LINGUIST List 24.4413

Wed Nov 06 2013

Review: Cognitive Science; Neurolinguistics: Boeckx et al. (2012)

Editor for this issue: Joseph Salmons <>

Date: 22-May-2013
From: Jakob Steixner <>
Subject: Language, from a Biological Point of View
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Book announced at

EDITOR: Cedric BoeckxEDITOR: María del Carmen Horno-ChélizEDITOR: José-Luis Mendívil-GiróTITLE: Language, from a Biological Point of ViewSUBTITLE: Current Issues in BiolinguisticsPUBLISHER: Cambridge Scholars PublishingYEAR: 2012

REVIEWER: Jakob Michael Steixner, Universität Wien

SUMMARYThis book grew from a series of lectures “Language, brain and genes: lecturesin Biolinguistics” at the University of Zaragoza in 2009. It aims to presentup-to-date accounts of “a broad range of areas where currently a rapprochementbetween linguistics and biology is actively being sought” (p. 1), with animplicit focus on points of convergence between Generative Grammar (GG),specifically the Minimalist Program (MP), and evolutionary-developmentalbiology. The central questions outlined in the introduction are: what factorshave contributed to the current resurgence of interest in the biologicalfoundations of ‘biolinguistics’, in what ways has the intellectual context inwhich this interest takes place changed since the previous installment ofbiolinguistics as exemplified by Lenneberg (1967), and what opportunities andchallenges does this offers to linguists?

In addressing the question of what makes today’s intellectual context sofruitful for a new look at the biological foundations of language, the authorspropose the following factors:

1. The discovery of the FOXP2 gene and subsequent research on its evolutionaryhistory and interactions with other genes.

2. A shift of focus in (comparative) cognitive psychology from ‘highercognitive functions’ towards analysing basic building blocks and underlyingmechanisms. For language, this means that “[a]lthough much attention wasdevoted to” what Hauser et al. (2002) termed the “Faculty of Language in itsnarrow sense” (FLN), “it is perhaps the research on FLB [the Faculty ofLanguage 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 ofdevelopment and epigenetic mechanisms. This relativises the old‘nature-nurture’ debates.

4. The “granularity mismatch” that has hitherto hampered interdisciplinarycooperation between cognitive neuroscientists and linguists is beginning to betackled with linguistic models that are explicit about the computationalprimitives they presuppose.

5. From within theoretical linguistics, the formulation of the MinimalistProgram provides a framework for the needed bottom-up approach to the Facultyof Language (Chomsky 2007).

Against this background, the authors encourage readers to seize, as linguists,the opportunities offered by current developments beyond linguistics. Thebiolinguistic project requires linguists to “provide the elements thatresearchers from other fields must look for at the neural and genetic levels,and whose evolutionary origins must be traced back. But this is only feasibleto the extent that linguists are willing to engage in this interdisciplinarydialogue” (p. 8). The mission of the book is to enable readers to make thatstep.

The book is organised into three thematic parts with three chapters each,discussed in turn below.

PART I, LANGUAGE AND COGNITIONThis section outlines basic arguments about the nature of the language facultyand cognitive architecture, forming the theoretical backbone of the book. Itcontains chapters by Cedric Boeckx (“The I-Language Mosaic”), Víctor M. Longaand Guillermo Lorenzo (“Theoretical Linguistics Meets Development”), andJosé-Luís Mendívil-Giró (“The Myth of Language Diversity”). A common theme,especially of the first two, is trying to spell out implications forlinguistics and cognitive science stemming from theoretical developments inbiology, in particular the evolutionary-developmental perspective andcriticisms of an overly “genocentric” perspective on evolution andinheritance.

In his chapter, Cedric Boeckx contrasts a more traditional generative approachto biology with the ways in which he thinks a genuinely interdisciplinarybiolinguistics needs to take full benefit of developments in other fields. Hedraws a parallel between the shift towards a more bottom-up approach inlinguistics (the MP) and cognitive science at large (a shift to mechanisms andaway from syndromes as the unit of interest). We now suspect that “much of thecomplexity [of adult-state linguistic knowledge] is epiphenomenal, andemergent; attainable on the basis of very simple properties and processes” (p.27). This can be motivated by biological considerations: The presumably recentorigin of the Faculty of Language (FL) means that the underlyingneurobiological modifications must be limited. On this conceptual basis, hesketches a theory of adult grammars’ complexity arising fromgrammaticalisation-like processes and entrenchment of schemata duringontogeny. The initial state grammar may contain little more than unconstrainedmerge and symmetry-breaking mechanisms that will produce dependencies. He dubsthis approach “a softer, less specific, less genetic nativism” he believes tobe 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 thatdominated biology for most of the 20th century, and how it has affected theways in which nativist linguistics has conceived itself. The authors arguethat the time is ripe for biolinguists to take the status of Universal Grammar(UG) as the outcome of developmental processes seriously, which they arguerequires for MP to break with earlier versions of GG in a deeper sense thanmost would be comfortable with. The chapter critiques the “genocentricprogram” in biology, or “modern preformationism”, which the authorscounterpose with an evo-devo perspective that puts strong emphasis ondevelopmental processes which force us to reconsider “innate” traits as thosethat “reliably appear at certain points of a species-typical path ofdevelopment” (p. 65, cf. Mameli and Bateson 2006) rather than as the result ofa genetic blueprint. This forces linguists to adopt an “unorthodox linguisticnativism” dispensing with even basic tenets like the logical connection ofpoor stimuli to ‘rich’ genes. They illustrate this with an analysis of thefamous example of main auxiliary fronting as emerging from non-specificallylinguistic constraint. By bringing development into linguistic nativism andGG, the authors wish to reconceptualise UG as an “exceptional assembly ofcommon developmental factors”, as a set of limitations on possible grammarsgiven common developmental constraints acting on humans in a species-typical(social/linguistic) environment rather than as genetic instructions withspecific linguistic content.

In the most polemic chapter, Mendívil-Giró claims that the difference betweenGenerative Grammar and what he calls the Functional Cognitivist Paradigm (FCP)exemplified by Evans and Levinson (2009, henceforth EL) is at its base a clashbetween different epistemologies, GG adopting a deductive and FCP an inductiveperspective. The ‘myth’ of language diversity is claimed to follow from theinductive perspective that proceeds from individual languages. Furthermore, itis argued to stem from the “old anthropocentric prejudice that human beingsare essentially a matter of culture rather than nature” (p. 92, but see thepapers in Whiten et al. 2011, on perspectives for studying culture itself asan object of biology, watering down this distinction).

Mendívil-Giró argues that a naturalistic theory of UG does not require thekind of adaptations with specifically linguistic content Tomasello (1999,2009) or EL argue against. Generativists have stressed that it is sufficientfor FL to be unique as a system whose individual components can be exaptations(note, though, that the primarily linguistic function of the recursiveoperation 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 downplaysstructural principles and constraints imposed by entrenched developmentalpathways. In these terms, universals among human languages are explained asconvergence fuelled shared selective pressures under the FCP’s view, while theMinimalism defended here would analogise them to ‘deep homologies’, i.e.traits that seem to independently evolve in distantly related clades but oncloser inspection turn out to be highly parallel down to the molecular level.

PART II: LANGUAGE AND THE BRAINThe chapters in the second part look at how results from neuroscientific andneuropathological research on language processing and linguistic theory cancomplement and inform each other.

In Chapter 4, “The Role of Aphasic Disorders in the Study of theBrain-Language Relationship”, Fernando Cuetos discusses the role ofaphasiology for determining the neurobiological foundations of language in atime when neuro-imaging methods allow the study of healthy subjects with hightemporal and spatial resolution.

Cuetos argues that these modern methods have critical limitations of theirown. For example, the methods offering the best temporal resolutions,magneto-encephalography and electro-encephalography (MEG/EEG), only scan thesurface and are of little use in assessing the roles of subcortical nuclei. Onthe other hand, the potential insights from aphasic pathologies are diminishedby the perseverance of variants of the Wernicke-Geschwind model, implying anoverly simplistic architecture of FL. For aphasiology to reach its fullpotential of becoming a cornerstone of biolinguistics, it is required toabandon the focus on “macro-syndromes” and to move towards a close look atsub-syndromes, and associated symptoms, realising thus that “linguisticprocesses are the result of a pattern of interaction between differentregions” 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 discussionof word processing in sign languages. Contrasting results from word processingexperiments in signed languages with those from spoken languages offers adeeper understanding of the mechanisms involved by allowing us to disentanglemodality-dependent phenomena from the effects of more abstract principlesunderlying human linguistic capacity as such. In this vein Baus and Carreirasdiscuss evidence from phenomena such as ‘tip of the finger’, the sign-languageequivalent of ‘tip-of-the-tongue’ phenomena, as well results frompsycholinguistic experiments on sign-language word processing.

Itziar Laka’s chapter on “More than One Language in the Brain” discussesinsights from the study of bilinguals for a theory of the neurobiologicalunderpinnings of language. The prototypical subject of neurolinguisticresearch has been the monolingual brain, despite the fact that the study ofbilingual language processing can provide unique insights into questions suchas the plasticity of the FL or age-sensitivity and specificity of acquisition.The chapter selectively reviews results from neurocognitive and behaviouralstudies of bilingualism. Among others, the chapter discusses evidence that inbilinguals, both languages are always activated. This may explain theextra-linguistic benefits of bilingualism some studies hint at, such as abetter ability to ignore irrelevant information: If suppressing the firstlanguage during L2 use requires suppression of the simultaneously activated L1infrastructure, this might simply be the effect of training those controlstructures. From a biolinguistic perspective, possibly the most interestingaspect is differences between different linguistic levels in how much of aneffect late acquisition shows: Phonology and parts of syntax are most prone todisplay non-native effects while L2 learners appear to acquire a native-likelexicon relatively effortlessly. Much of the evidence thus accumulated iscompatible with Ullman’s (2004) thesis that the difference between proceduraland declarative memory and their respective developmental trajectoriesunderlies a ‘critical period’ for language acquisition.

PART III: LANGUAGE AND THE SPECIESThe chapters in this part discuss what we do and do not know about the geneticfoundations of FL, and the role and limitations of analogues and homologues inother species in hypothesising about its evolution. In doing so, all threechapters warn that the search for a genetic and evolutionary basis of‘language’, or even linguistic subsystems, can obscure the view of themechanisms that underlie linguistic capacities, and which may be more or lessbroadly shared with other animals or only gradually different from our closestrelatives.

In his chapter on “The Language Genes”, Antonio Benítez-Burraco covers recentadvances in linking specific genes with anomalous language development (mostfamously the FOXP2 story), but also warning about assumptions often implicitin their discussion. The very concept of a ‘Specific Language Disorder’ (SLI),and the widespread desire to exclude non-specific cognitive disorders thatalso affect language as input to a theory of the genetics of language, issymptomatic. A rich assembly of genes for language and language only, muchless genes for individual subcomponents of language, are a biologicallyimplausible concept given the ubiquity of pleiotropic effects. Findingnon-linguistic effects of a gene thus does not allow us to exclude it as acandidate even for a crucial prerequisite of FL. The author argues for a morenuanced version of ‘innatism’ (see also Mameli and Bateson 2006 for a cautionabout the use of ‘naïve’ innatism in behavioural science) which, while at oddswith traditional GG, is said to be compatible with a Minimalism taken to itslogical conclusions.

Guillermo Lorenzo, in a chapter on “The Evolution of the Faculty ofLanguage”, aims to shift the discussion beyond the question which, if any,primate behavioural syndromes language is an extension of. He argues thatlanguage the search for continuity in complex phenotypic traits may be invain. Small quantitative changes in gene expression at crucial points in ananimal’s developmental pathway can produce large phenotypic differences, andthus the appearance of novel traits in ways that seem to defy gradualism iflooked at from a superficial level.

Unlike direct precursors for language as an overall system, homologues andanalogues at the level of the computational primitives involved are ofinterest to the author. While the complexity of birdsong and monkey alarmcalls remains qualitatively below that of human language in all examplesstudied (at a Type 1 grammar in terms of the “Chomsky hierarchy”), Lorenzopoints to analyses of the knot-tying behaviour of weaver birds that take it torepresent a context-sensitive grammar. It is argued that what enables somespecies (humans and weaver birds) to reach the level of context-sensitivegrammars is primarily a quantitative difference in working memory: A T3grammar requires a stack-like WM, or a push-down automaton-like architecture,while T1 grammars only require keeping the latest element of any sequenceactivated, i.e. they are computable by a finite-state automaton.

Bridget Samuels’ final chapter on “Animal Minds and the Roots of HumanLanguage” is the only one that addresses phonology. Samuels starts from thefact that the standard Minimalist model of Core Grammar + interfaces, or theFLB/FLN distinction of Hauser et al. (2002) does not address the status ofphonology: The sensory-motor interface as usually conceived of seems to bestcorrespond to speech, or phonetics in terms of traditional linguistic levels.Samuels aims to define a proper place for phonology within a minimalistarchitecture. There are two conceivable approaches: Either (parts of)phonology falls into FLN, whether based on independent operations or on onesshared with / extended from Narrow Syntax, or, phonology could be located inFLB, using only mechanisms shared with other animals. Samuels advocates thelatter, in line with Chomsky’s stance of externalisation as an “afterthought”.While any enumeration of the required component capacities of phonology isnecessarily theory dependent, perhaps even more than for syntax, Samuels givesa tentative list and suggests animal homologues or analogues for each. Thediscussion of hierarchical structure in phonology is particularly interestingfor its parallels with and differences from syntactic structure, in thatphonological structure is flat and thus comparable to the production of manyanimal species. The chapter concludes that phonology (unlike syntax under theassumption of a non-empty FLN) is a possibly uniquely human combination ofshared component capacities.

EVALUATIONIn 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 forunexplained phenomena rather than being spelt out, some of the contributionsoffer a healthy reminder of what biolinguistics could become. This isparticularly true of the chapters by Baus and Carreira, Laka, andBenítez-Burraco, which provide up-to-date summaries of fields of study thatwill be less familiar to many theoretical linguists but which provide valuabletests for theories of the biological underpinnings of language. Providing suchbackground encourages working linguists to take interface conditionsseriously, as empirical claims that should be testable by the toolkits ofadjacent disciplines, and provides valuable pointers as to what they couldlook like.

These contributions take biology more seriously than many other recentpublications in ‘biolinguistics’. Nonetheless, the overall picture ofcontemporary biology, especially in Boeckx’s and Longa and Lorenzo’s chapters,will be perceived as one-sided by many biologists: It is arguably true thatmany cognitive scientists (especially those working in Evolutionary Psychology(EP)) continue to assume, at least implicitly, a simplistic and somewhatoutdated picture of biological evolution, and this has implications for theorigins of human language. The role of adaptation as the sole driving force ofbiological structure and change is often overestimated, and a one-to-onecorrespondence between genes and traits at least implicitly assumed (see alsoBolhuis et al. 2011 for criticisms of the standard EP view of evolution from abiological perspective, and Fitch 2012 on repercussions for discussions oflanguage). The authors in Part I go much further, though, in their attacksagainst the ‘gene-centric’ view of evolution than the current consensusallows. The effect is that the implications they draw for the biological studyof language hinge on biological concepts that themselves remain controversial.This is not to say that the more radical formulations of evo-devo andepigenetism should be ignored altogether by linguists, but anchoring theentire biolinguistic enterprise solely on those seems risky.

Despite occasional pronouncements (already in the introduction) that a genuineintegration of linguistics and cognitive biology requires dispensing withideological divides in linguistics itself, the book remains partial toGenerative Grammar and in particular the Minimalist Program. One contribution(Mendívil-Giró’s chapter) explicitly attacks ‘functionalist’ frameworks, andother more theoretically oriented contributions assume some version ofMinimalism, and while they sometimes suggest substantial modifications tostandard 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 ofhuman linguistic communication, issues such as our vocal learning/imitationabilities or communicative proclivities (Fitch’s 2011‘Mitteilungsbedfürfnis’), i.e. the phonetic and pragmatic levels, aresidelined almost entirely. Such a focus is of course legitimate, but sincethese are non-trivial requisites for human language as we know it with somepromising research going on, some readers might have hoped for a broader scopein a book with such broad title. Recent developments linking abstractstructure-building capacities with action patterns such as are employed intool use and manufacture, and the recognition that Broca’s area and itsanalogue in other apes are heavily involved in hierarchically structuredmanual 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 andpotential points of convergence between linguistic and biological theory thatare often too little known to a wider linguistic audience.

REFERENCESBolhuis, J.J., G.R. Brown, R.C. Richardson, and K.N. Laland (2011). Darwin inmind: new opportunities for evolutionary psychology. PLoS Biology 9(7),e1001109.

Chomsky, N. (2005). Three factors in language design. Linguistic Inquiry36(1), 1–22.

Chomsky, N. (2007). Approaching UG from below. In U. Sauerland and H.-M.Gärtner (Eds.), Interfaces + Recursion = Language? Chomsky’s minimalism andthe view from Syntax -Semantics, pp. 1–29. Berlin: Mouton de Gruyter.

Clahsen, H. and C. Felser (2006). How native-like is non-native languageprocessing? Trends in Cognitive Sciences 10(12), 564 – 570.

Evans, N. and S.C. Levinson (2009). The myth of language universals: Languagediversity and its importance for cognitive science. Behavioral and BrainSciences 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: NewPerspectives 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 LanguageEvolution: Constraints on Adaptation. Evolutionary Biology 39(4), 613–637.

Fitch, W.T., L. Huber, and T. Bugnyar (2010). Social Cognition and theEvolution of Language: Constructing Cognitive Phylogenies. Neuron 65, 795–814.

Fujita, K. (2009). A prospect for evolutionary adequacy: Merge and theevolution and development of human language. Biolinguistics 3(2), 128–153.

Hauser, M., N. Chomsky, and W.T. Fitch (2002). The faculty of language: Whatis 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 andPhilosophy 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 tolanguage: comparative perspectives on primate tool use, gesture and theevolution of human language. London: Royal Society. Theme Issue ofPhilosophical 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 oflanguage acquisition. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Ullman, M.T. (2004). Contributions of memory circuits to language: Thedeclarative/procedural model. Cognition 921(2), 231–270.

Whiten, A., R.A. Hinde, K.N. Laland, and C.B. Stringer (2011). CultureEvolves. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B: BiologicalSciences 366(1567), 938–948.

ABOUT THE REVIEWERJakob Steixner is a research assistant in theoretical linguistics at theDepartment of German Studies, University of Vienna. During his MA studies, hefocussed on interactions between syntax and information structure indetermining the availability of Negative Concord in a variety of German. Hiscurrent research, in cooperation with cognitive biologists and psychologistsfrom Vienna and Budapest, attempts to elucidate to what extent and in whichways generic cognitive and perceptual biases determine adjectival orderingrestrictions. More broadly, he is interested in a bottom-up approach to thelanguage-cognition interface, or empirical approaches to extralinguistic andnon-human correlates of the capacities underlying specific linguisticphenomena.

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