Massimo Piattelli-Palmarini

Biolinguistics is the study of language with respect to biology. So named by Massimo Piattelli-Palmarini at a 1971 international meeting at MIT, biolinguistics is a highly interdisciplinary field, including linguistics, biology, neuroscience, psychology, mathematics, and others. By embracing natural sciences, it seeks to yield a framework by which we can understand the fundamentals of the faculty of language. Biolinguistics, also called the biolinguistic enterprise or the biolinguistic approach, is believed to have its origins in Noam Chomsky’s and Eric Lenneberg’s work that began in the 1950s as a reaction to then-dominant behaviorist paradigm. Fundamentally, biolinguistics challenges the view of human language acquisition as a behavior based on stimulus-response interactions and associations.[1] Chomsky and Lenneberg militated against it by arguing for the innate knowledge of language. Chomsky in 1960s proposed the Language Acquisition Device (LAD) as a hypothetical tool for language acquisition that only humans are born with. Similarly, Lenneberg (1967)[2] formulated the Critical Period Hypothesis, the main idea of which is that language acquisition is biologically constrained. These works were regarded as pioneers in the shaping of biolinguistic thought, in what was in effect the beginning of a change in paradigm in the study of language.[3]


Darwinism inspired many researchers to study language, in particular the evolution of language, mainly by means of biology. Dating all the way back to 1821, German linguist August Scheilurer was the representative pioneer of biolinguistics, discussing the evolution of language based on Darwin’s theory of evolution. Since linguistics had been believed to be a form of historical science under the influence of the Société de Linguistique de Paris, speculations of the origin of language were not permitted.[4] As a result, hardly did any prominent linguist write about the origin of language apart from American linguist Hugo Schuchardt. The term “biolinguistics” was coined by Massimo Piattelli-Palmarini at a 1971 international meeting at MIT, and the first Biolinguistic conference was organized by him in 1974, bringing together evolutionary biologists, neuroscientists, linguists, and others interested in the development of language in the individual, its origins and evolution.[5] In 1975, the New York Academy conference was held, after which numerous works on the origin of language were published.[6] In 1997, the 40th anniversary of transformational-generative grammar was held, at which Lyle Jenkins wrote an article called "Biolinguistics: structure development and evolution of language".[7] Along with Uriagereka’s introductory text written in 1998, their work renewed interest in biolinguistics, catalysing many linguists to look into biolinguistics with their colleagues in adjacent scientific disciplines.[8] Both Jenkins and Uriagereka stressed the importance of addressing the emergence of the language faculty in humans. At around the same time, geneticists discovered a link between the language deficit manifest by the KE family members and the gene FOXP2. Although FOXP2 is not the gene responsible for language,[9] this discovery brought many linguists and scientists together to interpret this data, renewing the interest of biolinguistics.

Though many linguists have differing opinions when it comes to the history of biolinguistics, Chomsky believes that the history of biolinguistics was simply the history of transformational grammar. While Di Sciullo claims that the interdisciplinary research of biology and linguistics in the 1950s-1960s led to the rise of biolinguistics, Jenkins believes that biolinguistics was the outcome of transformational grammarians studying human linguistic and biological mechanism. On the other hand, the linguists Martin Nowak and Charles Yang argue that biolinguistics originated in the 1970s, and that it is not synonymous with transformational grammar, but rather a new branch of the linguistics-biology research paradigm initiated by transformational grammar.[10]



Darwinism is a theory of biological evolution developed by Charles Darwin, stating that all species of organisms arise and develop through the natural selection of small, inherited variations that increase the individual's ability to compete, survive, and reproduce.[11] The theory has since then been adopted and applied by many researchers and scholars into various fields of research. In his book Descent of Man, Darwin described how language might have evolved through natural and sexual selection, comparing birds learning to sing to infants babbling. Darwin’s theory regarding the origin of language attempts to answer two important questions:

  • Whether individual languages undergo something like selection as they evolve, and
  • Whether selection played a role in producing the power of articulate language in humans; and, if it did, whether the selection was primarily responsible for the emergence of that power, or just one of several contributing causes.[12]

Darwinism addressed the arguments of other researchers and scholars such as Max Müller by arguing that language use, while requiring a certain mental capacity, would also stimulate brain development, enabling long trains of thought and strengthening reasoning power. Darwin drew an extended analogy between the evolution of languages and species, noting in each domain the presence of rudiments, of crossing and blending, and of variation, and remarking on how each developed gradually through a process of struggle.[13]

Chomsky's TheoriesEdit

Universal Grammar and Generative GrammarEdit
Noam Chomsky

In the early 1950s, Chomsky constructed the five core questions of biolinguistics

  • What constitutes the knowledge of language?
  • How is the knowledge acquired?
  • How is the knowledge put to use?
  • What are the relevant brain mechanisms?
  • How does this knowledge evolve (in the species)?

The first three questions were elaborated upon in Chomsky’s book The Logical Structure of Linguistic Theory, while the fourth and the fifth ones were mentioned in Lenneberg’s book Biolinguistical Foundations of Language.[14] In Aspects of the theory of Syntax, Chomsky proposed that languages are the product of a biologically determined capacity present in all humans, located in the brain, a great deal of which must be innate, supporting his claim with the fact that speakers are able to produce and understand novel sentences without explicit instructions. Chomsky proposed that the form of the grammar may merge from the mental structure afforded by the human brain and argued that formal grammatical categories such as nouns, verbs, and adjectives do not exist. The linguistic theory of generative grammar thereby proposes that sentences are generated by a subconscious set of procedures which are part of an individual’s cognitive ability. These procedures are modeled through a set of formal grammatical rules which are thought to generate sentences in a language.[15]

Chomsky focuses on the mind of the language learner or user and proposed that internal properties of the language faculty are closely linked to the physical biology of humans. He further introduced the idea of a Universal Grammar theorized to be inherent to all human beings, referring to the initial state of the faculty of language, a biologically innate organ that helps the learner make sense of the data and build up an internal grammar.[16] The theory suggests that all human languages are subject to universal principles or parameters that allow for different choices (values). It also contends that humans possess generative grammar, which is hard-wired into the human brain in some ways and makes it possible for young children to do the rapid and universal acquisition of speech.[17] Elements of linguistic variation then determine the growth of language in the individual, and variation is the result of experience, given the genetic endowment and independent principles reducing complexity.

Language Acquisition DeviceEdit

Proposed by Chomsky in the 1960s, the Language Acquisition Device (LAD) was purported to be an innate structure in humans which enabled language learning. Proponents of the LAD often quote the argument of the poverty of negative stimulus, suggesting that children rely on the LAD to develop their knowledge of a language despite not being exposed to a rich linguistic environment.

Minimalist ProgramEdit

The Minimalist Program (MP) was introduced by Chomsky in 1993, and it focuses on the parallel between language and the design of natural concepts. Those invested in the Minimalist Program are interested in the physics and mathematics of language and its parallels with our natural world. For example, Piatelli-Palmarini [18] studied the isomorphic relationship between the Minimalist Program and Quantum Field Theory. The Minimalist Program aims to figure out how much of the Principles and Parameters model can be taken as a result of the hypothetical optimal and computationally efficient design of the human language faculty and more developed versions of the Principles and Parameters approach in turn provide technical principles from which the minimalist program can be seen to follow.[19] The program further aims to develop ideas involving the economy of derivation and economy of representation, which had started to become an independent theory in the early 1990s, but were then still considered as peripherals of transformational grammar.[20]

In a minimalist approach, there are three core components of the human faculty of language proposed: Sensory-Motor system (SM), Conceptual-Intentional system (CI), and Narrow Syntax (NS).[21] SM includes biological requisites for language production and perception, such as articulatory organs, and CI meets the biological requirements related to inference, interpretation, and reasoning, those involved in other cognitive functions. As SM and CI are finite, the main function of NS is to make it possible to produce infinite numbers of sound-meaning pairs.

Lenneberg and the Role of GenesEdit

Another major contributor to the field is Eric Lenneberg. In Biological Foundation of Languages,[2] Lenneberg (1967) suggested that different aspects of human biology that putitively contribute to language more than genes at play, for while they are obviously essential, and while genomes are associated with specific organisms, genes do not store traits (or “faculties”) in the way that linguistics—including Chomsky(ans)—sometimes seem to imply. Contrary to the concept of the existence of a language faculty as suggested by Chomsky, Lenneberg argues that while there are specific regions and networks crucially involved in the production of language, there is no single region to which language capacity is confined and that speech, as well as language, is not confined to the cerebral cortex. Lenneberg approached language as a species-specific mental organ with non-trivial biological properties, which grows in the mind/brain of the child in the same way that (other) biological organs grow, showing that the child’s path to language displays the hallmark of biological growth. According to Lenneberg, genetic mechanisms plays an important role in the development of an individual’s behavior and is characterized by two aspects:

  • The acknowledgement of an indirect relationship between genes and traits, and;
  • The rejection of the existence of ‘special’ genes for language, that is, the rejection of the need for a specifically linguistic genotype;

Base on this, Lenneberg goes on further to claim that no kind of functional principle could be stored in an individual’s genes, rejecting the idea that there exist genes for specific traits (including language), or, put similarly, that genes can contain traits. Lenneberg then proposed that the way in which genes influence the general patterns of structure and function is by means of their action upon ontogenesis, criticizing prior hypothesis by Goodwin of genes as a causal agent which is individually the direct and unique responsible for a specific phenotype.[22]

Relevance of Natural LawEdit

It is possible that the core principles of the language faculty be correlated to natural laws (such as for example, the Fibonacci sequence— an array of numbers where each consecutive number is a sum of the two that precede it, see for example the discussion Uriagereka 1997 and Carnie and Medeiros 2005).[23] According to the hypothesis being developed, the essential properties of language arise from nature itself: the efficient growth requirement appears everywhere, from the pattern of petals in flowers, leaf arrangements in trees and the spirals of a seashell to the structure of DNA and proportions of human head and body. If this law applies to existing systems of cognition, both in humans and non-humans, then what allows our mind to create language? Could it be that a single cycle exists, a unique component of which gives rise to our ability to construct sentences, refer to ourselves and other persons, group objects and establish relations between them, and eventually understand each other? The answer to this question will be a landmark breakthrough, not only within linguistics but in our understanding of cognition in general.

Recent DevelopmentEdit

Recent work in theoretical linguistics and cognitive studies at MIT construes human language as a highly non-redundant species-specific system. Noam Chomsky's latest contribution to the study of the mind in general and language, in particular, is his minimalist approach to syntactic representations. This effort to understand how much of language can be given a principled explanation has resulted in the minimalist program. In syntax, lexical items are merged externally, building argument representations; next, the internal merge induces movement and creates constituent structures where each is part of a larger unit. This mechanism allows people to combine words into infinite strings. If this is true, then the objective of biolinguistics is to find out as much as we can about the principles underlying mental recursion.


David Poeppel, a neuroscientist and linguist, has noted that if neuroscience and linguistics are done wrong, there is a risk of "inter-disciplinary cross-sterilization," arguing that there is a Granularity Mismatch Problem, as different levels of representations used in linguistics and neural science lead to vague metaphors linking brain structures to linguistic components. Poeppel and Embick also introduce the Ontological Incommensurability Problem, where computational processes described in linguistic theory cannot be restored to neural computational processes. Poeppel suggests that neurolinguistic research should try to have theories of how the brain encodes linguistic information and what could be cognitively realistic computation.[24]

A more positive critique comes from the side of biosemiotics, claiming that meaning-making begins far before the emergence of human language.[25]

Developed by Elizabeth Wates and Brian MacWhinney, the Competition Model views language acquisition as a process consisting of a series of competitive cognitive processes that act upon an analog linguistic signal. This suggests that language development depends on learning and detecting linguistic cues through competing general cognitive mechanisms rather than innate, language-specific mechanisms.

A more recent critique of biolinguistics and 'biologism' in language sciences in general developed by Prakash Mondal shows that there are inconsistencies and categorical mismatches in any putative bridging constraints that purport to relate neurobiological structures and processes to the logical structures of language that have a cognitive-representatonal character.[26]

Other relevant fieldsEdit


Neurolinguistics is the study of how language is represented in the brain - how and where is one’s knowledge of language stored in the brain and what happens in the brain during acquisition and use.[27] Neurolinguistics is also closely tied to psycholinguistics, the study of the language processing steps required for speaking and understanding words and sentences, learning first and later languages, and also of language processing in speech disorders.

Researchers and scholars in the field of neurolinguistics seek to answer questions related to the comprehension, production, and acquisition of language in the human brain, looking at the physiological mechanisms by which the brain processes information related to language through the use of aphasiology, brain imaging, electrophysiology, and computer modelling.[28] The study of neurolinguistics is carried out in all fields of linguistics including, but not limited to, the main subfields of linguistics - morphology, phonetics, phonology, syntax, pragmatics and semantics. Areas of research that neurolinguistics is interested in includes the where and how language information is processed, the relationship between brain structures, language acquisition and learning, and how neurophysiology can contribute to speech and language pathology. This includes language acquisition, the localisation of language processes, the time course of language processes and language pathology

One of the largest breakthroughs in the field was the discovery of the Broca’s area by Paul Broca, which was shown to be responsible for handling the motor production of speech.[29][30] The discovery of the Broca’s Area was significant as it provided the first significant empirical evidence for the hypothesis that different brain regions carried out different functions and that language was mostly controlled by the frontal regions of the brain. Another landmark discovery was the discovery of the Wernicke's area which is believed to be responsible for the comprehension of auditory speech and Carl Wernicke, for whom the Wernicke’s Area was named, further proposes that proposed that different areas of the brain were specialized for different linguistic tasks.[31]

Recent development in the field have challenged and overturned previous well-established findings. Some of the most important findings of date include:

  • Extensive networks involving areas remote from the traditional language areas are deeply involved in language use
  • Language areas are also involved in the processing of non-language information.[32]
  • Correlations of particular areas of the brain with particular language impairments are much poorer than had been thought.[33]

These findings were made possible as a result of technological development which improved researchers’ ability to see what is happening in the brain when people speak or listen, and from the accumulation and analysis of many years of detailed aphasia test data.

Language acquisitionEdit

Some of the questions regarding language acquisition that biolinguists face are:[34]

  • What are the properties of the language phenotype?
  • How does a language grow and mature in individuals?
  • How is language put to use?
  • How is language implemented in the brain?
  • What evolutionary processes led to the emergence of language?

Quite a number of these questions can be tackled by looking at language acquisition and then different aspects of language acquired by an individual.

The biolinguistic approach to language acquisition is that language acquisition is fast and effortless because it builds upon a foundation that is pre-determined by the biological endowment of the species. This human biological endowment for language acquisition is known as Universal Grammar (UG), which is also considered as the initial state of the Language Acquisition Device.[35][36] UG contains core principles that are common to all languages and information on the ways that each language differs, and information on the language variations are encoded in parameters. As a result, UG can be summed up as a system of principles and parameters, a model proposed by Chomsky. The goal of biolinguists, with regard to language acquisition, is to come up with the formulation of genetic principles of UG narrowly enough constrained to account for the child’s ability to learn structural properties of grammar of great subtlety from impoverished linguistic data and at the same time, find parameters that can account for manifest variations among different languages.[37]

Some of the areas of study of language acquisition include:

  • Determine what the set of parameters are that are found in UG
  • Word order

In language acquisition, one of the arguments supporting the biolinguisitc view is poverty of the stimulus,[34][37] a term coined by Chomsky in 1980, which contends that the linguistic environment that children are exposed to is not rich enough to account for all the information that they have acquired. In other words, children have only heard a finite number of sentences, but they are able to comprehend and produce an infinite number of sentences. This argument is often used to argue against the usage-based approach of language acquisition, which denies the necessity of UG and argues children can learn languages through their general cognitive and social skills,[38] as it is able to account for the use of grammar that the child is not exposed to.

In the following sections, some of the aspects of language that develop will be discussed from a biolinguistic stand-point. These areas will draw similarities to language acquisition and UG.


Linguistic typology is the analysis, comparison, and classification of languages according to their common structural features and forms.[39] Linguistic typology studies and classifies languages according to their structural features, and it aims to describe and explain the structural diversity and similarity in the languages of the world.[40]

The study of linguistic typology is thus in line with the goal of biolinguists in language acquisition as mentioned previously. It also draws comparisons with UG in the sense that they both seek to identify the similarities and differences in the languages of the world. There is some evidence from this field that suggests that the structure of the world's languages may not be completely random from a sociolinguistc point of view [41] and this supports the view of UG.

Some of the areas that linguistic typology looks at are:


Syntax is the part of the language that includes the rules that govern the grammatical organization of words and phrases. Generative grammar considers it the central object of the study and this is the only component of the human language that allows for creative properties.[43] It is because of this creativity allowed by syntax that provided the phrase, famously used by Chomsky, Colourless green ideas sleep furiously in his book Syntactic Structures which demonstrated a grammatically correct phrase that made no sense. This example provided by Chomsky is also evidence of poverty of the stimulus because this phrase is one that most likely did not exist in his environment, yet he was able to produce it.

This idea, which is a syntactic principle in UG, is called structure-dependency. Structure-dependency means that the sentence is influenced by its structure and not just the order of words.[43][44] This ability to understand and use structure-dependency is not derived from experience and is instead a set of principles that regulate the acquisition of language.

Artificial Grammar LearningEdit

Artificial grammar learning (AGL) lies in the intersection between cognitive psychology and linguistics. AGL tests are administered to evaluate humans' cognitive process and pattern-detection in a language learning context. Participants are required to learn a made-up grammar in a sterile setting and sounds, symbols, or both are used to represent grammar structures. Results of AGL tests are used to gain an insight to how humans learn and interpret grammar.

See alsoEdit

People in biolinguisticsEdit


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External linksEdit