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Review of  Of Minds and Language

Reviewer: Vanja Kljajevic
Book Title: Of Minds and Language
Book Author: Massimo Piattelli-Palmarini Juan Uriagereka Pello Salaburu
Publisher: Oxford University Press
Linguistic Field(s): Psycholinguistics
Cognitive Science
Language Acquisition
Issue Number: 23.3675

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EDITORS: Massimo Piattelli-Palmarini, Juan Uriagereka and Pello Salaburu
TITLE: Of Minds and Language
SUBTITLE: A Dialogue with Noam Chomsky in the Basque Country
PUBLISHER: Oxford University Press.
YEAR: 2009

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


“Of Minds & Language” is a collection of papers in biolinguistics presented at a
conference held at the University of the Basque Country in San Sebastián, June
19th-22nd, 2006. The central speaker of the conference was Noam Chomsky, with
whom researchers from different fields discussed ideas on language as a
biological system. The result is a book remarkably rich in ideas and yet
thematically focused. The book consists of an Introduction, prepared by the
editors, and four parts: (1) “Overtures,” (2) “On Language, (3) “On
acquisition,” and (4) “Open talks on open inquiries.”

“Overtures” consist of eight chapters, beginning with Noam Chomsky’s “Opening
remarks”. Chomsky reviews the history of biolinguistics, the main themes since
its inception in the early 1950s, and its tasks. The main idea of biolinguistics
is that language has general properties of other biological systems. Language on
this view is an internal language, a computational system of the mind/brain that
generates structured expressions, interfacing the system of thought and the
sensorimotor system. According to this view, factors that determine the growth
of language in an individual are: genetic factors, experience, and the so-called
third factor principles, which are not specific to language. What has changed in
the approach to the nature of language since the early days of generative
grammar is the perspective: While early generative grammar adopted the top-down
approach looking at how much of language should be attributed to Universal
Grammar (UG), the Minimalist Program has focused on the bottom-up approach - how
little should be attributed to UG. Like in biology, a challenge for linguistics
is to reconcile unity and diversity, with the focus in both disciplines shifting
towards unity. The tasks of biolinguistics in brief are: to create generative
grammars of particular languages, to explain language acquisition and language
evolution, to determine the neural substrates of language, and to explain the
use 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 unbounded
system of hierarchically structured expressions and which presumably marks the
origin of the language faculty.

Cedric Boeckx’s chapter “The nature of Merge: consequences for language, mind
and biology” discusses the nature of this operation, proposing that it may not
be unique to humans/language, and arguing for its decomposition into a ‘Basic’
grouping and ‘Copy’ operations. Finding common points between ‘Merge’ and other
cognitive processes would then help to explain language evolution.

Randy Gallistel in “The foundational abstraction” discusses the issue of whether
language is the foundation of abstractions. He approaches the issue by
discussing whether nonhuman animals lack representational capacity and proceeds
to review the evidence that birds and bees represent space, and that the birds
also represent time and number, suggesting that these abstractions are
primitives of mentation, independent of the language faculty itself.

In “Evolingo: the nature of the language faculty,” Marc Hausner argues that
there is a new way of thinking about language evolution. Language is a
mind-internal computational system designed for thought and often externalized
in communication. Initially, language evolved as a tool for thought and
planning; later it became externalized and began to be used for communication.
An important distinction in Hausner’s approach is between faculty of language in
the narrow sense (FLN) and language in the broad sense (FLB), where the latter
includes all the mental faculties that support language (Hausner, Fitch, &
Chomsky 2005). The distinction is between the mental features that enable
computations of language and those that are specific to language. FNL is
uniquely human and specific to language as a domain of knowledge. Evolingo is a
new, mostly methodological approach to study of language evolution that aims to
answer questions such as whether there are language specific conceptual
resources. Hausner presents experimental findings on quantification (the
singular-plural and mass-count distinctions) that indicates differences in
representation between monkeys and prelinguistic children in the first case, and
monkeys and infants in the second case.

Gabriel Dover’s chapter “Pointers to a biology of language” discusses the
faculty of language from a perspective that differentiates in biology between a
level at which the laws of form that rely on laws of physics and chemistry apply
and a higher level at which variability prevails and uninhibited interaction
takes place. Discussing possible biological equivalents of principles and
parameters, Dover concludes that there is “no obvious distinction” between
principles and parameters in network biology or between core and peripheral
operations, arguing for subjectivity at all levels.

Donata Vercelli and Massimo Piattelli-Palmarini argue in “Language in an
epigenetic framework” that classical genetics alone cannot explain all the
features of language as a biological trait, proposing that epigenetic mechanisms
serve to implement the broader faculty of language. Language as a “minimax
solution” is a kind of compromise “between loading the biology, loading the
genetics, and having a reasonably complex acquisition process” (p. 107).

Christopher Cherniak’s chapter “Brain wiring optimization and non-genomic
nativism” is about the idea that since the brain does not have unbounded
connection resources, its wiring has to be optimized. The optimization is innate
but 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 and
explanation of human semantics, and proposes a new, radically minimalist model
of 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 separate
component in this model, it has no conceptual or intentional interface.

James Higginbotham’s chapter “Two interfaces” discusses the interface between
syntax and semantics, and the interface between linguistic semantics and (our
beliefs about) the world. With regard to the former, he points out issues on
compositionality, such as the idea that languages may differ with regard to
where compositionality breaks down, and how semantic computations spill into a
lexicon, 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 out
that 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 is
implemented, and discusses two concepts of locality -- the concept of
intervention and that of impenetrability -- proposing a way to unify them within
a version of relativized minimality.

Juan Uriagereka’s chapter “Uninterpretable features in syntactic evolution”
raises the question of why there are uninterpretable features in language, such
as 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 probabilistic
grammars” discusses the evidence showing that different brain areas support
processing of hierarchical and probabilistic grammars: a phylogenetically older
cortex, the frontal operculum, supports the processing of local dependencies and
local phrase structure building, while the phylogenetically younger cortical
area -- 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 “Language
universals: yesterday, today, and tomorrow”. For Boeckx, given that language is
part of biology, language universals are deep, law-like principles best
understood as a Galilean type of explanations: exceptionless, abstract,
invariant, and hidden. Janet Dean Fodor considers the universals from the
innateness point of view, suggesting that in addition to absolute universals
there should be ‘soft universals’ that guide language acquisition, emphasizing
the role of prediction and syntactic markedness in this process. Lila Gleitman
discusses the question of how children learn meanings of words and how they
manage to pick the correct meaning from a typically rich context in which the
learning takes place. Luigi Rizzi discusses the universals from the perspective
of variation: how to best express the fact that some properties of language are
invariant while others differ across languages?

The third part of the book “On acquisition” consists of four chapters. Rochel
Gelman opens her chapter “Innate learning and beyond” with remarks on relevance,
similarity, and attention in language acquisition, focusing then on the
distinction between the core- and non-core domains. The former are innate,
universal, implicit; and probably restricted in number mental structures that
enable learning by requiring only data input from the environment. The latter
domains, in contrast, are non-universal, numerous, and are hard to learn (“hell
on wheels”), because they require both constructing a mental structure and
finding 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 word
learning is mapping of sounds to meanings, in which information availability
(rather than concept availability) plays an important role; both linguistic and
extralinguistic 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 parameters
in order to acquire syntax of a particular language. However, given the
computational limitations of a developing brain, this decoding can only be
partial. Nevertheless, it allows a child to arrive at a correct grammar by
testing first the smallest grammars from a lattice that must be assumed and by
keeping 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 Projection
Principle (EPP), the puzzling requirement that all sentences must have a subject
NP, even if it is semantically empty. Bever proposes that the EPP results from
the Canonical Form Constraint that holds for sentences: in order to afford
acquisition, sentences of a language must conform to the CFC, i.e., they must
sound like sentences of that language.

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

In “What is there in Universal Grammar? On innate and specific aspects of
language,” Itziar Laka discusses the issues of the contents of UG, reviewing
evidence on whether various mechanisms involved in language and presumably
innate are also language specific, such as categorical perception and rhythm

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

Angela Friederici’s “Language and the brain” presents a model of auditory
language comprehension, according to which syntactic processing is followed by
semantic processing. She presents neuroimaging evidence on the temporal and
spatial dynamics of these processes as well as evidence indicating that prosodic
processing is supported by the right hemisphere.

Noam Chomsky concludes the book by reviewing and discussing the main points of
the conference: the discrete infinity of language, the need to decompose
‘Merge,’ the issue of why there are uninterpretable features in language, the
role of the core vs. other domains in language acquisition, the minimax
solution, etc. Two points that stand out are at the heart of the conference: (i)
scientific history often overlooks important ideas that reappear much later, as
in the case of generative grammar; (ii) the seemingly indefinite variety in
biology 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 various
disciplines 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 discussed
in the book, together with new proposals that may help to move towards solution.
The book will additionally help in clearing confusions about the concepts such
as ‘innate’, ‘growth of language’, ‘selective’ versus ‘instructive’, etc. that
sometimes arise in discussions on language (see Jenkins (2000) for details).
Another important feature of the book is the empirical evidence reviewed and
presented in support of the theoretical views discussed. It is in particular
interesting to observe how interdisciplinary evidence comes together to support
the minimalist view. One challenge associated with the general biolinguistics
effort that is often mentioned in the book is finding an appropriate level of
granularity at which linguistic phenomena could be studied from the biological
perspective. The problem has an additional dimension, which is ontological
incommensurability, as shown on the question of how to best study language in
the brain (Poeppel & Embick, 2005). The book is well organized, with the
chapters unified into thematic sections, and not presented in the order in which
the talks were given at the conference. Each talk was followed by a short
discussion -- also presented in the book, which gives the reader an opportunity
to learn about the interests and opinions of the audience. Finally, although the
book covers a wide range of topics, biolinguistic issues are far too numerous to
be all covered in one conference. Nevertheless, readers will enjoy this
remarkable 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 language
faculty: Clarification and implications. Cognition, 97, 179-210.

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

Jackendoff, R. & Pinker, S. (2005). The nature of language faculty and its
implications 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 special
about it? Cognition, 95, 201-236.

Poeppel, D. & Embick, D. (2005). Defining the relation between linguistics and
neuroscience. In: A. Cutler (Ed.), Twenty-First Century Psycholinguistics: Four
Cornerstones. 103-118. Mahwah, N.J.: Lawrence Erlbaum.
ABOUT THE REVIEWER Vanja Kljajevic holds a Ph.D. in Cognitive Science from Carleton University, Ottawa, Canada. Her interests include language disorders, post-stroke neuroplasticity, language processing in the neurologically intact population, and cognitive deterioration in dementia. She currently studies Alzheimer’s disease and mild cognitive impairment by using neuroimaging methods.

Format: Paperback
ISBN: 0199544670
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