Publishing Partner: Cambridge University Press CUP Extra Publisher Login

Discussion Details

Title: History of Biolinguistics
Submitter: John Goldsmith
Description: I’m interested in the changing alliances between linguistics and its sister
disciplines. The founders of the LSA made an effort to justify linguistics
as a science with its own autonomous scientific method, distinct from that
of psychology or sociology. In the late 1950s and through the 1960s,
psychologists and linguists (both generative and non-) attempted to develop
a scientific agenda by which generative grammar could serve as a model for
the cognitive sciences---though the movement for cognitive sciences did not
emerge until the mid-1970s, under the influence of funding from the Sloan

In recent years, there has been considerable discussion of the relationship
of biology and linguistics, much of it under the rubric of
“biolinguistics”. In some respects, this notion has deep roots: Norbert
Wiener, for example, discussed the biological specificity of language for
the human species in his classic book Cybernetics (1948). Another part of
this prehistory is the curiously titled “Handbook of Biolinguistics” by
Meader and Muyskens, published in 1950, which champions (as the authors put
it) a modern science of biolinguistics, whose practioners “look upon
language study…as a natural science, and hence regards language as an
integrated group of biological processes….This group seeks an explanation
of *all* language phenomena in the functional integration of tissue and
environment. (p. 9)”. (Language is there considered a function of the human
organism comparable to digestion and walking, by the way!) And we all know
that Eric Lenneberg published in 1967 an influential book on the biological
foundations of the language function. But having lived through the late
1960s (and later decades), it seems to me that there were vanishingly few
serious efforts to link generative grammar to results or methods of biology
during this period---quite unlike the situation linking linguistics and
psychology, where students and faculty alike moved between psychology and
linguistics rather easily.

All of which leads me to my question: what is the modern history of the
term “biolinguistics”? I’m interested in the rise of the term
“biolinguistics” among those studying grammar. Before 2000, virtually every
citation that I can find using the term “biolinguistics” involves efforts
to understand language in ways that are either deeply skeptical with regard
to traditional linguistic analysis, or just ignorant of them. There are
exceptions, to be sure: neurolinguists inspired by Lenneberg, and David
Lightfoot’s 1984 book subtitled, “Towards a biology of grammars,” and
several items by Lyle Jenkins.

My question is: can anyone help me find uses of the term “biolinguistics”
by card-carrying linguists before 2000, other than the ones I mentioned?

My thanks to you all –

John Goldsmith
Date Posted: 07-May-2007
Linguistic Field(s): General Linguistics
LL Issue: 18.1379
Posted: 07-May-2007

Search Again

Back to Discussions Index