In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Biology of Language

  • Introduction
  • Early Foundational Papers
  • Biological Foundations
  • Edited Collections
  • Reference Works
  • Data Sources
  • Blogs
  • Bibliographies
  • Agendas, Manifestos, and Research Program Outlines
  • Journals
  • Chomsky’s Works
  • Classic References to Ethology
  • Modern Views of Ethology
  • Language Development
  • Genetics and Language

Linguistics Biology of Language
Cedric Boeckx
  • LAST REVIEWED: 25 August 2022
  • LAST MODIFIED: 28 October 2011
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199772810-0006


Although they both focus on issues that have deep roots in human thought, linguistics and biology are relatively young scientific disciplines. The concern for the biological foundations of the human language faculty was elevated to the level of a scientific discipline (now often called “biolinguistics”) only with the advent of generative grammar in the mid-20th century, although since then investigation into the biological nature of language has freed itself from the specific technical apparatus used in generative grammar. With its rejection of behaviorism, generative grammar (and in particular Noam Chomsky) set the stage for the explicit investigation of the biological foundations of language: its neural underpinnings (Neurolinguistics), its evolutionary history (evolution of language), and its development in the individual (language acquisition and psycholinguistics). Because of the very nature of its task, biolinguistics (here used in a theory-neutral fashion as a cover term for the scientific search for the biological foundations of language) is a supremely interdisciplinary enterprise, with a vast amount of material from a great many disciplines bearing on central issues in this field. Because language is such a vast and complex object of study, it is traditionally divided into areas or component parts such as syntax, semantics, morphology, phonology, and so on. Each of these subdisciplines partakes in biolinguistics. As such, material relevant to biolinguistics can be found in traditional bibliographic resources. This article discusses only those works and resources that are explicitly focused on the biological foundations of the language faculty. With recent advances on genetics, biological anthropology, comparative ethology, and theoretical linguistics, the field of biolinguistics is enjoying a renaissance after two or three decades in the background. As a result, this list of works has a more tentative character than do traditional disciplines in linguistics.

Early Foundational Papers

This section contains references to early works that paved the way to the modern scientific focus on the biological foundations of language: Chomsky 1959, a review that banished behaviorism from psychology; Chomsky and Miller 1963 and Bever 1970, both of which contain papers on how to relate theoretical linguistics and psycholinguistics; Lenneberg 1967, on the biological foundations of language; and the epoch-making debate between Noam Chomsky and Jean Piaget regarding the nature of human cognition and its development, found in Piattelli-Palmarini 1980.

  • Bever, T. G. 1970. The cognitive basis for linguistic structures. In Cognition and language development. Edited by R. Hayes, 279–360. New York: Wiley.

    Case studies attempting to derive some linguistic principles from more-general cognitive constraints.

  • Chomsky, N. 1959. A review of B. F. Skinner’s Verbal behaviour. Language 35.1: 26–58.

    The review that put an end to behaviorism.

  • Chomsky, N., and G. A. Miller. 1963. Introduction to the formal analysis of natural languages. In Handbook of mathematical psychology. Vol. 2. Edited by R. D. Luce, R. R. Bush, and E. Galanter, 269–321. New York: Wiley.

    Classic psycholinguistic studies and the competence-performance distinction.

  • Lenneberg, E. H. 1967. Biological foundations of language. New York: Wiley.

    Lennberg’s central work on the biological foundations of language.

  • Piattelli-Palmarini, M., ed. 1980. Language and learning: The debate between Jean Piaget and Noam Chomsky. Cambridge, MA: Harvard Univ. Press.

    The first record of an interdisciplinary meeting, laying out the agenda for years to come in the domain of biolinguistics. Translation of Théories du langage, théories de l’apprentissage.

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