Exploring the Biology of Language: a book concerning Biolinguistics

18 03 2014

The problem of the genetics of language can be studied at various levels. In principle it should be possible to study DNA sequences and gene combinations unique to the 23 pairs of chromosomes of homo sapiens  which are connected with language ability.

Generative grammar, for example,  studies the genetics of language at the level of the organism with its research on grammar trying to separate out the genetic component (universal grammar) from the environmental (or learned) component (grammar).

From its earliest beginnings the central motivation for the study of generative grammar (generative linguistics, biolinguistics) has been to understand the biological basis for human language.

It’s possible to divide up the study of the biology of language into three main areas: 1)language, 2) development of language and 3) evolution of language. The study of the first area, “language,” tries to answer the question of what it means to know a language; i.e., to “know English,” “know Chinese,” etc. The language faculty is that “component of the human mind/brain that is specifically dedicated to knowledge and use of language.

The genetics can study the language at the level of the brain determining those areas wich are ready to assume the functions of language: the left-right asymmetry of the brain, with areas of language in a dominant hemisphere. Another area where specific genetic mechanisms have been postulated is the area of consonant perception. Until the 70s the only reliable way of establishing the location of cortical lesions which affect language was by post mortem but in this case the languuage performance was poorly described.

Computer tomography scan, in which X rays are used to build up a three-dimensional picture of the brain density, made possible the research concerning aphasic syndromes in a great number of patients. The book by Jenkins a scientist  based at the Biolinguistics Institute, Cambridge, Massachusetts,  is a book  which investigates the nature of human language and its importance for the study of the mind. Lyle Jenkins examines current work on the biology of language and reviews the evidence that language is best characterized by a generative grammar of the kind introduced by Noam Chomsky in the 1950s and developed in various directions since that time. He then discusses research into the development of language which tries to capture both the underlying universality of human language, as well as the diversity found in individual languages (Universal Grammar). Finally, he discusses a variety of approaches to language design and the evolution of language. An important theme is the integration of biolinguistics into the natural sciences – the “unification problem”. Jenkins also answers criticisms of the biolinguistic approach from a number of other perspectives, including evolutionary psychology, cognitive science, connectionism and ape language research, among others . He asks what language is from a biological point of view and what the relative contribution of nature and nurture is when a child learns his or her language. Finally  the author studies how human language evolved and considers the similarities and differences between human language and animal communication systems.  Genetic or biological endowment plays a more central role in the aquisition of language than instruction, learning, or cultural determinants. Recent work also suggests that languages may be optimal in a different sense. The language faculty is part of the overall architecture of the mind/brain, interacting with other components: the sensorimotor apparatus and the systems that enter into thought, imagination, and other mental processes, and their expression and interpretation. The language faculty interfaces with other components of the mind/brain. The interface properties, imposed by the systems among which language is embedded, set constraints on what this faculty must be if it is to function within the mind/brain. The articulatory and perceptual systems, for example, require that expressions of the language have a linear (temporal, ‘left-to-right’) order at the interface; sensorimotor systems that operated in parallel would allow richer modes of expression of higher dimensionality. (Chomsky, 1996)

Vowel alternation in Finno-Ugric Languages

4 03 2014

It is understood that the paradigmatic vowel change  is  a top concern for the understanding of the finno-ugric vocalism .

In addition to the regular massive vocal correspondences in the Finno-Ugric languages appear numerous “colorful” equivalences: cfr.  hál- (ung.) “spend the night”, vogul  kul, votiak keli- .

 These * a , * i  or *u  equivalents going back to Proto- Finno-Ugric  explain quite simply  the paradigmatic forms in words with a  still living vowel change as in ostyak

*a  *u  *I : ost. kål’l'em (pres)  kul’em (past tense), kil’a ( imper).

In Hungarian, vogul  and votiak the  each other removable vowel system has been generalized. Paradigmatic phonetic vowel change is generally adopted in f. u. languages and  the vowel change is very important  for the explanation of the often so colorful vowel correspondences between the various f. u . languages.

The *f. u. vowel change  can be  reliably reconstructed only on the basis of  the vocal change documented in the different f. u. languages. In particular, the study of the paradigmatic change of vowel occurring in the different FU languages requires a boost for its relevance. The FU vowel change can be reconstructed  quite reliably, however, only on the basis of each FU languages . It appears in the Baltic Finnish languages too, before groups of paradigmatic vowel change, both qualitative and quantitative in nature, but they are all clearly secondary in origin. In all FU languages, paradigmatic vowel change occurs and cannot be explained only according to the phonetic history and to its apparently ancient origin (Ablaut). Above all FU languages there is only the Ostyak in which such paradigmatic vowel change  exhibits both a phonetic and morphological relationship in a linguistic living system.