This book is unusual. It is about a Big Idea – the Sequential Imperative – which appears not to have surfaced before. The Big Idea – stated here in simplified form – is just that the brain manages behaviour and perception by providing its host with the mechanism for dealing with the unavoidable need to transform the constantly shifting and changing “ external world ” into the timeless, or atemporal, “ internal world ” of memories, perceptions and so forth. And at the same time the brain takes plans and intentions – “ internal world ” atemporal mental entities – and transforms them into sequences of activity, including language, in the “ external world ” . The brain serves as a curious sort of bi-directional time machine – and this book explores the details of why and how it does this, all without getting into biological detail!

The book appears to have a diffuse focus: it is primarily about Cognitive Science but it is also about speech and language; it ends up fusing these two fields. We ’ ll review this throughout the book. It is a monograph which resembles a series of notes for bigger projects; it is not a work of reference. This is discussed shortly. The note-form encourages a quirky style, and we ’ ll return to this point later.

Let me explain. The people involved in Cognitive Science include Linguists, Psychologists, Philosophers, Neuroscientists, Computer Scientists, and Cognitive Scientists (who are themselves licensed interdisciplinarians). Cognitive Linguistics has been identified in recent years as the interdisciplinary study of human language behaviour, involving the same range of disciplines. The separate identification of Cognitive Linguistics as a topic, alongside Cognitive Science, can be thought of as a consequence of recognizing the richness and complexity of human language behaviour. Linguistics is recognized as a separate discipline in academia but doesn ’ t have the Cognitive Science component in its motivation. So Cognitive Linguistics is an attempt to bring the isolated study of language behaviour closer to where it should be: part of the study of cognition generally. This book breaks new ground by offering a unified interdisciplinary approach to studying both cognition and human language behaviour. In doing so it effectively leaves Cognitive Linguistics without its own domain of study and thus without motivation. However, before we get to that point it is useful to look at what motivates Cognitive Linguists currently.

The motivation for Cognitive Linguists is the search for explanations of language behaviour which are not grounded in uniqueness. Of course, humans are the only species to use human language (there are thousands of such languages) but Cognitive Linguists consider that the uniqueness of language is actually no different in principle from other human uniquenesses (music, graphic art, etc.) as well as the uniquenesses which define any other species. We see unique activity in humans, to be sure, but should that imply an array of unique mechanisms and processes unrelated to anything else in humans or other animals?

The Cognitive Scientist is challenged by this perspective – surely they should be able to explain how languages work so why is it so difficult? This book responds to that challenge by showing instead how it is possible to develop ideas derived from the study of speech and apply them to Cognitive Science generally. Indeed it goes further by explaining how accounts of locomotion, control of articulators, perception, learning, and so forth can be built on detailed understanding of how speech is produced and perceived. I further argue that such accounts are applicable to the study of all organisms with brains, not just humans, and also that such accounts can provide for the possibility of language in a species such as ours, but not necessarily in all species. Cognitive Science must account for the possibility of language behaviour – this is a theme in the book.

As part of the work of explaining how Cognitive Science provides an account of the possibility of language, the Cognitive Scientist must also address the evolutionary question: How can any brain come to support language behaviour? In this book we find that the general Cognitive Science account of behavioural possibility (including evolutionary concerns) can be derived from our understanding of speech behaviour in humans. This is surprising until we recognize that speech is the most intensely studied of all animal behaviour.

It should be noted that some linguists hold the view that human brains are somehow specified for language with an innate endowment (Universal Grammar) that makes language possible – an endowment which is unrelated to more general cognitive principles. This book argues in favour of an alternative view – that general cognitive principles can be found to explain the possibility of language behaviour. The book is not motivated as an attack on Universal Grammar but is rather an attempt to provide the bigger Cognitive Science account required to encompass language behaviour.

The content thus deals with two related questions – one looking at the challenge “ from the top down ” so to speak, the other looking “ from the bottom up ” . The questions are: How do we do Cognitive Science in such a way that the possibility of language behaviour is addressed inevitably? How can study of speech in humans contribute to the development of a Cognitive Science which covers non-human species? I propose that within a general Cognitive Science “ top-down ” context the inevitable tight coupling between the two endeavours is readily achieved when we identify from the “ bottom-up ” some cognitive generalities (for all species) through the study of human language behaviour. This is a difficult trick to pull off, and in any case the more general “ top-down ” account will need to come first in any exposition, so the assembly in the reader ’ s mind of the unified account requires some material to be taken on trust until the rest is offered.

The book is suitable for the informed general reader, for advanced students and active researchers alike. There is a possible problem for the reader, however. The Cognitive Science and Linguistics core material is readily accessible for those working in these domains, but the material is interdisciplinary, and some readers may struggle with some of the range of topics covered – from phonology to astrobiology. In addition, it is my view that the book is paradigm shifting – some readers may find that difficult.

Turning now to the quirkiness of style, let me re-iterate that the book is explicitly a prolegomena – a set of notes for bigger projects to come. It is a monograph not a textbook; it is broad in scope but without a monumental list of references or doorstop heftiness. The nature of notes is incompleteness and, to switch to a graphic metaphor, the set of notes amounts to a sketch which can do much to reveal the overall picture, along with the size of the canvas, without covering it all. Some material will be well detailed, some in outline awaiting adumbration, and so forth. But all combine to depict a totality in the image.

However, the quirkiness does not stop with the sense of sketchy notes. The core material is presented as a set of numbered paragraphs. This discourages verbosity and permits rapid changes of topic and focus, but creates a feeling of staccato terseness and density that may be disconcerting. The book is actually quite short – around 80,000 words. The numbered paragraphs are not found in the Introduction which flows in more narrative style.

The function of a Preface in a book is to set out the stall for the reader; the browser in the bookshop should by now know whether or not the book is “ for them ” . The Introduction which comes next sets out the scope of the material on the assumption that the reader is comfortable with the idea of trying to understand questions such as “ What is the brain for? ” .

A Preface is also the place for acknowledgements and thanks. My career, when viewed retrospectively, has been non-linear in academic terms. Following a degree in Physics I spent some years working for a doctorate in a combination of Electrical Engineering and Psychology. This was followed by some observational studies of deaf children in educational settings, and an increasing involvement during the late 1970s in the small uk research community working on Signed Language Linguistics. After a short break I consolidated my interest in Linguistics with a Masters degree in Theoretical Linguistics whilst at the same time developing an active interest in the study of human behaviour with computers – a field known as Human-Computer Interaction (hci). I spent nearly 25 years in employment at the School of Computer Science at the University of Birmingham teaching and researching in hci, Speech Processing, Signed Language Linguistics, and Cognitive Science generally. Towards the end of my time at Birmingham I added work on Astrobiology and seti to my research portfolio. At every turn there have been people offering encouragement and support – too numerous to mention here, but vital to me for providing an environment where I could see how the pieces linked together. No-one is to blame for my winding intellectual journey except me. Although the ideas gathered along the way have fused together to form the Big Idea presented here the reader should rest assured that the presentation is not a travelogue. The book is coherently organized to present the content thematically.

My wife Linda has been a huge support during life ’ s journey and the struggle to get the material of the book actually into book form. Some people have read earlier drafts and made some helpful comments – Paul Brinich, Matt Colborn, Peter Coxhead – but they are not to blame for any errors. An anonymous reviewer for Brill also made extensive really helpful comments. Brill ’ s editorial team, from manuscript review through to production, have been brilliant: many thanks then to Francesc Forn i Agrimon, Bram Oudenampsen, Thalien Colenbrander, Gera van Bedaf, and Kim Fiona Plas.

The Sequential Imperative

General Cognitive Principles and the Structure of Behaviour