The Language Organ: Linguistics as Cognitive Physiology

The Language Organ: Linguistics as Cognitive Physiology

The Language Organ: Linguistics as Cognitive Physiology

The Language Organ: Linguistics as Cognitive Physiology


This study treats human language as the manifestation of a faculty of the mind, which is seen as a mental organ whose nature is determined by human biology and whose functional properties should be explored as physiology explores the functional properties of physical organs. The book surveys the nature of the language faculty in its various aspects: the systems of sounds, words, and syntax, the development of language in the child and historically, what is known about its relation to the brain.


One of the great success stories of post-Second-World-War intellectual inquiry has been the extent to which linguists have been able to make the syntactic and phonological structure of natural language into a serious object of explicit formal study. This workhas uncovered principles of surprising subtlety, abstractness, and deductive richness; it has also raised fundamental questions concerning the ontogenetic and phylogenetic developments by which knowledge of this kind could develop in the organism. Much of this progress results fairly directly from the adoption of an explicitly biological perspective on the subject: instead of seeing language as an external phenomenon, as a collection of sounds, words, texts, etc. that exists apart from any particular individual, contemporary linguistics increasingly concerns itself with the internal organization and ontogeny of a special kind of knowledge. The specific form that this aspect of human cognition takes appears, we will argue, to be a species-specific property of human beings, and thus rooted in our biological nature.

As our subtitle promises, we will describe linguistics, the scientific study of (human natural) language, as cognitive physiology. An individual's use of language involves that person's brain: the way this brain works depends at least in part on childhood influences and whether the person was raised in New Haven, New Delhi, or New Guinea. The relevant aspect of the brain's structure that responds to these differences in experience is the person's language organ, but to characterize it we need to take seriously the notion of physiology as the study of functions.

Webster's Second International Dictionary tells us that physiology is

[t]he branch of biology dealing with the processes, activities, and phenomena incidental to and characteristic of life or of living organisms; the study of the functions of the organs, tissues, cells, etc. during life, as distinct from anatomy, which deals with their structure. The final analysis of these processes and phenomena is mainly physical and chemical. The phenomena of mental life are usually regarded as outside the ordinary scope of physiology (see psychology).

Like many dictionary definitions, this one combines the central conceptual content of the word with other characteristics that are as much the product of ix . . .

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