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Linguistics as a branch of biology

All languages allow sentences to get longer and longer with no point at which this becomes impossible. So we can say, “She’s lying.” Or “You know she’s lying.” Or “I think you know she’s lying.” And so on. The child may only hear one step – as in “You know she’s lying.” But without needing to be told, learners somehow know that any number of steps are allowed, or they wouldn’t understand any numbers of steps greater than what they happen to have heard. This is known as ‘discrete infinity’, discrete because the structure is built from a small, finite number of elements, the sounds of the language, infinity because the number of possible sentences is infinite.

In 1965 Noam Chomsky proposed that the simplest explanation of discrete infinity is that there are underlying principles for language that we are born with, that are, in a species-specific way, encoded in the human genome. These principles are necessarily simple and abstract. The richness and complexity of human language is by the way these principles interact. By this reasoning, linguistic structures are ‘generated’ or built, rather than strung together as sequences of words.

Because all known languages have this property of discrete infinity, other than by the highly questionable, and, I believe, quite mistaken claims of Daniel Everett, the simplest explanation is by postulating that the commonality is by a property of the human species. It is part of the genome, in other words, biological.

By the term ‘Biolinguistics’, linguistics is best viewed as a very specialised domain of biology rather than psychology. This view, surprising to some, is hardly surprising to those familiar with the clear evidence of genetic and hereditary factors in speech and language disorders. It is the basis of the proposal here.

From a linguistic perspective the shift to biolinguistics was mainly motivated by the need to EXPLAIN the evolution of human speech and language.

To a large degree, the development from the Transformational Generative Grammar, or TGG, of 1957 and 1965 to the Biolinguistics of today is due to Noam Chomsky. The notion of TGG is no longer appropriate. The role of transformations has now diminished or been eliminated entirely.

By a version of biolinguistic thinking from Ian Griffiths (2022), languages are ‘built’ from ‘blocks’ with one block defining the extent to which the elements of sentences are grouped together as pronounceable entities in such a way that they cannot be separated in the minds of native speakers. If a speaker is asked: “What was the last word you said?” the answer tends to be what would seem to an English speaker like a sentence. This is characteristic of many Native American languages, Mokawk from Eastern Canada being a well-known example. English does this in forms like don’t. If a speaker who has just said: “Don’t!” is asked to repeat the last word they said, don’t would be the only possible, true response.