18.1379, Disc: Discussion on Piraha; History of Biolinguistics

Mon May 7 18:22:12 UTC 2007

LINGUIST List: Vol-18-1379. Mon May 07 2007. ISSN: 1068 - 4875.

Subject: 18.1379, Disc: Discussion on Piraha; History of Biolinguistics

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Date: 04-May-2007
From: Daniel Everett < dlevere at ilstu.edu >
Subject: Discussion on Piraha 

Date: 24-Apr-2007
From: John Goldsmith < ja-goldsmith at uchicago.edu >
Subject: New:  History of Biolinguistics


-------------------------Message 1 ---------------------------------- 
Date: Mon, 07 May 2007 14:11:18
From: Daniel Everett < dlevere at ilstu.edu >
Subject: Discussion on Piraha 

Ian Goddard's posting on Piraha generics does show that the Immediacy of
Experience Principle that I proposed in Everett (2005) did not carefully
distinguish between generics and universal quantification, which even in a
25,000 page article,  I didn't have time to do.

Generics are something that all languages need. Human evolution has
equipped us to discuss events and entities,  perhaps the most salient facts
about our environment that we must distinguish to survive. Communication
requires them and so does evolution. So we do not expect any culture to get
by without them. But Universal Quantification, on the other hand, is not
required and imposes the idea of exceptionless abstraction beyond
experience, far stronger than generics. So it is missing.

The Pirahas, like many other societies, constrain their discourse in
various ways, including the IEP. Evolution and the nature of communication
impose other constraints. Sorting out the different cultural,
communicational (in this general sense), and biological constraints on
language (for which there is little if any evidence that the biology
includes specifically linguistic constraints) is part of a research program
that needs to be developed further.

A number of items related to these issues will be discussed in a special
issue of The Linguistic Review, still in planning, dedicated to recursion
in human language.

Dan Everett 

Linguistic Field(s): Anthropological Linguistics

-------------------------Message 2 ---------------------------------- 
Date: Mon, 07 May 2007 14:11:31
From: John Goldsmith < ja-goldsmith at uchicago.edu >
Subject: New:  History of Biolinguistics 

I'm interested in the changing alliances between linguistics and its sister
disciplines. The founders of the LSA made an effort to justify linguistics
as a science with its own autonomous scientific method, distinct from that
of psychology or sociology. In the late 1950s and through the 1960s,
psychologists and linguists (both generative and non-) attempted to develop
a scientific agenda by which generative grammar could serve as a model for
the cognitive sciences - though the movement for cognitive sciences did not
emerge until the mid-1970s, under the influence of funding from the Sloan

In recent years, there has been considerable discussion of the relationship
of biology and linguistics, much of it under the rubric of
'biolinguistics'. In some respects, this notion has deep roots: Norbert
Wiener, for example, discussed the biological specificity of language for
the human species in his classic book Cybernetics (1948). Another part of
this prehistory is the curiously titled 'Handbook of Biolinguistics' by
Meader and Muyskens, published in 1950, which champions (as the authors put
it) a modern science of biolinguistics, whose practioners 'look upon
language study ... as a natural science, and hence regards language as an
integrated group of biological processes. This group seeks an explanation
of *all* language phenomena in the functional integration of tissue and
environment. (p. 9)'. (Language is there considered a function of the human
organism comparable to digestion and walking, by the way!)  And we all know
that Eric Lenneberg published in 1967 an influential book on the biological
foundations of the language function. But having lived through the late
1960s (and later decades), it seems to me that there were vanishingly few
serious efforts to link generative grammar to results or methods of biology
during this period - quite unlike the situation linking linguistics and
psychology, where students and faculty alike moved between psychology and
linguistics rather easily. 

All of which leads me to my question: what is the modern history of the term
'biolinguistics'? I'm interested in the rise of the term 'biolinguistics' among
those studying grammar. Before 2000, virtually every citation that I can find
using the term 'biolinguistics' involves efforts to understand language in ways
that are either deeply skeptical with regard to traditional linguistic analysis,
or just ignorant of them. There are exceptions, to be sure: neurolinguists
inspired by Lenneberg, and David Lightfoot's 1984 book subtitled, 'Towards a
biology of grammars', and several items by Lyle Jenkins. 

My question is: can anyone help me find uses of the term 'biolinguistics' by
card-carrying linguists before 2000, other than the ones I mentioned? 

My thanks to you all - 

John Goldsmith 

Linguistic Field(s): General Linguistics


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