Why do we include the sounds of words in our thoughts when we think without speaking? Are they just an illusion induced by our memory of overt speech?
These questions have long pointed to a mystery, one relevant to our endeavor to identify impossible languages — that is, languages that cannot take root in the human brain. This mystery is equally relevant from a methodological perspective, since to address it requires radically changing our approach to the relationship between language and the brain. It requires shifting from identifying (by means of neuroimaging techniques) where neurons are firing to identifying what neurons are firing when we engage in linguistic tasks.
Consider this simple question: What is language made of? Sure, language consists of words and rules of combination, but from the point of view of physics, it exists in two different physical spaces: outside our brain and inside it. When it lives outside our brain, it consists of mechanical, acoustic waves of compressed and rarefied molecules of air (i.e., sound); when it exists inside our brain, it consists of electric waves that are the channel of communication for neurons. Waves: In either case, this is the concrete stuff of which language is physically made.
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