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The Human Nature Review Human Nature Review  2002 Volume 2: 277-278 ( 9 July )
URL of this document http://human-nature.com/nibbs/02/dowker.html

Book Review

Language and Thought: Interdisciplinary Themes
edited by Peter Carruthers and Jill Boucher. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press,1998.

Reviewed by Ann Dowker, Department of Experimental Psychology, University of Oxford, United Kingdom.

This book is an interdisciplinary collection of essays by psychologists (e.g. Susan Goldin-Meadow and Josef Perner), linguists (e.g. Dan Sperber and Deirdre Wilson) and philosophers (e.g. Daniel Dennett and Gabriel Segal). All of the essays deal in some way with the relationships between language and thought. The book is divided into three parts: one dealing with "Language, development and evolution"; one dealing with "Language, reasoning and concepts"; and one with "Language and conscious reasoning". Each part contains contributions from psychologists, linguists and philosophers.

To me, and probably to most readers of this journal, the most interesting essays are those which deal with psychology: especially those that deal with possible dissociations between language and cognition in atypical populations. These essays appear to converge in indicating that language and cognition have the potential for independence, but interact to a considerable degree in people with 'normal' cognitive and linguistic functions. Jill Boucher's chapter on "The pre-requisites for language acquisition: evidence from cases of anomalous language development" carries a welcome recommendation for more analytic, componential studies of cognition. She discusses the implications of specific language impairments and of the relative sparing of language in people with general cognitive impairments. She concludes (p. 74) that the evidence "argues against... strong theories of either the independence, or the inseparability, of language and thought" and that in order to make sense of the evidence we must analyze the relationships between different subcomponents of language and different subcomponents of cognition.

Susan Goldin-Meadow and Ming-Yu Zheng discuss cognitive development in one language-delayed group: deaf children of non-signing parents. Such children, in the near-absence of a language model, develop their own gestural communication systems, which express important concepts such as the nature and direction of motion events. In these cases, thought seems to drive language-like expressions, rather than vice versa. However, language models do seem to have some influence on the ways in which such concepts are represented.

Rosemary Varley reports on the performance of two adults with global aphasia on tasks involving causal reasoning, theory of mind, and nonverbal logical narrative production (the WAIS Picture Arrangement test). Both adults performed well on some of the tasks, and one of them performed well on all of them. This provides support for the view that language is not essential for propositional thought; though, as Varley points out, it does not rule out the possibility that language might have originally been involved in the development of such thought.

Another issue that will be of interest to many readers is the evolution of language: a difficult topic to study, as there are no 'fossils' of language. Juan-Carlos Gomez discusses this issue with regard to studies of apes. He argues (p. 93) that apes "possess an 'ostensive/ referential' system of communication that is a mixture of specialized communicative systems (e.g. ostension [inducing shared attention]) and general intelligence (e.g. inferential abilities)". He argues for a close relationship in evolution between a shared-attention mechanism, theory of mind, and two separate language acquisition devices: one for semantics and one for syntax. However, he also argues that these can operate as relatively independent systems in modern humans, and that dissociations can occur between them.

The book as a whole will be of great interest to people with an interest in relationships between language and cognition. The interdisciplinary nature of the book, bringing several perspectives under one cover, will be an important asset in particular to cognitive scientists, psycholinguists, and philosophers of language. Psychologists without much background in linguistics or philosophy may find some of the essays in these topics difficult to understand. Given the book's interdisciplinary readership, some of the essays from all three disciplines could have benefitted from a reduction in technical jargon. Nevertheless, it is a very interesting and useful books, which I would strongly recommend for inclusion in psychology libraries.

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© Ann Dowker.

Dr. Dowker has research interests in mathematical development and cognition; individual differences in cognition; language acquisition; language and play; cross-linguistic research; cognitive modularity, and folk developmental psychology.


Dowker, A. (2002). Language and Thought: Interdisciplinary Themes edited by Peter Carruthers and Jill Boucher. Human Nature Review. 2: 277-278.

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