LINGUIST List 11.345

Thu Feb 17 2000

Qs: Brain Origins of Syntax,OT and SLA Phonology

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  1. Dr. John R. Skoyles, brain origins of linguistic syntax
  2. Femke Wester, OT and SLA phonology

Message 1: brain origins of linguistic syntax

Date: Sun, 13 Feb 2000 10:20:02 +0000
From: Dr. John R. Skoyles <>
Subject: brain origins of linguistic syntax

I sent several abstracts to Evolution of Language conference, only one of
which was accepted [on the song origins of speech]. This abstract was not
inspite of in spite of receiving an A from one of its reviewers. Whether it
is right or not, it is an idea that should be discussed and overwhich I
would appreciate feedback.
- -

Is brain syntax the origin and organ of linguistic syntax?
Dr. John R. Skoyles

'Organs develop to serve one purpose, and when they have reached a certain
form in the evolutionary process, they became available for different
purposes, at which point the processes of natural selection may refine them
further for these purposes'. Noam Chomsky (1996, p. 41).

What are the evolutionary origins of syntax? If Chomsky is correct in
suggesting that, 'organs develop to serve one purpose', and then become,
'available for different purposes', what was the original 'organ' from
which language syntax arose? And what was its 'one purpose? In the past,
people have attributed 'syntax' to various nonlinguistic functions: motor
action chaining (Aldridge & Berridge, 1998), motor activity automatisation
(Lieberman, 1984), and even syllable sequencing of bat communication
(Esser, Condon, Suga & Kanwal, 1997). Such cases of 'syntax', however, do
not link with governance and binding syntax as described by Chomsky (1981).
Thus, they are unlikely to be the organ out of which language syntax arose.
Here I propose that organ is the syntactic organisation of the internal
descriptions of motor actions needed for brain areas to 'talk' with each
other during the course of doing things. Efficient motor control involves
communication between separated motor areas in the cerebellum, basal
ganglia, the two cerebral hemispheres, hippocampus, inferior olive, red
nucleus and various other brain stem and spinal nuclei: brain syntax, I
suggest, enables them to transfer to each other detailed information about
movements while they are being planned and carried out. Such communication
(a) is extensive, (b) concerns complex descriptions of the type that would
require a syntactic framework, and (c) would be readily transferred through
'mirror neurons' into language.

In this extended abstract I take a functional view of Chomskyan syntax 
that syntax exists to provide a framework so that complex descriptions can
be consistently and completely described for the purpose of communication
transfer. In this view, governance and binding principles are not luxuries
that just happen to be present in language but necessities without which it
would not be possible to communicate complex argument-structure/phrase
structure systems. This functional interpretation of syntax makes one
substantive claim: that nothing about the functional need for syntax makes
it necessarily specific to linguistic communication; any system that
transfers descriptions of comparable complexity and type to those handled
by language will be structured by similar syntactic principles.

My argument is as follows.

First, I show that the brain extensively communicates within itself.

Second, I show that this communication concerns descriptions of similar
type that are of equal if not greater complexity to that handled in

Third, I show that linguistic syntax could not have arisen by sui generis
natural selection. However, if brain syntax exists, its cooptation to
language would have been inevitable and natural.

Brain communication.
Extensive communication happens in the brain in regard to possible,
planned, executed, or even perceived (in the case of mirror neurons), motor
actions. Such evidence is anatomical and physiological.
(i) Anatomically the human brain is made up of several separated
components (cerebellum, basal ganglia, the two cerebral hemispheres,
hippocampus, inferior olive, red nucleus and various other brain stem and
spinal nuclei). These are connected by massive axon tracts (the one between
the cerebellum and cerebral cortex contains 40 million axons (Tomach,
1969); that between the two hemispheres, 200 million. As a result, the
adult brain is mostly white matter consisting of axons (60%) rather than
grey matter made of neurons (40%) (Blinkov & Glezer, 1968). In contrast to
these extensive interbrain links, those between the brain and its periphery
are small: a mere 80,000 axons link both the cochlea and the brain, 200,000
axons the brain and motorneurons in the spine (Blinkov & Glezer, 1968)
(ii) Physiologically interbrain tracts communicate information of a
sufficient descriptive detail to compare for error detection and correction
intended and actual actions (for example, reafferance signals to the
cerebellum from the cerebral cortex [Ito, 1984]). Such reafferance signals
exist also between the motor and somatosensory cortex areas (Amassian,
Cracco, & Maccabee, 1989). The consolidation of motor memories between
separated brain areas (Shadmehr, & Holcomb, 1997) also requires the
transference of detailed descriptions.

The need for brain syntax

Try describing in words any complex motor action, say driving a
nonautomatic car. To do this we need to describe tense, aspect, mood and
employ subjects, verbs and objects. We will find it difficult, if not
impossible, to avoid embeddedness, and indexes and so the principles of
governance and binding. Above I have shown that the brain extensively
transfers information within itself. Below I show that the brain
communicates within itself descriptions of similar type and equal if not
greater complexity to that of language. Take this until then as given.
Your verbal description of driving a car requires syntax for functional
The brain communicates within itself descriptions of the act of driving a
car of equal type and equal or greater complexity to these verbal ones.
QED: The brain communication needed to drive must be frameworked around
(Since if a verbal description of the act of driving a car requires syntax
for functional reasons, the equivalent ones in the brain needed to do this
will need syntax for the same functional reasons.

This proof depends upon establishing the second premise -- that the brain
transfers within itself descriptions of equal type and equal or greater
complexity to those made about motor actions in language. Let us look at
the kind of information states the brain must describe and transfer
internally to do this complex activity.

Consider the case of a nonautomatic car: your hands control the wheel, but
that control is embedded in the control of the steering mechanism which in
turn is embedded within the control of the car on the road. Moreover, these
embedded levels of control are carried out in the context that at any
moment, direction, speed or other modifications to the car (indicators,
lights) might need to be coordinated with those done with the feet upon the
brakes, accelerator and clutch. At any moment, you may use your fingers to
flick indicators or drive with one hand and use the other to hold a mobile
phone, make hand signals or change gears. How these actions are done will
depend upon such factors as road grip, engine state, wind pressure, other
cars, road slope, pedestrians that walk into the road and so on. To modify
responses, plan and react the brain integrates its motor control within a
descriptive world of the car and its changing states derived from many
inputs: afference copies of intended hand and foot movements, muscle and
touch receptors, road and engine vibrations; wind and mechanical sounds,
speed and other meters, road signs, visual flow from passing scenery,
traffic and road surface, cars seen in mirrors, and head lights upon

Information about all these things is needed by the motor system to
coordinate actions, and create motor plans, anticipations, routine driving
responses and emergency reactions needed to efficiently and safely drive --
and, of course, learn to how to initially do these things. Neurological we
know the abilities responsible for these motor functions are widely
distributed around the brain. This requires that they "talk" by
transferring such information. That information must describe in close
detail all aspects of motor actions relevant to their control and
coordination: a minimal list would include temporal relationships between
actions and objects and whether particular aspects of actions are ongoing,
future, perfect, imperfect, inceptive, or self-contained. Since the motor
system imagines, plans and coordinates diverse actions together, it also
needs to communicate probability, conditionality and subjunctiveness.
Moreover, actions are embedded and referents need to be coherently indexed
and so require governance and binding principles. Indeed, the descriptive
framework needed by the motor system would need as rich as that found in
language to describe motor actions. We know from language that verbal
descriptions describing motor actions need syntax for functional reasons.
It is difficult to see how the brain could communicate within itself
similar descriptions without also employing syntax.

Why language syntax must have arisen from brain syntax
Two origins could exist for the organ of linguistic syntax: (A), that it
was a sui generis of natural selection for this specific purpose (something
Chomsky in the above quote doubts), or (B), it was a cooptation from an
earlier syntactic organ. Sui generis origin is unlikely.

i.	Nearly 40 adverbs heads are thought to be universal (Cinque, 1998) 
this is too much of a Rolls Royce solution for the needs of ordinary human

ii.	Derek Bickerton (1990) notes the eight quasi-independent entities that
make up syntax would prevent a gradual development requiring instead a
'crucial mutation'.

iii.	There are claims that syntax rules are arbitrary, imperfect and hinder
communication (Piattelli-Palmarini, 1989).

At present it seems difficult to foresee how the sui generis evolution of
linguistic syntax can answer the above problems. In contrast, the
cooptation of linguistic syntax from an earlier evolved brain syntax is
elegant, parsimonious and logical. Due to cooptation, linguistic syntax
would possess many properties linked to the syntax it took over but which
need not link to its present use (i, and ii). Moreover, cooptation of
function removes the need for a crucial mutation (iii).

Any internal brain syntax, moreover, would transfer readily to
communication done externally between brains. The motor system in the form
of 'mirror neurons' changes actions seen outside itself into internal motor
descriptions (Gallese, Fadiga, Fogassi, & Rizzolatti, 1996). Thus the brain
can convert perceived actions into a syntactised internal descriptions.
This enables it to create a syntactic channel by which the syntax
organising a performed action can be regenerated by a perceiver of that
action. This is half way to language syntax. Add communicative intent and
lexicals and that internal brain syntax can be coopted to organise them.

This seems to have happened: mirror neurons are found in the homologous
primate area to the human Broca's area (Gallese, Fadiga, Fogassi, &
Rizzolatti, 1996), the part of the brain that underlies linguistic syntax
(Caplan, Alpert, & Waters, 1998). Such cooptation would have led to novel
forms of social coexistence and communication, and as Chomsky (1996) put
it, 'at which point the processes of natural selection may refine them
further for these purposes'.


Aldriedge, A. W. & Berridge, K. C. (1998). Coding of serial order by
neostriatal neurons. Journal of Neuroscience, 18, 2777-2787.

Amassian, V. E., Cracco, R. & Maccabee, P. J. (1989). A sense of movement
elicited in paralysed distal arm by focal magnetic coil stimulation of
human motor cortex. Brain Research, 479, 355-360.

Bickerton, D. (1990). Language and species. University of Chicago Press.

Blinkov, S. M., & Glezer, I. I. (1968). The human brain in figures and
tables. Plenum Press.

Caplan, D., Alpert, N., & Waters, G. (1998). Effects of syntactic structure
and prepositional number on patterns of regional cerebral blood flow.
Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience, 10, 541-552 

Chomsky, N. (1981). Lectures on government and binding. Foris.

Chomsky, N. (1996). Language and evolution (Letter). New York Review of
Books, Feb 1, p. 41.

Cinque, G. (1998). Adverbs and functional heads: A cross-linguistic
perspective. Oxford University Press.

Cutler, A. (1987). The reliability of speech error data. Linguistics, 19,

Esser, K-H., Condon, C. J., Suga, N., & Kanwal, J. S. (1997). Syntax
processing by auditory cortical neurons in the mustached bat Pteronotus
parnellii. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, USA, 94,

Gallese, V., Fadiga, L., Fogassi, L., & Rizzolatti, G. (1996). Action
recognition in the premotor cortex. Brain, 119, 593-609.

Ito, M. (1984). Cerebellum and neural control. Raven Press.

Lieberman, P. (1984). The biology and evolution of language. Harvard
University Press.

Piattelli-Palmarini, M. (1989). Evolution, selection, and cognition: From
"learning" to parameter setting in biology. Cognition, 31, 1-44.

Shadmehr, R., & Holcomb, H. H. (1997). Neural correlates of motor memory
consolidation. Science, 277, 821-825

Tomach, J. (1969). The numerical capacity of the human
cortico-ponto-cerebellar system. Brain Research, 13, 478-484.

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Message 2: OT and SLA phonology

Date: Tue, 15 Feb 2000 16:37:39 +0200
From: Femke Wester <>
Subject: OT and SLA phonology

Dear Linguistlist members,

For some time now I have been trying to find articles about 
optimality theory and acquisition of second language phonology. I 
wonder if any-one knows whether there is anything to be found on this 
subject at all, and where I can find it. 

Thanks a lot,

Femke Wester
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