last changed in 2002

Modularity is the controversial hypothesis that certain parts of cognition (e.g. language, vision, ...) are (a) independent of other cognitive faculties and/or (b) highly localized in the brain. A part that is cut off in this way from other parts is called a 'module'. In relation to language, modularity is interpreted either in terms of a single module for language or in terms of separate modules for different parts of language - syntax, morphology, etc. It fits well with the dominant view of language in the 20th century, which stressed the separateness of language from other areas of knowledge.

Modules are claimed to be in some sense separate from one another - stored in different parts of the brain, and/or insulated from each other in the mind in terms of how information flows between them. However they are also often supposed to follow different principles - for example, syntax and morphology are different because the modules that hold them work differently.

This view is often combined with innateness as an explanation for the modules. Chomsky and most of his followers argue that the language module(s) must be innate. The evidence (which is controversial) is partly linguistic (the contents of the modules are too abstract and too universal to be learned from experience) and partly psychological (experiments and the study of brain damage show that different parts of language are handled by different parts of the brain).

WG rejects modularity in this form:

On the other hand, every theory accepts that knowledge has structure, and WG assumes a very precise structure based on classified relations:

These complex relations allow us to distinguish the traditional 'levels of language' such as phonology, morphology, syntax and semantics:

Because of these distinctions it is possible to explain at least some of the linguistic and psychological facts that are sometimes given as evidence for modularity - e.g. if brain damage makes meanings inaccessible, this could be because of damage to one of the links in the processing chain - e.g. damage to the relation 'meaning'.







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