Exactly fifty years ago Noam Chomsky published Syntactic Structures (Chomsky1957), a slim volume that conveyed some essential results of his then unpublished Logical Structure of Linguistic Theory (Chomsky 1955/1975). The results were presented in such a way as to emphasize key aspects of the combinatorialproperties of grammar (a reflex of the fact that the volume grew out of class notesfor an audience of engineers), but, as is well-known, Syntactic Structures had an important subliminal message that was made explicit in Chomsky’s famous review of Skinner’s Verbal Behavior (Chomsky 1959), and even more so in chapter 1 of Aspects of the Theory of Syntax (Chomsky 1965). The message, decidedlypsychological in character, defines the central goal of the generative enterprise asthat of identifying the properties of the human language faculty. This central goalcan be broken down into a series of more precise questions (see Chomsky 1986, 1988):
1. What is knowledge of language?
2. How is that knowledge acquired?
3. How is that knowledge put to use?
4. How is that knowledge implemented in the brain?
5. How did that knowledge emerge in the species?
Today these five questions constitute the conceptual core and focus of inquiry infields like theoretical linguistics (the traditional areas of syntax, semantics, morphology, phonology), pragmatics, first and second language acquisition, psycho-linguistics, neurolinguistics, and beyond.
What these research questions emphasize is the fact that language can, andshould, be studied like any other attribute of our species, and more specifically,as an organ of the mind/brain.
The past fifty years have shown, uncontroversially in our opinion, that itmakes eminent sense, at various levels, to regard the study of the languagefaculty as a branch of biology, at a suitable level of abstraction. After all, the fivequestions listed above are but (conceptually unpacked) variants of Tinbergen’sfamous four questions in his classic paper “On the Aims and Methods of Ethology” (Tinbergen 1963), a central document in the biology of (animal) behavior:
1. What stimulates the animal to respond with the behavior it displays, and what are the response mechanisms?
2. How does an organism develop as the individual matures?
3. Why is the behavior necessary for the animal's success and how does evolution act on that behavior?
4. How has a particular behavior evolved through time? Can we trace a common behavior of two species back to their common ancestor?
The goal of this new journal is to provide a forum, a context, and a framework for discussion of these foundational issues. We decided to call the journal Biolinguistics to highlight the commitment of the generative enterprise to the biological foundations of language, and to emphasize the necessarily interdisciplinary character of such enterprise.
There is both a weak and a strong sense to the term ‘biolinguistics’. The weak sense of the term refers to “business as usual” for linguists, so to speak, tothe extent they are seriously engaged in discovering the properties of grammar,in effect carrying out the research program Chomsky initiated in Syntactic Structures.
The strong sense of the term ‘biolinguistics’ refers to attempts to provideexplicit answers to questions that necessarily require the combination of linguistic insights and insights from related disciplines (evolutionary biology, genetics,neurology, psychology, etc.). We regard Eric Lenneberg’s book, Biological Foundations of Language, published exactly forty years ago (Lenneberg 1967), as thebest example of research in biolinguistics in this strong sense.
We would like our journal to provide a forum for work in biolinguistics inboth the weak and the strong sense. We would like to stress that the term ‘weaksense’ is not meant to indicate that we regard work focusing narrowly on properties of the grammar as inferior to interdisciplinary work. Indeed we thinkthat such work is not only necessary, but has very often proven to be the basis formore interdisciplinary studies.
2. Why Start Biolinguistics Now?
The term ‘biolinguistics’ first appears, to our knowledge, as part of a book title,the Handbook of Biolinguistics, published nearly 60 years ago (Meader & Muyskens 1950). The book advocates (as the authors put it) a modern science of biolinguistics, whose practitioners “look upon language study […] as a natural science, and hence regard 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” (Meader & Muyskens 1950: 9).
The term ‘biolinguistics’ resurfaces in 1974 as part of a report on an interdisciplinary meeting on language and biology (Piattelli-Palmarini 1974),attended by Salvador Luria and Noam Chomsky, and organized by MassimoPiattelli-Palmarini, under the sponsorship of the Royaumont center for a Science of Man.
Around the same time (a period well-documented in Jenkins 2000), Lyle
Jenkins attempted to launch a journal entitled Biolinguistics, and received support from pre-eminent biologists (support documented by three extant letters reproduced in an Appendix to this editorial manifesto). The journal never materialized, but the concerns and issues discussed three decades ago didn’t disappear.As a matter of fact, all these issues, many of which anticipated in Lenneberg 1967,came back on the agenda of linguists and other cognitive scientists.
We believe that the recent resurgence of interest in ‘biolinguistics’ is due inlarge part to the advent of the minimalist program in linguistic theory (Chomsky1993 and subsequent work). At the heart of the minimalist program is the question of how much of the architecture of the language faculty can be given aprincipled explanation. Specifically, minimalism asks how well the engine of language meets design requirements imposed by the cognitive systems it subserves. Inevitably, linguists working in the context of the minimalist programare forced to address and sharpen questions of cognitive specificity, ontogeny,phylogeny, and so on, to even begin to understand the design requirementsimposed on the language faculty. This is not to say that previous generations oflinguists were not interested in such issues. But in practice biolinguistic issueshad little effect on empirical inquiry into questions of descriptive and explanatory adequacy.
It is important for us to stress that biolinguistics is independent of theminimalist program. As Lenneberg’s work makes clear, biolinguistic questionscan be fruitfully addressed outside of a minimalist context. But we think thatsuch a context certainly facilitates, indeed, necessitates inquiry into the biological foundations of language. Last, but not least, we want to remind readers that minimalism is an approach to language that is largely independent of theoreticalpersuasion. It is an aspect of linguistic research that can be shared by virtually all existing frameworks in linguistic theory that we are familiar with.
3. Our Hope for Biolinguistics
To paraphrase Theodosius Dobzhansky’s well-known dictum, we think that nothing in language makes sense except in the context of the biology of grammar(cf. Dobzhansky 1973). It is a tribute to Noam Chomsky’s own efforts (as well asthe efforts of his associates, such as Eric Lenneberg) to treat linguistics as anatural science, and by doing so help her become one, that the term biolinguisticsis now seen in course titles, workshops, reading groups, and so on. One can onlyhope that the term biolinguistics will make its way into institutional categories.Our hope is that this journal will contribute to this exciting and rapidly growingfield.
We are fully aware of the fact that the uniquely interdisciplinary characterof biolinguistics poses difficult problems of communication and misunderstandings, but we feel that a growing community of scientists of diverse background,including linguists, evolutionary biologists, molecular biologists, neuroscientists, anthropologists, psychologists, computer scientists, (language or speech and hearing) pathologists, and so on, are slowly overcoming these challenges. Onlycollaboration and mutual respect will make this type of research possible. We
would be delighted if the contributions to Biolinguistics could clarify issues, unearth new data, and answer some of the questions that will help us understandthe nature of language, and what it is that makes us human.
4. Outlook: The First Volume and Beyond
As the journal webpage states, “Biolinguistics is a peer-reviewed journal exploringtheoretical linguistics that takes the biological foundations of human languageseriously” (see http://www.biolinguistics.eu for full text). The high standing ofour editorial board members in their respective fields — leading scholars intheoretical linguistics, language acquisition, language change, theoretical biology,genetics, philosophy of mind, and cognitive psychology — helps to ensure a fair and thorough review process. The journal Biolinguistics has its own ISSN (14503417, as imprinted on every contribution’s first page footer as well as back andfront cover) and is currently being abstracted and indexed for the usual places.Access to the journal is free, but online user registration is necessary. The fulldescription of the aims, goals, and scope of the journal Biolinguistics can be obtained from the website. Subscribers will also receive regular updates andinformation, and in the near future, interactive tools will be integrated, for whichEpstein & Seely’s (this volume) multimedia tutorial might just be one example.We encourage submission of products and ideas.
In terms of contributions we accept for submission, Biolinguistics features four types:
1.Articles (full-fledged contributions to the field — complete with abstract, introduction, conclusion — peer-reviewed of ideally 10-12,000 words),
2.Briefs (very short notes or points, certainly no more than 2,000 words),
3. Reviews (of recently published books, particular software and other techequipment, or any other items that warrant a review for Biolinguistics), and
4. the Forum (contributions that don't follow into any of the other categories, such as state-of-the-art reports, research overviews, interviews, and so on).
As can be witnessed, this first volume features all types of contributions:Aside from an editorial (to appear on an irregular basis), it contains four articles (on philosophy, phonology, acquisition, and syntax), one brief (on parameters inacquisition) and one book review (on evolutionary phonology), as well as threeforum contributions (a report on experimental syntax, a brief outline for a multimedia tutorial and the relevant link, and an interview).
We would like to close this editorial with an expression of our gratitude toall the people, especially our reviewers and task teams members involved, whohelped complete the first volume (see also p. 150 in the “Forum” category at theend of this issue). We would also like to thank the Department of English Studiesat the University of Cyprus for substantial financial support.