Language and Evolution: Homepage Robin Allott

[Notes for conference Mirror Neurons and the Evolution of Brain and Language Delmenhorst, Germany July 2000]


From the early days of transformational-generative grammar the hope has been that some link could be established between linguistic theory and brain research. The time may be approaching when this can be done. Neurological research into the localisation and timing of brain activity related to language has been advancing rapidly with the aid of a remarkable array of techniques (PET, fMRI, MEG, ERP) as well as continuation and development of work (originated by Penfield) making use of direct stimulation of the cortex. For a long time the barrier between neurology and linguistic theory seemed unbreachable. Progress in empirical neurology and fundamental changes in linguistic theory now have to be considered together. On the side of the neurology and physiology of language there is the work of Pulvermuller, Rizzolatti and Gallese, with the important approaches in articulatory phonology associated with Browman and Goldstein and Levelt's work in psycholinguistics. On the side of theoretical linguistics the move away from the Byzantine complexities of transformational-generative grammar, Government and Binding, and similar hyper-formalisms towards Minimalism constitutes a first breach in the wall. The central feature of the Minimalist Program is that attention is shifted from syntax in relative isolation to the lexicon; belatedly it is accepted that language is to be treated as a natural activity with an evolutionary history and the methodological formalisms of TGG theory have to be abandoned (conceptions of Deep Structure, Surface Structure and many other technicalities); the lexicon is now seen as the source of syntax. Research into the categorical localisation in the brain of different aspects of the lexicon (originally proposed on the basis of aphasiology and direct stimulation of the cortical surface) fits well with the new emphasis on the lexicon in linguistics. Brain research shows not only differences in response to content and function words (the syntactic aspect of lexicon) but also most importantly categorisation of content words in terms of their perceived meaning - that is, between words with a visual, auditory or action reference. The problem of language both in brain research and in linguistics thus becomes how the content words carrying specific meanings are to be fitted together through the use of syntactically operating function words (together with functional sub- morphemes of tense, agreement, pluralisation) to produce the meaningful sentence. If as now seems the case our categories of perception and meaningful words are linked in the brain, then the next step is to consider how words are related to their meaning (on which proposals have been developed very extensively in the motor theory of language on lines fitting well with Berthoz' account in Le Sens de Mouvement 1997).

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