Wednesday, November 26, 2008


Orignally I just wanted to write about an article in the November 14th issue of Science about describing The „Biolinguistic Agenda“ by Marc Hauser and Thomas Bever, but as it seems it has already been covered by Edmund Blair Bolles over at Babel's Dawn.

Bolles is very critical of the generative enterprise and also seems to be rather unhappy with Hauser & Bever's (2008) article. He writes:

the paper […] shows where riders in biolinguistic's conservative caboose think the train is going, and for the way it clarifies how much our present-day understanding has changed from what it was in the recent past.

Although I share many of the problems he has with the generative enterprise, I still think he is a bit hard on Hauser & Bever. To elaborate on what is meant by biolinguistics, I'll refer to an article published in the foundational issue of the journal “Biolinguistics” called “The Biolinguistics Manifesto” by Cedrick Boeckx and Kleanthes K. Grohmann.

Bolles criticizes the definition of biolinguistics that Hauser & Bever give, which as he rightly points out, is a bit technical. They simply gloss it as the

“ study of the computational systems inherent to language.”

Bolles argues that biolinguistics would be better and simpler defined as “the study of how human brains produce language.” But what he seems to forget is that biolinguistics is a term most often used by researchers in a Chomskyan vein to refer to biological and cognitively but at the same time often Chomskyan and formally oriented studies of human language.

They use this term to differentiate themselves from other biologically and cognitively oriented branches of linguistics such as Cognitive Linguistics or the neurobiological study of language, neurolinguistics. On the other hand, they also use the term

to highlight the commitment of the generative enterprise to the biological foundations of language, and to emphasize the necessarily interdisciplinary character of such enterprise” (Boeckx & Grohmann 2007 : 2)

Thus the journal Biolinguistics primarily publishes articles written in a Chomskyan vein (some of them seeming quite opaque and fanciful to the informed layman, such as articles on the Optimal Growth in Phrase Structure or the Combinatorics for Metrical Feet) but also critical commentaries, for example by Dan Dediu and Robert Ladd.

According to Boeckx & Grohmann (2007) biolinguistics, sees “the study of the language faculty as a branch of biology, at a suitable level of abstraction" and focuses on the following questions:

"1. What is knowledge of language?

2. How is that knowledge acquired?

3. How is that knowledge put to use?

4. How is that knowledge implemented in the brain?

5. How did that knowledge emerge in the species"

Hauser & Bever (2008): write that

"to fulfill a biolinguistic agenda [...] we must address the rules and constraints that underlie a mature speaker's knowledge of language; how these rules and constraints are acquired; and whether they are mediated by language-specific mechanisms. We also need to distinguish which rules and constraints are shared with other animals and how they evolved, and to ask how knowledge of language is used in communicative expressions.”

Bolles rightly remarks that the definition of Hauser & Bever (2008):

catches the flow only in one direction, from rules in the brain to external "instantiation" of the rule. It ignores the way language can reflect many other things.”

In my opinion Boeckx & Grohmann 's (2007) questions of How knowledge is acquired and implemented in the brain seems to be open to all kinds of external factors and two-way processes people like Morten Christensen, Nick Chater, Simon Kirby, and others focus on.

And though the biolinguistic agenda is of course incomplete, I think the problem has to be approached from both sides.

Boeckx & Grohmann (2007) note this by quoting the earliest known definition of researchers in a biolinguistic paradigma. They saw themselves as looking

upon language study […] as a natural science, and hence regard[ing] language as an integrated group of biological processes“ and seeking „an explanation of all language phenomena in the functional integration of tissue and environment” (Meader & Muyskens 1950: 9).“

As Bolles writes, biolinguistics is not able to answer all of the questions that come up when studying language, and its an open questions which questions are the most important ones.

But if they hold up their end in finding out more about the internal nature of what „differentiates my granddaughter from rocks, bees, cats and chimpanzees” (Chomsky 2002), when they are all placed in the same environment, maybe researchers from other directions are better able to flesh out what external factors contribute to the wonderful phenomenon of language.


Boeckx, Cedrick and Kleanthes K. Grohmann (2007): The Biolinguistics Manifesto. Biolinguistics 1. 1-8.

Chomsky, Noam (2000): Chomsky, Noam (2000) The Architecture of Language, edited by Nirmalanshu Mukherji, Bibudhendra Narayan Patnaik, and Rama Kant Agnihotri. Oxford University Press.

Hauser, Marc & Thomas Bever (2008): A Biolinguistic Agenda. Science 322, 1057 – 1059.

Meader, Clarence L. & John H. Muyskens. )(1950). Handbook of Biolinguistics. Toledo: H.C. Weller

No comments: