Book week 2019: David Adger's Language Unlimited

Welcome to the second review post of Book Week 2019. See the intro to Book Week 2019 to understand more about what I'm doing this week. Next up we have:

Language unlimited
the science behind our most creative power

by David Adger
Oxford University Press, 2019

This is a book for people who like to think about HOW THINGS WORK. It's a serious work of popular science writing, which carefully spells out the mysteries of syntax. And by mysteries, I mean things you've probably never even noticed about language. But once they're pointed out, you have to sit back and say "Whoa." Because even though you hadn't noticed these things, you know them. Remember a few years ago, when the internet was hopping with posts about how we subconsciously know which order to put adjectives in? That's kid's play compared with the stuff that Adger'll teach you about the things you know but don't know about.

Adger (who is Professor of Linguistics at Queen Mary University, London) describes the situation carefully, clearly, and engagingly, using copious examples and analogies to communicate some really subtle points. (I particularly liked the explanation of form versus function in language, which drew on the form versus the function of alcohol. Chin-chin!) He draws in evidence from neurology, psychology, and computer science to both corroborate his points and to introduce further questions about how language works.

As I said in the intro to Book week, I have not read all the books I'm reviewing absolutely cover-to-cover. In this case, of the ten chapters, I read 1–3, 7, and 10—and skimmed through the other chapters. The early chapters make the case that there's more to linguistic structure than meets the eye and that human linguistic abilities must consist of something special—they must be qualitatively different from the types of cognition that other animals use and that humans use in non-linguistic communication. Later ones cover issues like how children experience and acquire their first language and what happens when computers try to learn human language. Throughout, the examples feature Adger's partner Anson and his cat Lilly.  I almost feel like I know them now. Hi Anson and Lilly!

Adger makes clear from the start that his book makes a particular argument in favo(u)r of a particular way of explaining language's mysteries—and that particular way is a Chomskyan way. This means that he makes the case for a Universal Grammar that underlies all human language. I was struck by his willingness and ability to take this all the way for a lay audience. By chapter 9, he is explaining Merge, the key tool of Chomsky's Minimalist Program

Now, here I have to say: this is not the kind of linguistics I do. It's not just that I'm not a syntactician—though I have, from time to time, dipped my toe into theories grammatical. It's also that I lost faith in theoretical monotheism when I moved from a very Chomskyan undergraduate degree to a more ecumenical linguistics department for my (post)graduate studies. When I arrived for my PhD studies, the department wanted to know which syntactic theories I'd studied, so they could determine which courses I needed to take. I could not tell them. After four years of studying Chomskyan linguistics, I thought I had spent four undergraduate years studying "Syntax". No one had told me that I was studying a theory of syntax, just one among several theories.

Ever since, I have tended to agnosticism and s{c/k}epticism when it comes to syntactic theory. (This is probably how I ended up as not-a-syntactician; I don't know that it's possible to have a career in grammatical studies without adhering to one theoretical church or another.) Being a lexicologist has meant that I don't have to take sides on these things. And so I play around with different theories and see how they deal with the phenomena I study. When I listen to the evangelists, I listen warily. I tend to find that they oversimplify the approaches of competitor theories, and don't learn as much from them as they could (or, at least, sometimes don't give them credit for their contributions). This is all a very long explanation of why I skipped to chapter 7—the chapter where Adger responds to some non-Chomskyan ideas (mostly personified in the chapter by Joan Bybee).

So (mostly BrE*) all credit to Adger for spending a chapter on this, and for citing recent work in it. I generally thought his points were fair, but I did what I usually do in response to such theoretical take-downs: I thought "ok, but what about..." I do think he's right that some facts point to the existence of a Universal Grammar, but I also think it's not the only interesting part of the story, and that it's premature to discount arguments that explore the possibility that much of what happens in language learning is based in experience of language and general cognitive abilities. But then, I would think that.

I definitely recommend the book for people who are interested in the scientific approach to language, but I'd skip the final chapter (10). It is an oddly tacked-on bit about sociolinguistic phenomena, precisely the kinds of things that are not even approached in the theory the rest of the book has been arguing for.

I congratulate Adger on this strong work that makes extraordinarily abstract concepts clear.

P.S. Since I'm not doing Differences of the Day on Twitter this week, here's little chart of use of all credit to (frequency per million words) in the Corpus of Global Web-Based English, for good measure.


  1. Just to note that the first two entries in the 'Linguistic Toolbox' need updating

    1. Thanks for pointing that out. I've fixed it now.


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AmE = American English
BrE = British English
OED = Oxford English Dictionary (online)