LINGUIST List 24.4413|
Wed Nov 06 2013
Review: Cognitive Science; Neurolinguistics: Boeckx et al. (2012)
Editor for this issue: Joseph Salmons
From: Jakob Steixner <jakob.steixnergmx.net>
Subject: Language, from a Biological Point of View
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Book announced at http://linguistlist.org/issues/23/23-3538.html
EDITOR: Cedric Boeckx
EDITOR: María del Carmen Horno-Chéliz
EDITOR: José-Luis Mendívil-Giró
TITLE: Language, from a Biological Point of View
SUBTITLE: Current Issues in Biolinguistics
PUBLISHER: Cambridge Scholars Publishing
REVIEWER: Jakob Michael Steixner, Universität Wien
This book grew from a series of lectures “Language, brain and genes: lectures
in Biolinguistics” at the University of Zaragoza in 2009. It aims to present
up-to-date accounts of “a broad range of areas where currently a rapprochement
between linguistics and biology is actively being sought” (p. 1), with an
implicit focus on points of convergence between Generative Grammar (GG),
specifically the Minimalist Program (MP), and evolutionary-developmental
biology. The central questions outlined in the introduction are: what factors
have contributed to the current resurgence of interest in the biological
foundations of ‘biolinguistics’, in what ways has the intellectual context in
which this interest takes place changed since the previous installment of
biolinguistics as exemplified by Lenneberg (1967), and what opportunities and
challenges does this offers to linguists?
In addressing the question of what makes today’s intellectual context so
fruitful for a new look at the biological foundations of language, the authors
propose the following factors:
1. The discovery of the FOXP2 gene and subsequent research on its evolutionary
history and interactions with other genes.
2. A shift of focus in (comparative) cognitive psychology from ‘higher
cognitive functions’ towards analysing basic building blocks and underlying
mechanisms. For language, this means that “[a]lthough much attention was
devoted to” what Hauser et al. (2002) termed the “Faculty of Language in its
narrow sense” (FLN), “it is perhaps the research on FLB [the Faculty of
Language in its Broad Sense] that has so far proven far more productive” (p.
4, also Fitch et al. 2010).
3. A “New Extended Synthesis” (Pigliucci and Mueller 2010), away from a
‘genocentric’ perspective, towards an appreciation of the crucial role of
development and epigenetic mechanisms. This relativises the old
4. The “granularity mismatch” that has hitherto hampered interdisciplinary
cooperation between cognitive neuroscientists and linguists is beginning to be
tackled with linguistic models that are explicit about the computational
primitives they presuppose.
5. From within theoretical linguistics, the formulation of the Minimalist
Program provides a framework for the needed bottom-up approach to the Faculty
of Language (Chomsky 2007).
Against this background, the authors encourage readers to seize, as linguists,
the opportunities offered by current developments beyond linguistics. The
biolinguistic project requires linguists to “provide the elements that
researchers from other fields must look for at the neural and genetic levels,
and whose evolutionary origins must be traced back. But this is only feasible
to the extent that linguists are willing to engage in this interdisciplinary
dialogue” (p. 8). The mission of the book is to enable readers to make that
The book is organised into three thematic parts with three chapters each,
discussed in turn below.
PART I, LANGUAGE AND COGNITION
This section outlines basic arguments about the nature of the language faculty
and cognitive architecture, forming the theoretical backbone of the book. It
contains chapters by Cedric Boeckx (“The I-Language Mosaic”), Víctor M. Longa
and Guillermo Lorenzo (“Theoretical Linguistics Meets Development”), and
José-Luís Mendívil-Giró (“The Myth of Language Diversity”). A common theme,
especially of the first two, is trying to spell out implications for
linguistics and cognitive science stemming from theoretical developments in
biology, in particular the evolutionary-developmental perspective and
criticisms of an overly “genocentric” perspective on evolution and
In his chapter, Cedric Boeckx contrasts a more traditional generative approach
to biology with the ways in which he thinks a genuinely interdisciplinary
biolinguistics needs to take full benefit of developments in other fields. He
draws a parallel between the shift towards a more bottom-up approach in
linguistics (the MP) and cognitive science at large (a shift to mechanisms and
away from syndromes as the unit of interest). We now suspect that “much of the
complexity [of adult-state linguistic knowledge] is epiphenomenal, and
emergent; attainable on the basis of very simple properties and processes” (p.
27). This can be motivated by biological considerations: The presumably recent
origin of the Faculty of Language (FL) means that the underlying
neurobiological modifications must be limited. On this conceptual basis, he
sketches a theory of adult grammars’ complexity arising from
grammaticalisation-like processes and entrenchment of schemata during
ontogeny. The initial state grammar may contain little more than unconstrained
merge and symmetry-breaking mechanisms that will produce dependencies. He dubs
this approach “a softer, less specific, less genetic nativism” he believes to
be better grounded in biology (p. 50).
Víctor M. Longa and Guillermo Lorenzo’s chapter aims to “reappraise ...
linguistic nativism from both a biological and a linguistic point of view” (p.
52). It assesses the “genocentric” view of the development of organisms that
dominated biology for most of the 20th century, and how it has affected the
ways in which nativist linguistics has conceived itself. The authors argue
that the time is ripe for biolinguists to take the status of Universal Grammar
(UG) as the outcome of developmental processes seriously, which they argue
requires for MP to break with earlier versions of GG in a deeper sense than
most would be comfortable with. The chapter critiques the “genocentric
program” in biology, or “modern preformationism”, which the authors
counterpose with an evo-devo perspective that puts strong emphasis on
developmental processes which force us to reconsider “innate” traits as those
that “reliably appear at certain points of a species-typical path of
development” (p. 65, cf. Mameli and Bateson 2006) rather than as the result of
a genetic blueprint. This forces linguists to adopt an “unorthodox linguistic
nativism” dispensing with even basic tenets like the logical connection of
poor stimuli to ‘rich’ genes. They illustrate this with an analysis of the
famous example of main auxiliary fronting as emerging from non-specifically
linguistic constraint. By bringing development into linguistic nativism and
GG, the authors wish to reconceptualise UG as an “exceptional assembly of
common developmental factors”, as a set of limitations on possible grammars
given common developmental constraints acting on humans in a species-typical
(social/linguistic) environment rather than as genetic instructions with
specific linguistic content.
In the most polemic chapter, Mendívil-Giró claims that the difference between
Generative Grammar and what he calls the Functional Cognitivist Paradigm (FCP)
exemplified by Evans and Levinson (2009, henceforth EL) is at its base a clash
between different epistemologies, GG adopting a deductive and FCP an inductive
perspective. The ‘myth’ of language diversity is claimed to follow from the
inductive perspective that proceeds from individual languages. Furthermore, it
is argued to stem from the “old anthropocentric prejudice that human beings
are essentially a matter of culture rather than nature” (p. 92, but see the
papers in Whiten et al. 2011, on perspectives for studying culture itself as
an object of biology, watering down this distinction).
Mendívil-Giró argues that a naturalistic theory of UG does not require the
kind of adaptations with specifically linguistic content Tomasello (1999,
2009) or EL argue against. Generativists have stressed that it is sufficient
for FL to be unique as a system whose individual components can be exaptations
(note, though, that the primarily linguistic function of the recursive
operation is often defended vigorously -- JS).
The chapter draws an analogy between the FCP’s focus on diversity and the
‘adaptationist’ program in evolutionary biology, which similarly downplays
structural principles and constraints imposed by entrenched developmental
pathways. In these terms, universals among human languages are explained as
convergence fuelled shared selective pressures under the FCP’s view, while the
Minimalism defended here would analogise them to ‘deep homologies’, i.e.
traits that seem to independently evolve in distantly related clades but on
closer inspection turn out to be highly parallel down to the molecular level.
PART II: LANGUAGE AND THE BRAIN
The chapters in the second part look at how results from neuroscientific and
neuropathological research on language processing and linguistic theory can
complement and inform each other.
In Chapter 4, “The Role of Aphasic Disorders in the Study of the
Brain-Language Relationship”, Fernando Cuetos discusses the role of
aphasiology for determining the neurobiological foundations of language in a
time when neuro-imaging methods allow the study of healthy subjects with high
temporal and spatial resolution.
Cuetos argues that these modern methods have critical limitations of their
own. For example, the methods offering the best temporal resolutions,
magneto-encephalography and electro-encephalography (MEG/EEG), only scan the
surface and are of little use in assessing the roles of subcortical nuclei. On
the other hand, the potential insights from aphasic pathologies are diminished
by the perseverance of variants of the Wernicke-Geschwind model, implying an
overly simplistic architecture of FL. For aphasiology to reach its full
potential of becoming a cornerstone of biolinguistics, it is required to
abandon the focus on “macro-syndromes” and to move towards a close look at
sub-syndromes, and associated symptoms, realising thus that “linguistic
processes are the result of a pattern of interaction between different
regions” of the brain rather than depending on language centres (p. 160).
Martina Baus and Manuel Carreiras write about “Word Processing” in chapter 5.
For many readers, the most interesting and novel aspect will be the discussion
of word processing in sign languages. Contrasting results from word processing
experiments in signed languages with those from spoken languages offers a
deeper understanding of the mechanisms involved by allowing us to disentangle
modality-dependent phenomena from the effects of more abstract principles
underlying human linguistic capacity as such. In this vein Baus and Carreiras
discuss evidence from phenomena such as ‘tip of the finger’, the sign-language
equivalent of ‘tip-of-the-tongue’ phenomena, as well results from
psycholinguistic experiments on sign-language word processing.
Itziar Laka’s chapter on “More than One Language in the Brain” discusses
insights from the study of bilinguals for a theory of the neurobiological
underpinnings of language. The prototypical subject of neurolinguistic
research has been the monolingual brain, despite the fact that the study of
bilingual language processing can provide unique insights into questions such
as the plasticity of the FL or age-sensitivity and specificity of acquisition.
The chapter selectively reviews results from neurocognitive and behavioural
studies of bilingualism. Among others, the chapter discusses evidence that in
bilinguals, both languages are always activated. This may explain the
extra-linguistic benefits of bilingualism some studies hint at, such as a
better ability to ignore irrelevant information: If suppressing the first
language during L2 use requires suppression of the simultaneously activated L1
infrastructure, this might simply be the effect of training those control
structures. From a biolinguistic perspective, possibly the most interesting
aspect is differences between different linguistic levels in how much of an
effect late acquisition shows: Phonology and parts of syntax are most prone to
display non-native effects while L2 learners appear to acquire a native-like
lexicon relatively effortlessly. Much of the evidence thus accumulated is
compatible with Ullman’s (2004) thesis that the difference between procedural
and declarative memory and their respective developmental trajectories
underlies a ‘critical period’ for language acquisition.
PART III: LANGUAGE AND THE SPECIES
The chapters in this part discuss what we do and do not know about the genetic
foundations of FL, and the role and limitations of analogues and homologues in
other species in hypothesising about its evolution. In doing so, all three
chapters warn that the search for a genetic and evolutionary basis of
‘language’, or even linguistic subsystems, can obscure the view of the
mechanisms that underlie linguistic capacities, and which may be more or less
broadly shared with other animals or only gradually different from our closest
In his chapter on “The Language Genes”, Antonio Benítez-Burraco covers recent
advances in linking specific genes with anomalous language development (most
famously the FOXP2 story), but also warning about assumptions often implicit
in their discussion. The very concept of a ‘Specific Language Disorder’ (SLI),
and the widespread desire to exclude non-specific cognitive disorders that
also affect language as input to a theory of the genetics of language, is
symptomatic. A rich assembly of genes for language and language only, much
less genes for individual subcomponents of language, are a biologically
implausible concept given the ubiquity of pleiotropic effects. Finding
non-linguistic effects of a gene thus does not allow us to exclude it as a
candidate even for a crucial prerequisite of FL. The author argues for a more
nuanced version of ‘innatism’ (see also Mameli and Bateson 2006 for a caution
about the use of ‘naïve’ innatism in behavioural science) which, while at odds
with traditional GG, is said to be compatible with a Minimalism taken to its
Guillermo Lorenzo, in a chapter on “The Evolution of the Faculty of
Language”, aims to shift the discussion beyond the question which, if any,
primate behavioural syndromes language is an extension of. He argues that
language the search for continuity in complex phenotypic traits may be in
vain. Small quantitative changes in gene expression at crucial points in an
animal’s developmental pathway can produce large phenotypic differences, and
thus the appearance of novel traits in ways that seem to defy gradualism if
looked at from a superficial level.
Unlike direct precursors for language as an overall system, homologues and
analogues at the level of the computational primitives involved are of
interest to the author. While the complexity of birdsong and monkey alarm
calls remains qualitatively below that of human language in all examples
studied (at a Type 1 grammar in terms of the “Chomsky hierarchy”), Lorenzo
points to analyses of the knot-tying behaviour of weaver birds that take it to
represent a context-sensitive grammar. It is argued that what enables some
species (humans and weaver birds) to reach the level of context-sensitive
grammars is primarily a quantitative difference in working memory: A T3
grammar requires a stack-like WM, or a push-down automaton-like architecture,
while T1 grammars only require keeping the latest element of any sequence
activated, i.e. they are computable by a finite-state automaton.
Bridget Samuels’ final chapter on “Animal Minds and the Roots of Human
Language” is the only one that addresses phonology. Samuels starts from the
fact that the standard Minimalist model of Core Grammar + interfaces, or the
FLB/FLN distinction of Hauser et al. (2002) does not address the status of
phonology: The sensory-motor interface as usually conceived of seems to best
correspond to speech, or phonetics in terms of traditional linguistic levels.
Samuels aims to define a proper place for phonology within a minimalist
architecture. There are two conceivable approaches: Either (parts of)
phonology falls into FLN, whether based on independent operations or on ones
shared with / extended from Narrow Syntax, or, phonology could be located in
FLB, using only mechanisms shared with other animals. Samuels advocates the
latter, in line with Chomsky’s stance of externalisation as an “afterthought”.
While any enumeration of the required component capacities of phonology is
necessarily theory dependent, perhaps even more than for syntax, Samuels gives
a tentative list and suggests animal homologues or analogues for each. The
discussion of hierarchical structure in phonology is particularly interesting
for its parallels with and differences from syntactic structure, in that
phonological structure is flat and thus comparable to the production of many
animal species. The chapter concludes that phonology (unlike syntax under the
assumption of a non-empty FLN) is a possibly uniquely human combination of
shared component capacities.
In the present context, where much work within the Minimalist Program and
‘biolinguistics’ remains (too) firmly within theoretical linguistics and
‘interface conditions’ are sometimes abused as a dumping ground for
unexplained phenomena rather than being spelt out, some of the contributions
offer a healthy reminder of what biolinguistics could become. This is
particularly true of the chapters by Baus and Carreira, Laka, and
Benítez-Burraco, which provide up-to-date summaries of fields of study that
will be less familiar to many theoretical linguists but which provide valuable
tests for theories of the biological underpinnings of language. Providing such
background encourages working linguists to take interface conditions
seriously, as empirical claims that should be testable by the toolkits of
adjacent disciplines, and provides valuable pointers as to what they could
These contributions take biology more seriously than many other recent
publications in ‘biolinguistics’. Nonetheless, the overall picture of
contemporary biology, especially in Boeckx’s and Longa and Lorenzo’s chapters,
will be perceived as one-sided by many biologists: It is arguably true that
many cognitive scientists (especially those working in Evolutionary Psychology
(EP)) continue to assume, at least implicitly, a simplistic and somewhat
outdated picture of biological evolution, and this has implications for the
origins of human language. The role of adaptation as the sole driving force of
biological structure and change is often overestimated, and a one-to-one
correspondence between genes and traits at least implicitly assumed (see also
Bolhuis et al. 2011 for criticisms of the standard EP view of evolution from a
biological perspective, and Fitch 2012 on repercussions for discussions of
language). The authors in Part I go much further, though, in their attacks
against the ‘gene-centric’ view of evolution than the current consensus
allows. The effect is that the implications they draw for the biological study
of language hinge on biological concepts that themselves remain controversial.
This is not to say that the more radical formulations of evo-devo and
epigenetism should be ignored altogether by linguists, but anchoring the
entire biolinguistic enterprise solely on those seems risky.
Despite occasional pronouncements (already in the introduction) that a genuine
integration of linguistics and cognitive biology requires dispensing with
ideological divides in linguistics itself, the book remains partial to
Generative Grammar and in particular the Minimalist Program. One contribution
(Mendívil-Giró’s chapter) explicitly attacks ‘functionalist’ frameworks, and
other more theoretically oriented contributions assume some version of
Minimalism, and while they sometimes suggest substantial modifications to
standard generative concepts (e.g. Longa and Lorenzo’s ‘half a defense’ (p.
83) of UG), the motivations for using this overall framework remain sketchy,
and are thus unlikely to convince scholars from different camps.
The main focus lies on the biological basis of human syntactic capacities,
with, as noted, only one paper on phonology. ‘Extra-grammatical’ aspects of
human linguistic communication, issues such as our vocal learning/imitation
abilities or communicative proclivities (Fitch’s 2011
‘Mitteilungsbedfürfnis’), i.e. the phonetic and pragmatic levels, are
sidelined almost entirely. Such a focus is of course legitimate, but since
these are non-trivial requisites for human language as we know it with some
promising research going on, some readers might have hoped for a broader scope
in a book with such broad title. Recent developments linking abstract
structure-building capacities with action patterns such as are employed in
tool use and manufacture, and the recognition that Broca’s area and its
analogue in other apes are heavily involved in hierarchically structured
manual tasks (cf. Fujita 2009, Steele et al. 2012) are only touched upon.
Despite this selectiveness, the book can be recommended as a (partial)
introduction to ongoing research on the biological foundations of language and
potential points of convergence between linguistic and biological theory that
are often too little known to a wider linguistic audience.
Bolhuis, J.J., G.R. Brown, R.C. Richardson, and K.N. Laland (2011). Darwin in
mind: new opportunities for evolutionary psychology. PLoS Biology 9(7),
Chomsky, N. (2005). Three factors in language design. Linguistic Inquiry
Chomsky, N. (2007). Approaching UG from below. In U. Sauerland and H.-M.
Gärtner (Eds.), Interfaces + Recursion = Language? Chomsky’s minimalism and
the view from Syntax -Semantics, pp. 1–29. Berlin: Mouton de Gruyter.
Clahsen, H. and C. Felser (2006). How native-like is non-native language
processing? Trends in Cognitive Sciences 10(12), 564 – 570.
Evans, N. and S.C. Levinson (2009). The myth of language universals: Language
diversity and its importance for cognitive science. Behavioral and Brain
Sciences 32(05), 429–448.
Fitch, W.T. (2011). “Deep Homology” in the Biology and Evolution of Language.
In A.M. Di Sciullo and C. Boeckx (Eds.), The Biolinguistic Enterprise: New
Perspectives on the Evolution and Nature of the Human Language Faculty, pp.
135–166. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Fitch, W.T. (2012). Evolutionary Developmental Biology and Human Language
Evolution: Constraints on Adaptation. Evolutionary Biology 39(4), 613–637.
Fitch, W.T., L. Huber, and T. Bugnyar (2010). Social Cognition and the
Evolution of Language: Constructing Cognitive Phylogenies. Neuron 65, 795–814.
Fujita, K. (2009). A prospect for evolutionary adequacy: Merge and the
evolution and development of human language. Biolinguistics 3(2), 128–153.
Hauser, M., N. Chomsky, and W.T. Fitch (2002). The faculty of language: What
is it, who has it, and how did it evolve? Science 298, 1569–1579.
Lenneberg, E. (1967). Biological Foundations of Language. New York: Wiley.
Mameli, M. and P. Bateson (2006). Innateness and the sciences. Biology and
Philosophy 21, 155–188. DOI: 10.1007/s10539-005-5144-0.
Pigliucci, M. and G. Müller (2010). Evolution: the extended synthesis.
Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
Steele, J., P.F. Ferrari, and L. Fogassi (Eds.) (2012). From action to
language: comparative perspectives on primate tool use, gesture and the
evolution of human language. London: Royal Society. Theme Issue of
Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B.
Tomasello, M. (1999). The Cultural Origins of Human Cognition. Cambridge, MA:
Harvard University Press.
Tomasello, M. (2009). Constructing a language: A usage-based theory of
language acquisition. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
Ullman, M.T. (2004). Contributions of memory circuits to language: The
declarative/procedural model. Cognition 921(2), 231–270.
Whiten, A., R.A. Hinde, K.N. Laland, and C.B. Stringer (2011). Culture
Evolves. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B: Biological
Sciences 366(1567), 938–948.
ABOUT THE REVIEWER
Jakob Steixner is a research assistant in theoretical linguistics at the
Department of German Studies, University of Vienna. During his MA studies, he
focussed on interactions between syntax and information structure in
determining the availability of Negative Concord in a variety of German. His
current research, in cooperation with cognitive biologists and psychologists
from Vienna and Budapest, attempts to elucidate to what extent and in which
ways generic cognitive and perceptual biases determine adjectival ordering
restrictions. More broadly, he is interested in a bottom-up approach to the
language-cognition interface, or empirical approaches to extralinguistic and
non-human correlates of the capacities underlying specific linguistic
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