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March 2015
Robin Allott
So what has Kant got to do with language or grammar?
A great deal. Not only the massive effort in the Critique of Pure Reason to
analyse and make clear the nature and application of terms used to discuss
the functioning of mind which form an important segment of the lexicons of all
languages and all nations but also his consideration in the Transcendental
Aesthetic of the distinction between terms used to describe and categorise the
external world (originally and basically Aristotle’s Categories) and those which
derive not from external reality but from the innate structure of the human
mind - or, as we would now recognise, the innate structure of the languageequipped human brain. Kant is concerned with the relation between the
internal world of the human and the external world, between the ‘mind’ and
‘reality’. What we are given is what we perceive but not knowing what it is
beyond what the senses show us, as Kant would term “the dingen an sich, the
things in the world independent of our perception of them - essentially Kant’s
distinction between ‘phenomena’ - what appears to us through the operation
of senses, vision and other forms, and ‘noumena’, the forms constructed in
our minds by which we represent to ourselves characteristics of what we take
to be objects in the external world, postulated things, what the mind supposes
the external objects to be without having any possibility of directly observing
In modern terms, before the development of neurology and neuroscience,
Kant was attempting to explore the structure of the brain, the innate
organisation of the brain essential for the functional systems of the living
body, action, perception, hearing, touch, feeling, the whole range of
senses with which human beings were endowed, not in addition to the
inheritance from animals generally but as the central structures of the
animal inheritance. For humans in evolution, though of course Kant could
know nothing of this, the body came before the mind - with the human
mind eventually transformed, constructed, by building on pre-existing
bodily structures to make possible the vital linkage between speech and
external reality. Before we get on to Kant in the totality and the detail,
perhaps we should turn our attention first to ‘grammar’, an ill-defined topic
not without complexities and difficulties and ceaseless disputes. Over the
last 100 years since Ferdinand de Saussure, the academic world has
devoted a massive, multi-faceted and perhaps in many respects
misdirected effort to grammatical issues in the widest sense.
The direct relevance of Kant was demonstrated by a major advance in neuroscience.
In 2014 the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine was awarded to John O'Keefe (with
May-Britt Moser and Edvard I. Moser) for their discoveries of cells that constitute a
positioning system in the brain, an "inner GPS" that makes it possible to orient ourselves in
space, demonstrating a cellular basis for higher cognitive function. John O'Keefe
discovered the first component of this system in 1971. He found a type of nerve cell in the
hippocampus that was always activated when a rat was at a certain place in a room. Other
nerve cells were activated when the rat was at other places. O'Keefe concluded that these
"place cells" formed a map of the room. In the BBC’s Life Scientific series (11 March 2015)
John O’Keefe described how (with his student assistant) the discovery was made: “of
course I had always had an interest in philosophy and I knew about Kant,
Immanuel Kant, the 18th Century German philosopher who had supposed that
one of the most crucial attributes that the mind had was space, time was another
one, and that you needed this to actually even begin to make any sense of your
observations of the world so that you didn’t learn about spaces from the world
but you came to your experience with the world having this representation.”
Allott, R 1992. The Motor Theory of Language: Origin and Function. In Language Origin: A Multidisciplinary Approach ed. J.
Wind et al. NATO ASI. Dordrecht: Kluwer.
Allott R. 1995 Motor theory of language in relation to syntax In Syntactic iconicity and linguistic freezes ed. M. E. Landsberg
307-329 Mouton de Gruyter.
Allott R. A new view of irregular verbs: Application of the motor theory of language
Allott R. 2000 Time and Consciousness Wadham College Oxford
Allott R. 2005 Kant's categories and function words How children acquire language: the motor theory account In The Child
and the World 1-48 Able Publishing.
Allott R. Animating Greek verbs.
Buzsáki G. 2013 Cognitive neuroscience: Time, space and memory.
Nature. 2013 May 30;497(7451):568-9. doi: 10.1038/497568a.
Buzsáki G1, Peyrache A2, Kubie J3. 2015 Emergence of Cognition from Action. Cold Spring Harb Symp Quant Biol. 2015 Mar
9. pi: 024679. [Epub ahead of print]
Casasanto D. Jasmin, K. 2012. The Hands of Time: Temporal gestures in English speakers’ DOI !"cog-2012-0020 Cognitive
Howard MW, Eichenbaum H. 2014. Time and space in the hippocampus. Brain Res. Nov 10.069. [Epub ahead of print ]
Janiak, Andrew. 2012 "Kant's Views on Space and Time", The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Winter Edition), Edward
N. Zalta (ed.)
O’Keefe J. Dostrovsky J. 1971 The hippocampus as a spatial map: Preliminary evidence from unit activity in the freelymoving rat. Brain Res. 1971 Nov;34(1):171-5.
Motor Theory and Tense
The Rationale of Tense Systems
The Motor Theory of Language Origin and Function is that language was the
outcome of the exaptation of the structure and elements of the animal motor system
to form the structures and elements of language and speech. Given the centrality of
the motor system, through its link to the motor system language developed in direct
and specific integration with the existing bodily systems for perception and action.
Gesture and speech as aspects of motor programming emerged together as parts
of a single system. Sound structures of words were modelled on the elements
going to form patterns of bodily action in gesture. The elements of gesture replicated
as motor programs the equally motoric form of the elements going to form sounds,
the motor processes of articulation, the phonemes of human speech. Human
phonemes had their sources in the (mute) bodily movement patterns of a wide
range of quadruped animals with similar bodily structures and organisation to the
human species as extensive investigation has shown over a long period.
Against this background to look more closely at the patterning of tenses in
a selection of languages. A comparative tense-study. There are many interesting
possibilities for choosing a small number of languages where tense-patterns
differ radically, or in some cases where there are no conjugated tenses, for
example contrasting Korean or Japanese with Chinese or Hawaian with ancient
Greek. Being less ambitious the most straightforward way is to look first at some
languages close to home in Europe, French and German with a side-look at
English tenses and formations. These languages have been studied intensively
over the centuries, their origins traced with more or less plausibility back to
hypothetical proto-IndoEuropean. There is less uniformity in lexicon, syntax
and tense-systems than one might expect.
All three have tense systems for present and past tenses but English and German
form the future and some other tenses by the use of auxiliary verbs, ‘werden’ and
‘will’. All three have regular formations for the past (historic) tense but also have
complicated systems of irregular past forms. There can be disagreement about
the counting of the irregular forms; the standard account is that there are 638
irregular forms in English, 200 in German (classed as ‘strong verbs’) and 370 or
more in French - obviously making a fully correct use of each of these languages
a daunting task for the second-language learner. In addition, to make things more
complicated some of the most frequently used verbs in each of these languages
are radically irregular, termed ‘suppletive’ because in the extended conjugations
more than one basal verb root may be introduced. There are two or three
suppletive verbs in each of the language – for such essential meanings as ‘to be’
‘to go’ ‘to stand’ ‘to have’. Apart from the suppletive verbs knowledge of irregular
verbs in French is not much help in learning irregular verbs in English or German
– and correspondingly for German and French (though some English forms are
the same as some German strong verbs).
Here some extracts from an interesting article by Ljuba Veselinova , an expert
who has written extensively on suppletive verbs. In describing these she says,
“Treatments of the phenomenon [of suppletion] range widely to the point of
being complete opposites. A strong tendency exists to regard suppletion as an
anomaly, historical artefact, and generally of little theoretical interest.” I think
this is definitely the case, though one must mention that suppletion is not limited
in any way to French or German or English. It is widely observed across a huge
range of languages. What is surprising is that suppletive verbs tend to be within
the same general category of very frequently used, very necessary verbs like ‘go’
‘see’ ‘have’ ‘stand’, little verbs which contribute greatly to all continuous
speech. Veselinova continues that there is “A counter tendency to view the
phenomenon as a functionally motivated result of language change. For a long
time, the database on suppletion, similarly to many other phenomena, was
restricted to Indo-European languages”.
“With the solidifying of wider cross-linguistic studies and linguistic
typology since the 1990s, the database on suppletion has been
substantially extended. Large scale cross-linguistic studies have shown
that the phenomenon is observed by many different languages around the
globe. In addition, it appears as a systematic cross-linguistic phenomenon
that can be correlated with well-defined language areas, language families,
specific lexemic groups, and specific slots in paradigms”. In the choice
between the opposing views referred to by Veselinova, this presentation is
firmly on the side of the significance of suppletion, of the suppletive verbs
seen so widely in world languages. Also stress the great significance of
the existence in the grammars of many languages of large numbers of
irregular verbs, in modern languages and also prominently in ancient
languages, Greek and Latin. The existence of irregular verbs also raises
the question, how functionally they have come to exist, what was the
motivation for them? Set against the existence of irregular verbs and
suppletive verbs, a natural question to ask is, why historically, or in
contemporary languages, should suppletive verbs and irregular verbs be
so marked an aspect of grammatical structures?
If one were to try to construct a rigidly logical system of tenses as a new effort, the
immediate inclination would be not to have any irregular verbs and not to have any
suppletive verbs, no conjugations using more than one basic root verb, just
straightforward formulas for the present, the future and the past definite.
The experiment has been conducted by the group of people involved in the
development of Esperanto. Here a few sentences in Esperanto to illustrate the
approach that the Esperantists have followed:
Prezenta verbotempo en Esperanto estas plene regula (Present tense formed by using
'a' followed by 's')
La autoroj de Esperanto faris la pasintan tempon plene regula uzante 'i' sekvata de 's’.
The future tense is also simply regular using the ending 'os’.
The six verb inflections consist of three tenses and three moods. They are present
tense -as, future tense -os, past tense -is, infinitive mood -i, conditional mood -us and
jussive mood -u (used for wishes and commands). Verbs are not marked for person or
number. Thus, kanti means "to sing", mi kantas means "I sing", vi kantas means "you
sing", and ili kantas means "they sing".
Very simple and logical ! But if the answer is so easy why in ancient and modern
languages have suppletive and irregular verbs been introduced and have persisted
over the generations, not yielding to obvious pressure for simplification - which has
led to changes in other aspects of language, for example in the spelling of words?
There have been attempts with Basic English and with the Academie Francaise to formulate rules for the simplification or correction of the English or French
languages. These have made little impression on the spoken language. There are
no dictators for grammatical forms in modern languages. No grammarians
prescribe what forms are correct and which forms are incorrect. What decides
the forms of language are simply what the language speaking community
decides to accept. There may be modifications in language deriving from
changes in the composition of the population over time, but there is nothing
deliberate or thought out or controlled in the way they change. In relation to
language there is a parallel to what one sees in the theory of evolution. In
language as in bodily formation, in changes in species, what happens is the
survival of the fittest. That we have irregular verbs and suppletive verbs is
because for some reason English and other major language communities have
been modified by what the language communities have felt to be, in practice, in
what they say and do and how they use the language, in some way or other the
fittest forms. In what way can words and tenses, aspects of grammar, be fittest?
What is fittest is decided only by finding what exists and what survives, but why
should these forms, awkward and unnecessary as they seem, survive? Is there
any way we can find out the underlying reason for their survival? What survival
means is that speakers of the language find the words come closest to
expressing the meanings they want to convey.
We have the past tense for the verb ‘to go’ in English as ‘I went’, ‘you
went’ and ‘we went’ and so on, even though the present tense is ‘I go’,
‘you go’, ‘we go’ because ‘I went’, ‘you went’ fit more closely to what
the speaker tries to convey. There’s something in the speech sound
elements which go to form the words ‘I went’ which comes closer to
what people want to convey than any simple formula for the formation
of the past tense. Occasionally children over-learn. They learn first ‘I
went’ Later when they have been told that past tenses of verbs are
usually formed by adding ‘ed’ they occasionally are heard to say ‘I goed’. Later they again use ‘I went’ as the appropriate form.
There’s something about the construction of a suppletive verb like ‘I
went’, or something about the construction of an irregular tense for ‘I
sing’, ‘I sang’, which seems necessary, seems perfectly satisfactory for
the English language community, something about the pattern of
speech sounds forming the irregular tenses or the suppletive verbs
which makes them appropriate. All very puzzling. Some process, some
force operating, so far not been identified, recognised, discovered by
the thousands of linguists who write penetratingly about language.
What is that force or process?
This leads on to a much wider question, the functioning of language in the brain, the
evolutionary origin of language, the proposition that language was originally derived
by exaptation from the motor system, that the connections between words and their
meanings are essentially the product of the related motor patterning of articulation
and the motor patterning of gesture. The gesture origin of language is at the root of
the existence of tenses with irregular formations and of tenses with suppletive verbs.
Looking at the tenses of regular or irregular verbs, what exactly are they trying to
convey? Primarily the central meaning of the particular verb but also that the verb is
being linked to a very specific aspect of present, past or future awareness or
The basic verb has to be modified in some way to point to the different
time element. In French, for regular verbs like ‘penser’, one can point to
the future by adding a standard suffix: add to the infinitive the speech
sounds ‘a’ and ‘I’ to make ‘je penserai’. The speech sounds ‘a’ and ‘i’ in
some way point to the future. Was (is) the addition of ‘a’ and ‘i’ arbitrary
or did it emerge naturally over time? The addition of ‘a’ and ‘I’ is specific
to the French regular future. As a romance language French is descended
from Latin but Latin does not have ‘a’ + ‘i’ to indicate the future. For the
regular verb ‘amare’, the Latin future adds different speech sounds from
those in French. the speech sounds ‘b’ + ‘o’ to make ‘amabo’, ‘I will love’.
Why should French not have followed the Latin form?
The conclusion in this presentation is that the suffixes attached to verb roots
to express tense directly change the gestural pattern associated with the base
verb. There is a systematic attempt in the formation of tenses to attach to any
particular verb root additional speech sounds (phonemic articulations) and
therefore additional gestures or elements which reflect the point of time, the
time reference for future, past or present. To interrupt this comment by
reference to the brain, the brain of the human being obviously is so arranged
that it can envisage the future, can remember the past, can recognise the
present. There must be neural structures in the brain which make this
possible. Technological advances in neuroscience can explore the functioning
of the brain in terms of the subjective position in time at any moment adopted
by a human being who speaks and refers to the past, the future or the present.
Quite apart from the formation of tenses, the future tense or the past tense
or the present tense, in English and other languages there are whole arrays
of words which carry implications about the timing of actions, the timing of
perceptions, the timing of thoughts. Words like before and after, now, when,
earlier and later, whole arrays of words, many of which would be treated as
function words in the classification of lexicon by standard linguistics
procedures. These words about time are acquired in a rather mysterious
way by children later than words for objects and clearly perceived actions.
In addition to listed time and space words in the lexicons of English, French
and German, in the tense systems there is a collection of suffixes which
can be attached to verb roots to convey a point in time, a perception of the
future or a perception of the past, suffixes and prefixes in the conjugation of
tenses in all languages.
References listed at the beginning of this presentation include images
showing the differences suffixes and prefixes used in the conjugation of
tenses can make to the gestural patterning of a verb root . The way these
images of differences are arrived at is parallel to the extensive material
available on links between particular words and actions, and gestures clearly
linked to the meanings of words. What is found, not only in English or French
or German but in many other modern and ancient languages generally is that
the change in the gestural pattern associated with the future tense of a verb is
that the main pattern representation of the meaning of any particular action or
object verb represents the future by a stretching forward of the representation.
The future in gestural terms is that the basic gesture associated with a
particular verb root is moved a short way forward. This is perfectly
comprehensible. Academic gesture research establishes that the future is
uniformly represented by a stretching forward, a pointing forward with the
hand and arm.
Similarly to indicate the past, the past as a noun, gesture research shows,
unsurprisingly, that the arm and hand are directed backwards. We move our
arm back for our conception of the past. In forming a gestural modification for
a verb, attempting to combine this gesture associated with the particular verb
with such a large movement of the hand and arm would totally destroy the
gestural link to the meaning of verb. To avoid this, what is found is that
besides the broad gesture representing the past as a noun, the past tense
operates through a limited different gestural modification. For example, for
the past tense of ‘to go’ ‘I went’, the past is represented by a small movement
of the arm as part of the verb gesture out to the right hand. That is how the
past of the verb is represented in gesture. The effect is that the gestural
structure of the verb root is maintained but the whole gesture is moved
slightly to the right. The future in a regular verb and in an irregular verb as
well, is shown for the verb root by the gesture associated with that root
moving forward directly in front of the head to show that future is associated
with that pattern of gesture. In this way the pattern of gesture which gives the
meaning and link in one’s brain to the particular object or action is maintained
but the idea of future is added to modify the total gesture slightly by stretching
it forward slightly. This verbal description of how verb gestures are modified
to express tense can more appropriately be demonstrated by the following.
Gestural forms for English and French Tenses of ‘to drink’ ‘boire’
Future and Past
Present - basic gesture for DRINK Future - forward movement of complete gesture
Past - movement of complete gesture to the right side
Gestural forms for English and French Tenses of ‘to go’ ‘aller’
Suppletive verbs with auxiliaries
1-2 Present two segments 3-4 Future (extended forward) 5-6 Past (shift to right)
7 Incorrect ‘regular’ formation of past tense of ‘to go’ GO_ED (generates wrong gesture)
Perhaps relevant:
Extracts from The Hands of Time: Temporal gestures in English speakers
Do English speakers think about time the way they talk about it? In spoken
English, time appears to flow along the sagittal axis (front/back): the
future is ahead and the past is behind us. Here we show that when asked to
gesture about past and future events deliberately, English speakers often use the
sagittal axis, as language suggests they should. By contrast, when producing
cospeech gestures spontaneously, they use the lateral axis (left/right)
overwhelmingly more often.
Despite the total absence of left-right metaphors in spoken language, there is
strong evidence that English speakers have an implicit mental timeline that runs
along the lateral axis
Casasanto D. Jasmin, K. 2012. The Hands of Time: Temporal gestures in English
speakers’ DOI !"cog-2012-0020 Cognitive Linguistics;
Time and Space - Philosophy Neuroscience and Language
1. Space and Time - for individual human beings and Space and Time for
2. Unsettled philosophical disputes lasting for 2500 years
3. Physics - Newtonian - Einsteinian
4. Kant from the point of view of the human mind - philosophers as dispute
about the concepts and natures of time and space
5. Neuroscience - as related to Kant
6. Language relates to the individual human being
7. Language Origin and the content of Time and Space words
8. Pre-Socratics = Heraclitus/Parmenides/Anaxagoras
9. Panta rei - but at different rates
10. Reality of objects occupying space
11. Objects with relative positions in Space (? And time)
12. Relativity /Gravitation ?
13. Neuroscience of Space and Time at very early stage - essentially
total functioning of motor/perceptual system
14. Inertia - Quantum Mechanics
15. Change of total system from moment to moment - Durée?
16. Structure of relative positions of objects in space ?
11. Objects with relative positions in Space (? And time)
12. Relativity /Gravitation ?
13. Neuroscience of Space and Time at very early stage - essentially
total functioning of motor/perceptual system
14. Inertia - Quantum Mechanics
15. Change of total system from moment to moment - Duree?
16. Structure of relative positions of objects in space ?
1. Kant correctly discerned the essential innateness for human beings of the concepts
of time and space, noted by O'Keefe in his pioneering experimental investigation of placecells.
2. As innate constituents of its body and brain organisation. Space and time are not
concepts to be learnt by instruction or observation. They are the structure in which we live
and operate.
3. Space and time are what any creature finds itself in, operating in.
4. Space and time are part of the organisation of the total central neural system. With
animals, for example, the just born calf or colt will get up on its feet and move around
successfully in space and time from the moment of its birth.
5. What language has been for humanity is a gradual coming to consciousness of the
structures of space and time within which we operate.
6. Before we had such a thing as speech and before we had such a thing as gesture,
communicative gesture, human beings were hunting and living and moving and planning in
space and time..
7. The grammar of language in the widest sense is the manifestation of the gradual
awareness of the elementary features of space and time and the transfer of this
awareness of each individual feature of space and time to the articulatory mode so that a
sound could be made which is distinctively related to some aspect of space or time
8. Despite the apparent diversity of grammars throughout the 6000 languages of the
world the basis on which languages or grammars are built is pre-speech, pre-language,
is the same basis in terms of body and brain organisation.
9. The attachment of sound to an aspect of space or time does not need to have been
invented once and handed down over the ages spreading gradually to all 6000
10. To make a sound related to a particular aspect of space or time would be a possibility
for any single human being or single human group.
11. The number of external objects which are dealt with in the lexicon of all languages
can be immense and growing and diverse and each of them can have acquired a specific
articulation in the form of the word by which it is called where the word by which the
object (or action) is called has a distinct relation in some way to the characteristics of
its shape or the sound it makes or the action it indicates..
12. In contrast for space and time particles without any external visual or motor
pattern the accretion, acquisition, of grammar particles can be an aspect of the total
growing consciousness of the human being, the awareness of the innate elements of
the human being's own functioning in thought and memory and action
13. The basis of all grammars for human beings is closely related to the basis of
organisation of space and time for all animals which have reached a certain level of
complexity. One can assume that the basis for the analysis of space and time exists
(without articulation) in closely related animal species to human beings, particularly
primates. The ability to make use directly of the knowledge of aspects of space and
time is widespread and demonstrated in the many remarkable performances of a
whole range of animal species.
14. Some guidance as to the neural, neuroscientific, basis for the construction of
grammars by different groups of humans, can be found, can be explored, from two
sources. One is close examination of the behaviour in time and space of freely
moving research animals, particularly rats, where most of the work has been done;
the second can be observed in the acquisition gradually by small human children
over time of function words and of tense and declension variations.
See for example Caselli,C., P. Casadio and E. Bates. 1999. A comparison of the transition from first words to
grammar in English and Italian. J Child Lang. 26 (1999), 69 111.