We study human grammar in its cognitive significance. We do this through cross-linguistic studies of grammatical patterns that correlate with particular kinds of meaning, and through studies of the disturbances of such patterns in people with autism, schizophrenia, and Huntington’s Disease, with a view to correlating cognitive and linguistic change.

Grammar is inescapable. We cannot as much as open our mouths and say a word, without such words exhibiting grammatical properties. They are nouns or verbs, predicates or arguments, heads or modifiers, and so on. Moreover, words rarely come alone, but when they come along with others, relations connect them automatically, and these relations are of a special and unique kind: they are grammatical relations. Grammar is like a mysterious kind of chemistry, binding words into sentences, which express thoughts. What then is the cognitive function of grammar, or the function it has in relation to thought? What would our minds be like, if grammar didn’t exist?

It is logically possible that they would be exactly the same: grammar is simply a more or less arbitrary convention that is a nuisance to learn and of no deep significance to our thinking. But this is extremely unlikely given that species that lack grammar have minds that appear to be so different, and given that language and thought seem so inseparable. So what is the impact of grammar on the constitution of the mind, or its cognitive role?

The Grammar and Cognition Lab (GracLab) constituted itself in 2013 and investigates this question through:

-The empirical study of the grammar involved in the referential use of language cross-linguistically (including in Sign Language).

-The empirical and experimental study of language changes in a number of cognitive disorders, with a current focus on (i) schizophrenia, (ii) autism, (iii) Huntington’s Disease, and (iv) aphasia.

The thesis that language is significant in relation to our mind is not new. Yet our focus on grammar is. Our working hypothesis is that grammar uniquely mediates forms of reference and gives rise to propositional knowledge and truth.

This research pertains to linguistics, philosophy, psychology, neurology, and psychiatry:

-In linguistics and psychology, the study of language remains to be reintegrated with the study of mind, or of thought, from which it has been traditionally separated. The most common view today still appears to be that language is an expressive tool: cognition is something independent, and there is ‘mind’ and ‘thought’ independent of language, which merely spells it out for purposes of communication.

-In neurology, aphasic language disorders rarely induce cognitive disorders, suggesting a disconnection between language and mind; in psychiatry, despite language changes known for century to occur in major mental disorders, the link between language and cognitive disintegration remains unclear and little investigated. We pursue a powerful heuristic idea: that various kinds of cognitive phenotypes within our species (and associated pathologies) are, at the same time, particular linguistic phenotypes.

-In philosophy, the study of grammar remains excluded from the philosophical study of language. The abolishment of grammar from the philosophical curriculum, which persists to this day, was historically motivated in the 19th century in the context of the discovery, or reformulation, of logic, viewed as the essential analytical tool in the study of human thought. With what we have learned about grammar after 50 years of modern linguistics, the road is open to re-assessing the role of grammatical organization in the genesis of the mind in its human-specific aspects.

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