What is Biolinguistics?
Biolinguistics is a young discipline (no more than 50 years of history), highly multidisciplinary, whose objective is to study articulated human language, understood as a natural organ of our species. Formal linguistics (fundamentally the minimalist program of formal Chomskian grammar), biology, psychology, neurology, genetics or neuroscience (among other disciplines) try to join forces in an attempt to understand the biological foundations of our most specific organ: natural language.
The “language faculty”, together with the most modern and sophisticated acquisitions of the human mind, may not be much more than 50,000 or 60,000 years old, coinciding with the moment when the first human beings from which we descended went through a ” Population » bottleneck somewhere in our deep history in Africa. Probably human language provided the necessary stimulus to make the ” great leap forward»Of humanization, for using the recycled expression of Jared Diamond. It is known that the seemingly “mysterious” character of our peculiar acquisition significantly separated the founders of modern evolutionary theory. Unlike Darwin, Wallace considered that man’s capacity for aesthetics, communication and symbolism could not rest on natural selection, but required “some other influence, law or agency.”
The history of language study is of course as old as the ancient civilizations of Greece and India. The mystery of the language also intrigued Galileo, marveled the authors of Port-Royal and baffled Gadamer, whose origins he saw filled with darkness. But the modern science of language started only in the mid-twentieth century, after what they called « cognitive revolution»And that was the step« from the study of behavior and its products (such as texts) to the internal mechanisms that take place in thought and action »(Chomsky, 2000). Language has since been studied as a “generative grammar” with the amazing ability to produce virtually infinite terms, similar to natural numbers. Language, if not an instinct (Pinker, 1994), is at least a faculty that human beings develop organically. As Chomsky himself (2005) points out, it is not something children do, it is something that happens to them from an “initial state” that is shared by all mankind. Up to a point, we all speak a common language. The theory of ” principles and parameters»Tries to unravel for years what are the universal, specific bases of the language faculty, to distinguish them from local and variable parameters. Marc Hauser has proposed using this theoretical framework as a reference for a new understanding of moral science.
Biolinguistics, whose term seems to have been coined by Massimo Piattelli-Palmarini at an MIT conference in 1974, arises from the encounter between classical linguistics and natural sciences. As an evolutionary discipline, its objective can be broken down into the study of next and final causes of language, that is, of the physical mechanisms involved in the linguistic faculty as well as in its place within the evolution of the species. Its character is, consequently, clearly naturalistic (Darwinist, and not Wallacist), because it is about studying language not as a mystical acquisition but as a part – however unique – of the natural world. The language of a person corresponds to a peculiar state of the physical mind, with the organic structure of the brain.
One of the basic questions for this research program is to determine to what extent the principles of language imply a single cognitive system or presuppose similar “formal arrangements” that hypothetically can be found in other cognitive domains, both human and animal. The effort to find homologous elements in nonhuman domains of the natural world is an important part of the “minimalist program.” Chomsky, Hauser and Tecumseh Fitch (2002) distinguish, in this sense, between the Faculty of Language in the Broad Sense (FLA), which includes a “sensory-motor” and “conceptual-intentional” system necessary but not sufficient for language, and the Faculty of language in the narrow sense(FLE), which includes the computational linguistic system itself, regardless of the other systems with which it interacts. The central property of FLE rests on the infinite potential of language to generate discrete expressions, and consists of recursion (that fabulously human operation that consists of inserting a phrase into a phrase of the same type: «A man walks down the street» + «A man wears a hat» = «A man with a hat walks down the street»).
The great empirical challenge today is to determine what part of the inheritance of our evolutionary history as primates (about 6 million years) we remain unchanged, and which part is qualitatively new. For this, biolinguists should not only study the language of the human mind, but also its possible precursors in animal protolanguages, from insects to songbirds. Juan Uriagereka, whom we are pleased to interview in Culture 3.0, is one of our best experts, and a member of the most active network of researchers in this field.