Why put 'bio' in bio-linguistics?

Pedro Tiago Martins
Pompeu Fabra University
Cedric Boeckx
University of Barcelona/ICREA
Constantina Theofanopoulou
University of Barcelona
Javier Ramirez
University of Girona
Elizabeth Zhang
University of Barcelona
Gonzalo Castillo
University of Barcelona
Edward Shi
University of Barcelona
Saleh Alamri
University of Barcelona
Anna Martinez Alvarez
University of Barcelona
Gokhan Dogru
University of Barcelona
Evelina Leivada
University of Barcelona

Advancements in theoretical linguistics, especially since the mid-20th century, under the impetus of generativism (Chomsky 1957, et seq.), have led to the important insight that human language is a biological capacity, often called the language faculty. The way this insight has guided research, however, has not yielded a plausible biological characterization of this faculty. Much theoretical machinery has been devised by linguists sympathetic to the idea of a language faculty, and linguistics has indeed become a much richer field in the process, but there has been little effort to come to grips with genuine biological concerns. One can find mentions of biology, genetics, and evolution in some of the theoretical linguistic literature, but it seems that they are confined to introductory sections, and that most of the work amounts to language description, albeit in a sophisticated fashion. The relation between linguistics and biological disciplines has remained, at best, metaphorical. Lenneberg (1964: 76) was correct in saying that "[n]othing is gained by labeling the propensity of language as biological unless we can use this insight for new research directions-unless more specific correlates can be uncovered."

The inadequacy of linguistics in offering a biological account of the language faculty is far from being widely acknowledged—quite the opposite—leading to proposals that are not tenable from outside of linguistics. The very limited degree of success in finding brain correlates to linguistic primitives is a good example of the disparity between the kind of work that has been routinely carried out in linguistics on the one hand, and neuroscience, on the other. Poeppel & Embick (2005) illustrate this state of affairs by pointing out two problems: i) granularity mismatch: "Linguistic and neuroscientific studies of language operate with objects of different granularity. In particular, linguistic computation involves a number of fine-grained distinctions and explicit computational operations. Neuroscientific approaches to language operate in terms of broader conceptual distinctions", and ii) ontological incommensurability: "The units of linguistic computation and the units of neurological computation are incommensurable". These problems arise from the insular fashion in which lingustics has operated, with great aims but little interdisciplinary dialogue.

We argue that it is only by fully embracing the biological sciences that these problems can be surpassed, and that linking hypotheses can be put forward towards the goal of a plausible biological characterization of language. Our illustrations will draw from several disciplines, such as evolutionary biology, cognitive neuroscience, and comparative psychology, and will lead to a reconsideration of the sort of data linguistics must wrestle with if they are serious about putting 'bio-' in their business cards.

Chomsky, Noam. 1957. Syntactic Structures. The Hague: Mouton.
Lenneberg, Eric. 1967. A Biological Perspective of Language. In Eric Lenneberg (Ed.), New Directions in the Study of Language. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
Poeppel, David.; Embick, David. 2005. Defining the relation between linguistics and neuroscience. In Ann Cutler (Ed.), Twenty-first century psycholinguistics: Four Cornerstones. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.