chapter  1
30 Pages

Prolegomena to a science of biolinguistics


In the first years of the new millennium, the word “biolinguistics” has rather suddenly come into use as an umbrella term for various biological approaches to the study of human language. At least three recent books have “biolinguistics” in the title (Givón, 2002; Jenkins, 2000, 2004), a new journal with that name has just been founded, and the first Laboratory of Biolinguistics (Riken Brain Science Institute, Japan) is producing its first generation of PhD students. Based simply on the divergent contents of the books just mentioned, this nascent field is broad in its interests and incorporates diverse viewpoints, both about what language is and how it should be studied. Despite numerous disagreements, what the scholars embracing this term all have in common is the core belief that the human capacity to acquire and use language is an aspect of human biology, and that it can thus be profitably studied from a biological perspective. While this core assumption of biolinguistics is not a new idea (Chomsky, 1965; Darwin, 1871; Lenneberg, 1967; Lieberman, 1975), it appears to be one whose time has come. The purpose of the current chapter is to survey the potential of this new field, and to highlight some problems that stand in the way of progress.