Report on Language Discussion, 23rd January

Interdisciplinary Discussion Group: Language

On Monday 23rd January, the University of London Interdisciplinary Discussion group met for the third time. The topic in question was ‘language’. We had presentations from linguist turned neuroscientist ‘Ōiwi Parker Jones, and from Lecturer in English and RCUK fellow in Science and Technology, Laura Salisbury. Both talked about language within the context of their work, and this was followed by a discussion with the audience.

‘Ōiwi began by commenting that although he has a background in both linguistics and neuroscience, this is the first time he has ever been forced to bring them together. He discussed Chomsky’s theories of language, reflecting on how exactly language works, before moving on to discuss his current research which concerns predicting language recovery after brain disease by examining the networks that get created in the brain. He also speculated briefly on where, if at all, we can locate language in the brain. He ended by tantalisingly quoting from recent work (Schnupp, Nelken and King, 2011) which posited that language is ‘telepathy’ as it concerns projecting your thoughts into the head of another and vice versa.

Laura Salisbury then discussed her work on Beckett and aphasia which he has been working on with Professor Christopher Code, an aphasiologist based at the University of Exeter. She traced affinities between Beckett’s presentation of language as something which can be both consciously constructed and pre-consciously and involuntarily uttered and the work of psychologists and neurologists during the contemporaneous and preceding period. She argued that Beckett’s work often vomits forth words which will never fully correspond with the intentionality of his texts, and so it is with us. She related this in particular to the work of the late-nineteenth century neurologist, John Hughlings Jackson who thought that language production involved both conscious and pre-conscious processes. In 1864 he wrote a paper concerning the speech automatisms in aphasics, and Salisbury related this to Beckett’s literary works.

These two wonderful and diverse presentations were then followed by a long and lively discussion between the speakers and audience members. The discussion covered topics such as how to read fMRI scans, the links between neurology and cybernetics, research into animal communication, artificial intelligence and the differences between historical and non-historical interdisciplinary research.

The details of the next meeting will be announced here shortly.

About londoninterdisciplinarydiscussiongroup

Susie Christensen recently completed a PhD about modernist literature and neurology at King's College London.
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