LINGUIST List 23.3675

Tue Sep 04 2012

Review: Cognitive Science; Language Acquisition; Neuroling.: Piattelli-Palmarini et al. (eds., 2009)

Editor for this issue: Anja Wanner <>

Date: 04-Sep-2012
From: Vanja Kljajevic <>
Subject: Of Minds and Language
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EDITORS: Massimo Piattelli-Palmarini, Juan Uriagereka and Pello SalaburuTITLE: Of Minds and LanguageSUBTITLE: A Dialogue with Noam Chomsky in the Basque CountryPUBLISHER: Oxford University Press.YEAR: 2009

Vanja Kljajevic, German Center for Neurodegenerative Diseases, Rostock, Germany


"Of Minds and Language" is a collection of papers in biolinguistics presented at aconference held at the University of the Basque Country in San Sebastián, June19th-22nd, 2006. The central speaker of the conference was Noam Chomsky, withwhom researchers from different fields discussed ideas on language as abiological system. The result is a book remarkably rich in ideas and yetthematically focused. The book consists of an Introduction, prepared by theeditors, and four parts: (1) "Overtures," (2) "On language, (3) "Onacquisition," and (4) "Open talks on open inquiries."

"Overtures" consist of eight chapters, beginning with Noam Chomsky's "Openingremarks". Chomsky reviews the history of biolinguistics, the main themes sinceits inception in the early 1950s, and its tasks. The main idea of biolinguisticsis that language has general properties of other biological systems. Language onthis view is an internal language, a computational system of the mind/brain thatgenerates structured expressions, interfacing the system of thought and thesensorimotor system. According to this view, factors that determine the growthof language in an individual are: genetic factors, experience, and the so-calledthird factor principles, which are not specific to language. What has changed inthe approach to the nature of language since the early days of generativegrammar is the perspective: While early generative grammar adopted the top-downapproach looking at how much of language should be attributed to UniversalGrammar (UG), the Minimalist Program has focused on the bottom-up approach - howlittle should be attributed to UG. Like in biology, a challenge for linguisticsis to reconcile unity and diversity, with the focus in both disciplines shiftingtowards unity. The tasks of biolinguistics in brief are: to create generativegrammars of particular languages, to explain language acquisition and languageevolution, to determine the neural substrates of language, and to explain theuse of this tacit system of knowledge. At the heart of biolinguistics is syntax,with 'Merge' as its core principle. It is an operation that enables an unboundedsystem of hierarchically structured expressions and which presumably marks theorigin of the language faculty.

Cedric Boeckx's chapter "The nature of Merge: consequences for language, mindand biology" discusses the nature of this operation, proposing that it may notbe unique to humans/language, and arguing for its decomposition into a 'Basic'grouping and 'Copy' operations. Finding common points between 'Merge' and othercognitive processes would then help to explain language evolution.

Randy Gallistel in "The foundational abstraction" discusses the issue of whetherlanguage is the foundation of abstractions. He approaches the issue bydiscussing whether nonhuman animals lack representational capacity and proceedsto review the evidence that birds and bees represent space, and that the birdsalso represent time and number, suggesting that these abstractions areprimitives of mentation, independent of the language faculty itself.

In "Evolingo: the nature of the language faculty," Marc Hausner argues thatthere is a new way of thinking about language evolution. Language is amind-internal computational system designed for thought and often externalizedin communication. Initially, language evolved as a tool for thought andplanning; later it became externalized and began to be used for communication.An important distinction in Hausner's approach is between faculty of language inthe narrow sense (FLN) and language in the broad sense (FLB), where the latterincludes all the mental faculties that support language (Hausner, Fitch, &Chomsky 2005). The distinction is between the mental features that enablecomputations of language and those that are specific to language. FNL isuniquely human and specific to language as a domain of knowledge. Evolingo is anew, mostly methodological approach to study of language evolution that aims toanswer questions such as whether there are language specific conceptualresources. Hausner presents experimental findings on quantification (thesingular-plural and mass-count distinctions) that indicates differences inrepresentation between monkeys and prelinguistic children in the first case, andmonkeys and infants in the second case.

Gabriel Dover's chapter "Pointers to a biology of language" discusses thefaculty of language from a perspective that differentiates in biology between alevel at which the laws of form that rely on laws of physics and chemistry applyand a higher level at which variability prevails and uninhibited interactiontakes place. Discussing possible biological equivalents of principles andparameters, Dover concludes that there is "no obvious distinction" betweenprinciples and parameters in network biology or between core and peripheraloperations, arguing for subjectivity at all levels.

Donata Vercelli and Massimo Piattelli-Palmarini argue in "Language in anepigenetic framework" that classical genetics alone cannot explain all thefeatures of language as a biological trait, proposing that epigenetic mechanismsserve to implement the broader faculty of language. Language as a "minimaxsolution" is a kind of compromise "between loading the biology, loading thegenetics, and having a reasonably complex acquisition process" (p. 107).

Christopher Cherniak's chapter "Brain wiring optimization and non-genomicnativism" is about the idea that since the brain does not have unboundedconnection resources, its wiring has to be optimized. The optimization is innatebut not genome-dependent, arising from the laws of physics.

The second part of the book, "On language," begins with Wolfram Hinzen's chapter"Hierarchy, Merge, and Truth". Hinzen discusses the problem of origin andexplanation of human semantics, and proposes a new, radically minimalist modelof language architecture, in which "syntax is the skeleton of thought" (p. 128)and thus the only system needed. Since there is no semantics as a separatecomponent in this model, it has no conceptual or intentional interface.

James Higginbotham's chapter "Two interfaces" discusses the interface betweensyntax and semantics, and the interface between linguistic semantics and (ourbeliefs about) the world. With regard to the former, he points out issues oncompositionality, such as the idea that languages may differ with regard towhere compositionality breaks down, and how semantic computations spill into alexicon, in different languages. He argues against the simplification of syntax,which would require a more complex semantics.

Luigi Rizzi's chapter "Movement and concepts of locality" opens by pointing outthat movement is a special case of 'Merge' and that it is inherently local.Rizzi focusses on the questions of why movement is successive and how it isimplemented, and discusses two concepts of locality -- the concept ofintervention and that of impenetrability -- proposing a way to unify them withina version of relativized minimality.

Juan Uriagereka's chapter "Uninterpretable features in syntactic evolution"raises the question of why there are uninterpretable features in language, suchas Case, taking an interesting perspective from which these are 'viral'features, intruders the system needs to eliminate.

Angela Friederici in "The brain differentiates hierarchical and probabilisticgrammars" discusses the evidence showing that different brain areas supportprocessing of hierarchical and probabilistic grammars: a phylogenetically oldercortex, the frontal operculum, supports the processing of local dependencies andlocal phrase structure building, while the phylogenetically younger corticalarea -- Broca's area -- supports processing of hierarchical dependencies.Incidentally, the latter type of grammar cannot be learned by other species.

The last chapter in this section is a round table discussion on "Languageuniversals: yesterday, today, and tomorrow". For Boeckx, given that language ispart of biology, language universals are deep, law-like principles bestunderstood as a Galilean type of explanations: exceptionless, abstract,invariant, and hidden. Janet Dean Fodor considers the universals from theinnateness point of view, suggesting that in addition to absolute universalsthere should be 'soft universals' that guide language acquisition, emphasizingthe role of prediction and syntactic markedness in this process. Lila Gleitmandiscusses the question of how children learn meanings of words and how theymanage to pick the correct meaning from a typically rich context in which thelearning takes place. Luigi Rizzi discusses the universals from the perspectiveof variation: how to best express the fact that some properties of language areinvariant while others differ across languages?

The third part of the book "On acquisition" consists of four chapters. RochelGelman opens her chapter "Innate learning and beyond" with remarks on relevance,similarity, and attention in language acquisition, focusing then on thedistinction between the core- and non-core domains. The former are innate,universal, implicit; and probably restricted in number mental structures thatenable learning by requiring only data input from the environment. The latterdomains, in contrast, are non-universal, numerous, and are hard to learn ("hellon wheels"), because they require both constructing a mental structure andfinding the data relevant for these structures.

Lila Gleitman's contribution "The learned component of language learning"addresses the question of why it takes so much time for children to learn words,and why verbs are more difficult to acquire than nouns. The process of wordlearning is mapping of sounds to meanings, in which information availability(rather than concept availability) plays an important role; both linguistic andextralinguistic information contributes to the process, with syntax as the key cue.

Janet Dean Fodor in "Syntax acquisition: an evaluation measure after all?"argues that, instead of "switching," children actually have to decode parametersin order to acquire syntax of a particular language. However, given thecomputational limitations of a developing brain, this decoding can only bepartial. Nevertheless, it allows a child to arrive at a correct grammar bytesting first the smallest grammars from a lattice that must be assumed and bykeeping track of the disconfirmed grammars.

Thomas Bever in "Remarks on the individual basis for linguistic structures"approaches the issue of language universals via the Extended ProjectionPrinciple (EPP), the puzzling requirement that all sentences must have a subjectNP, even if it is semantically empty. Bever proposes that the EPP results fromthe Canonical Form Constraint that holds for sentences: in order to affordacquisition, sentences of a language must conform to the CFC, i.e., they mustsound like sentences of that language.

Part four "Open talks on open inquiries" consists of five chapters. MarcHauser's chapter "The Illusion of Biological Variation: A Minimalist Approach"adopts the view of universal minimalism and argues that biological variation isactually an illusion, and that a closer look reveals that the source ofvariation is based on certain basic rules and computations that generate thevariation. As an example, he points to the resemblance between the coreprocesses that lead to variation in biology -- rearrangement, repetition,magnification, and division -- and the core processes in language as defined byminimalism - 'Copy,' 'Merge,' 'Move,' etc. This nicely illustrates howminimalism has opened the door to new ways of thinking about cognition, languageand its evolution.

In "What is there in Universal Grammar? On innate and specific aspects oflanguage," Itziar Laka discusses the issues of the contents of UG, reviewingevidence on whether various mechanisms involved in language and presumablyinnate are also language specific, such as categorical perception and rhythmperception.

Nuria Sebastián-Gallés in "Individual differences in foreign sound perception:perceptual or linguistic difficulties?" discusses the problem of variation inlanguages and why some people are better in learning second language than others.

Angela Friederici's "Language and the brain" presents a model of auditorylanguage comprehension, according to which syntactic processing is followed bysemantic processing. She presents neuroimaging evidence on the temporal andspatial dynamics of these processes as well as evidence indicating that prosodicprocessing is supported by the right hemisphere.

Noam Chomsky concludes the book by reviewing and discussing the main points ofthe conference: the discrete infinity of language, the need to decompose'Merge,' the issue of why there are uninterpretable features in language, therole of the core vs. other domains in language acquisition, the minimaxsolution, etc. Two points that stand out are at the heart of the conference: (i)scientific history often overlooks important ideas that reappear much later, asin the case of generative grammar; (ii) the seemingly indefinite variety inbiology and linguistics is actually an illusion.


The main contribution of the book is in further establishing biolinguistics --an effort that began about 50 years ago, attracting scientists from variousdisciplines and provoking debates (e.g., Hauser, Chomsky, & Fitch, 2002;Chomsky, 2005; Fitch, Hauser, & Chomsky, 2005; Jackendoff & Pinker, 2005; Pinker& Jackendoff, 2005). Some of the issues that have been debated in the literature(e.g., evolution of language, recursion, 'Merge') are also extensively discussedin the book, together with new proposals that may help to move towards solution.The book will additionally help in clearing confusions about the concepts suchas 'innate', 'growth of language', 'selective' versus 'instructive', etc. thatsometimes arise in discussions on language (see Jenkins (2000) for details).Another important feature of the book is the empirical evidence reviewed andpresented in support of the theoretical views discussed. It is in particularinteresting to observe how interdisciplinary evidence comes together to supportthe minimalist view. One challenge associated with the general biolinguisticseffort that is often mentioned in the book is finding an appropriate level ofgranularity at which linguistic phenomena could be studied from the biologicalperspective. The problem has an additional dimension, which is ontologicalincommensurability, as shown on the question of how to best study language inthe brain (Poeppel & Embick, 2005). The book is well organized, with thechapters unified into thematic sections, and not presented in the order in whichthe talks were given at the conference. Each talk was followed by a shortdiscussion -- also presented in the book, which gives the reader an opportunityto learn about the interests and opinions of the audience. Finally, although thebook covers a wide range of topics, biolinguistic issues are far too numerous tobe all covered in one conference. Nevertheless, readers will enjoy thisremarkable book.


Chomsky, N. (2005). Three factors in language design. Linguistic Inquiry, 36, 1-22.

Fitch, W.T., Hauser, M.D. & Chomsky, N. (2005). The evolution of the languagefaculty: Clarification and implications. Cognition, 97, 179-210.

Hauser, M.D., Chomsky, N. & Fitch, T.W. (2002). The faculty of language: What isit, who has it, and how did it evolve? Science, 298, 1569-1579.

Jackendoff, R. & Pinker, S. (2005). The nature of language faculty and itsimplications for evolution of language (Reply to Fitch, Hauser, and Chomsky).Cognition, 97, 211-225.

Jenkins, L. (2000). Biolinguistics. Exploring the Biology of Language.Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Pinker, S. & Jackendoff , R. (2005). The faculty of language: what's specialabout it? Cognition, 95, 201-236.

Poeppel, D. & Embick, D. (2005). Defining the relation between linguistics andneuroscience. In: A. Cutler (Ed.), Twenty-First Century Psycholinguistics: FourCornerstones. 103-118. Mahwah, N.J.: Lawrence Erlbaum.


Vanja Kljajevic holds a Ph.D. in Cognitive Science from CarletonUniversity, Ottawa, Canada. Her interests include language disorders,post-stroke neuroplasticity, language processing in the neurologicallyintact population, and cognitive deterioration in dementia. She currentlystudies Alzheimer's disease and mild cognitive impairment by usingneuroimaging methods.

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