as language is processed, and also use of language as a social tool.

There is a lot of interesting material here, and the three axes model provides a helpful unifying framework.