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. By shifting the focus of investigation in linguistics to a comprehensive scheme that embraces natural sciences, it seeks to yield a framework by which we can understand the fundamentals of the faculty of language.
The biolinguistic perspective began to take shape in the mid-twentieth century, among the linguists influenced by the developments in biology and mathematics. Eric Lenneberg’s Biological Foundations of Language remains a basic document of the field. 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.
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. 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.
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 Uriagereka 1997 and Carnie and Medeiros 2005). 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.
David Poeppel, a neuroscientist and linguist, has noted that if neuroscience and linguistics are done wrong, there is a risk of "inter-disciplinary cross-sterilization", arguing that there is a Granularity Mismatch Problem, as different levels of representations used in linguistics and neural science lead to vague metaphors linking brain structures to linguistic components. Poeppel and Embick also introduce the Ontological Incommensurability Problem, where computational processes described in linguistic theory cannot be restored to neural computational processes. Poeppel suggests that neurolinguistic research should try to have theories of how the brain encodes linguistic information and what could be cognitively realistic computation.
People in biolinguistics
- Massimo Piatelli-Palmarini, University of Arizona
- Cedric Boeckx, ICREA, University of Barcelona
- David Poeppel, New York University (NYU)
- W. Tecumseh Fitch, University of Vienna
- Marc D. Hauser, Harvard University
- Philip Lieberman, Brown University
- Derek Bickerton, University of Hawaii
- Kenneth Wexler, MIT
- Ray C. Dougherty, New York University
- Alec Marantz, NYU/MIT
- Andrew Carnie University of Arizona
- Charles Reiss, Concordia University
- Michael Arbib, University of Southern California
- Alona Soschen, MIT
- Chomsky, Noam. 2004. Biolinguistics and the Human Capacity. Lecture delivereat MTA, Budapest, May 17. http://www.chomsky.info/talks/20040517.htm
- 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
- Poeppel, David; Embick, David (2005). "Defining the Relation Between Linguistics and Neuroscience". In Anne Cutler. Twenty-First Century Psycholinguistics: Four Cornerstones. Lawrence Erlbaum.
- 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
- ICREA International Symposium in Biolinguistics, Universitat de Barcelona, October 2012. http://stel.ub.edu/symposium/
The Journal of Biolinguistics. http://www.biolinguistics.eu