Biolinguistics


Biolinguistics

Biolinguistics is the study of the biology and evolution of language. It is a highly interdisciplinary field, including linguists, biologists, neuroscientists, psychologists, mathematicians, and others.

Origins

The biolinguistic perspective began to take shape half a century ago, among the linguists influenced by the developments in biology and mathematics (1). Eric Lenneberg’s "Biological Foundations of Language" remains a basic document of the field (3). In 1974, the first Biolinguistic conference was organized by Massimo Piattelli-Palmarini, bringing together evolutionary biologists, neuroscientists, linguists, and others interested in the development of language in the individual, its origins, and evolution (4). Biolinguistics, shifting the focus of investigation in linguistics to a comprehensive scheme that embraces natural sciences, promises to yield a framework by which we can understand the fundamentals of the faculty of language.

Developments

Recent work in theoretical linguistics and cognitive studies at MIT construes human language as a highly non-redundant species-specific system. Noam Chomsky’s latest contribution to the study of the mind in general and language in particular is his minimalist approach to syntactic representations. This effort to understand how much of language can be given a principled explanation has resulted in the Minimalist Program (2). In syntax, lexical items are merged externally, building argument representations; next, the internal merge induces movement and creates constituent structures where each is part of a larger unit. This mechanism allows people to combine words into infinite strings. If this is true, then the objective of biolinguists is to find out as much as we can about the principles underlying mental recursion.

Hypothesis

It is possible that the core principles of the language faculty can be correlated to natural laws (such as for example, the Fibonacci sequence — an array of numbers where each consecutive number is a sum of the two that precede it, see for example the discussion Urigereka 1997 and Carnie and Medeiros 2005) (5). According to the hypothesis being developed, the essential properties of language arise from nature itself: the efficient growth requirement appears everywhere, from the pattern of petals in flowers, leaf arrangements in trees and the spirals of a seashell to the structure of DNA and proportions of human head and body. If this law applies to existing systems of cognition, both in humans and non-humans, then what allows our mind to create language? Could it be that a single cycle exists, a unique component of which gives rise to our ability to construct sentences, refer to ourselves and other persons, group objects and establish relations between them, and eventually understand each other? The answer to this question will be a landmark breakthrough, not only within linguistics but in our understanding of cognition in general.

This approach is not without its critics. David Poeppel, the neuroscientist and linguist, has characterized the Biolinguistics program as "inter-disciplinary cross-sterilization", arguing that vague metaphors that seek to relate linguistic phenomena to biological phenomena explains nothing about language or biology.

People In Biolinguistics

*Noam Chomsky, MIT
*Massimo Piattelli-Palmarini, University of Arizona
*David Poeppel, University of Maryland
*Karin Stromswold, Rutgers University
*W. Tecumseh Fitch, University of St. Andrews
*Marc D. Hauser, Harvard University
*Philip Lieberman, Brown University
*Derek Bickerton, University of Hawaii
*Lyle Jenkins, Biolinguistics Institute
*Kenneth Wexler, MIT
*Ray C. Dougherty, New York University (NYU)
*Alec Marantz, NYU/MIT
*Alona Soschen, MIT
*Andrew Carnie University of Arizona
*Juan Uriagereka, University of Maryland
*David Medeiros, University of Arizona

References

Conferences

*Biolinguistic Investigations Conference, Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic, February 2007. http://www.biolinguistics.net
*Conference on Biolinguistics: Language Evolution and Variation, Università di Venezia, June 2007. http://www.biolinguistics.uqam.ca

The Journal Biolinguistics. http://www.biolinguistics.eu

elected Publications

* Carnie, Andrew and David Medeiros. 2005 Tree Maximization and the EPP. Coyote Working Papers, 14, University of Arizona
* Chomsky, Noam. 2004. Biolinguistics and the Human Capacity. Lecture delivered at MTA, Budapest, May 17. ( [http://www.chomsky.info/talks/20040517.htm] )
* Chomsky, Noam. 1995. "The Minimalist Program". MIT Press.
* Lenneberg, Eric. 1967. "Biological Foundations of Language". New York: John Wiley & Sons, Inc.
* Boeckx, Cedric and Massimo Piattelli-Palmarini (in print). Language as a natural object, linguistics as a natural science.
* Soschen, Alona. 2006. Natural Law: The Dynamics of Syntactic Representations in the Minimalist Program. DEAL. Linguistics in Potsdam 25. ( [http://www.ling.uni-potsdam.de/lip/25/LIP25-3soschen.pdf PDF] )
* Jenkins, Lyle, 1997. "Biolinguistics-Structure, Development and Evolution of Language". ( [http://fccl.ksu.ru/papers/gp008.pdf PDF] )
* Sampson, Geoffrey, 2005. "The 'language instinct' debate". Continuum. Offers a strong critique of the basic principles underlying the Chomskian assumptions that serve as much of the foundation of biolinguistics. For discussion see [http://www.grsampson.net/REmpNat.html] .
*Uriagereka, Juan. 1997. Rhyme or Reason. MIT Press.

Links

* [http://www.biolinguistics.eu/index.php/biolinguistics Biolinguistics Journal]
*cite book | first=Daniela | last=Isac | coauthors= Charles Reiss | title= [http://linguistics.concordia.ca/i-language/ I-language: An Introduction to Linguistics as Cognitive Science] | year=2008 | publisher=Oxford University Press| id=ISBN 978-0199534203


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