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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 perception.
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:
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