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Inaugural Conference

The Grup de Biolingüística (GB) organized its inaugural conference with a series of lectures of wide scope. Some outstanding scholars will be participating in this conference. Below, you will find links to the abstracts of every speaker (view program -pdf-): :

- Disquisitions on form and sense (V. Acedo i J. Fortuny)
- Development and Computational Complexity. Two key issues for understanding the origins of language? (Sergio Balari)
- The sudden jump to human language. (R. Ferrer i Cancho)
- Another linguistics is possible. (J. Martín)
- Languages and species: limits and scope of a venerable comparison. (J.L. Mendívil Giró)
- Syntax: The core cognitive system of the faculty of human language (J. Rosselló)
- Brain, tools, migration and words. On the origins of language (J. Tusón)
- What could say genes of language? (A. Noy i Freixa)
- The evolution of the language virus (J. Uriagereka)

Universitat de Barcelona
Gran Via de les Corts Catalanes, 585 - Barcelona
Building Josep Carner - Classroom 1.1
(view map)

July 1st, 2004: from9 h. to 20 h.
July 2nd, 2004: from 9.30 h. to 14 h.

VÍCTOR ACEDO I JORDI FORTUNY (Department of General Linguistic.University of Barcelona)

Disquisitions on form and sense

Our aim is to reflect on the question why language should have certain properties that it seems to have. We will focus on syntax, understood as a central component which deals with the pairing of form and sense, or rather, as a Computational Mechanism capable of creating a structure which feeds the Articulatory-Perceptive System (‘form’) and the Conceptual-Intentional System (‘sense’).

In particular, we will focus on the following properties:

(i) part of the structure necessary for the Conceptual-Intentional System doesn’t have any physical correlate
(ii) part of the perceptible phenomena are irrelevant for the Conceptual-Intentional System

It seems reasonable to think that, if we know the restrictions imposed on syntax by each system, we will be able to give a principled explanation of the mismatch expressed in (i) and (ii), which would be a small step toward understanding syntax (or the computational component) as a mechanism optimally satisfying the divergent needs of the aforementioned two systems.

As to (i), we will claim that the representation feeding the Conceptual-Intentional System must contain more categories than are overt; for example, a sentence as (a) Peter is reading a book can be semantically equivalent to the next sentences: (b) Peter is reading a book at this moment and (c) Peter is reading a book during this month. This requires from us considering the following possibilities: either the Conceptual-Intentional System has a mechanism able to read off the same interpretation both from the absence of structure in (a) and the presence of structure in (b) and (c), or the stucture is always present, but not always filled with morphophonological material. We will observe as well that syntax doesn’t generate certain combinations which are allowed by the Conceptual-Intentional System. If this last claim were true, we would have found syntactic properties unable to be reduced to the needs imposed by the relevant system (Conpectual-Intentional). We will analyse several alternatives concerning this fact.

With regard to the property expressed in (ii), it seems to be an imperfection of the Computational Mechanism, provided that the forms it refers to are not required for semantic innterpretation. Thus, among other instances, agreement affixes on the verb or on the adjective, structural case morphology on the noun, or certain positions occupied by clitics don’t seem, at first glance, to be forms interpretable by the Conceptual-Intentional System. This property of the existence of “meaningless forms”, however, is not an imperfection anymore if it happens to satisfy the requirements imposed by the Articulatory-Perceptive System.


SERGIO BALARI (Department of Catalan Philology, Universitat Autònoma of Barcelona)

Development and Computational Complexity. Two key issues for understanding the origins of language?

"The human mind differs from the mind of animals only by degree but not in kind." Charles Darwin, 1871.

If I were to summarise Chomsky's current stance with respect to the problem of the origins of language, I would highlight the following points:

1.- The primary force in the evolution of language may not have been natural selection. 2.- Language may have emerged as the side effect of some unrelated evolutionary event. 3.- It may be the case that physical and/or developmental constraints have been responsible of its emergence. 4.- The distinctive feature of human language, which sets it apart from other animal cognitive capacieties, is the property of recursion.

In this paper I would like to suggest that we accept 1-3 and that we explore some of their consequences for a general theory of the human linguistic faculties. As I expect to show, one important conclusion is that, under these assumptions, no strong hypothesis about the richness of our genetic linguistic endowment is necessary to explain human linguistic capacities.

In addition to that, I will qualify assumption 4 above in the sense that the language faculty may be characterised (minimally) as possessing two main basic properties, namely structure dependence and recursion.

From here on, my strategy will be to seek whether the rudiments of both properties may have already been present in some common ancestor of great apes and humans. I will turn then to our closer relatives, chimpanzees and bonobos, in order to individuate some cognitive capacity that may require (or may contain the seed of) structure dependence and recursion.

My hypothesis will be, then, that the ability to analyse complex visual scenes on the basis of a system of potentially complex cognitive categories may have been co-opted for the processing of auditory stimuli on the basis of the same collection of cognitive categories and thus giving rise to the core of the contemporary human language faculty.

Moreover, I would like to propose that these features may have been recruited for the emergence of human linguistic capacities as a side-effect of a number changes in the developmental rate and timing of the human nervous system. In this sense, humans may be characterised as overdeveloped or peramorphic apes.

This evolutionary event may be conceptualised as instantaneous or, more plausibly, as a gradual process through which the mechanisms that are responsible of the emergence of our linguistic capacities become fixed by an evolutionary process known as the Baldwin Effect.

As an alternative, and perhaps complementary, view, I would like to suggest that, with these elements in place, the gradual delay in developmental offset could have permitted hominid infants to progressively introduce innovative elements into the system, whose complexity would have increased as it was transmitted from generation to generation in a process akin to what some biologists have termed 'Gene-Culture Coevolution' or 'Niche Construction'. This process could have been responsible of the gradual emergence of complex grammatical systems from a protolanguage 'built' over the basis of the faculty of language and through the principles of grammaticalisation.

Thus, once the laws of genetic inheritance transformed our children into language creators, these laws lost most power over the system, and the laws of cultural change took over.


RAMON FERRER (Università degli Studi di Roma, la Sapienza)

The sudden jump to human language.

The origins of human language has been the topic of many speculations. Probably, the most important one has been the type of process that leaded to human language. In spite of the recent wave of works emphasizing the ability of biological evolution for bulding essential components of the human language faculty, different questions remain unanswered.
Overcoming the weak points of Darwinian approaches, here we put forward a hypothesis for the sudden emergence of two essential traits of human language: syntax and symbolic reference. No other explanation combines the two traits at the same time.


JESÚS MARTÍN (Department of General Linguistics. University of Barcelona)

Another linguistics is possible

The initial thesis of this communication is that linguistics is a part of the study of the human being (i.e. anthropology) insofar as language is one of the most (if not the most) characteristic endowments of the mankind. This statement, however, will have to be clarified. Linguistics has different spaces of study strongly related to other sciences. Roughly, the study of language could be methodologically split in two big areas: (1) the study of the faculty of language as a distinctive biological device of the human species, and (2) the study of particular languages and their social and cultural functioning. (Either studies having a structural and a historical or evolutionary dimension). Thus, (1), the so-called biolinguistics, will be part of the discipline which studies the human being from a biological point of view (namely, physical anthropology), while (2), what I will call here sociolinguistics, will belong to the cultural study of man (cultural anthropology). This split, only methodological, is the norm in the natural sciences, and has given excellent results throughout the last four centuries. Therefore, there is no place for conflicts between both kinds of linguistics, as they don’t exist in anthropology, because they simply are different (but complementary) dimensions of language. To sum up, in this communication I want to ask the end of the linguistic wars and thus I will defend that another linguistics is possible.


JOSÉ LUÍS MENDÍVIL GIRÓ (Department of general and Spanish Linguistics. University of Zaragoza)

Languages and species: limits and scope of a venerable comparison.

Comparisons between the evolution of languages and that of natural species is as much an old one as the evolutionary theory is, for the same Darwin was in charge of signaling that 'curious paralelism”. We will deal with the comparison taking the most recent theories of linguistic change and the last advances in genetics as a departure point. This way, we will try to spell out to what extent we could state that this analogy could be fruitful for a better understanding of the human language.


JOANA ROSSELLÓ (Department of General Linguistics. University of Barcelona)

Syntax: The core cognitive system of the faculty of human language

Combining two different points of view, one coming from the comparison with other (non) human animal capacities and the other one coming from syntactic theory, I will try to construct a relatively new argument supporting the title above. The argument can be summarized as follows: The hierarchical recursion that characterizes the human language is a combined feature that is present in other human capacities, such as music for instance, whereas it is absent from the rest of animal communication systems (trained apes included). If we add to both these facts the lack of semanticity of music and the quasi-propositional character of the systems learned by apes, a conclusion emerges: the linguistic hierarchical recursion does not need to be viewed as originating in the Semantic Component (SC) related to the Conceptual-Intentional (C-I) System and, therefore —given that hierarchical recursion is absent from the Phonological Component (PC), as is well known—, it can be better understood as the mark of syntax exclusively. If this account is accurate, as it seems, we obtain a quasi-empirical argument in favor of the view that the syntactic or computational system (CS) is the only one that is generative, SC and PC being interpretive systems.
Such a view of CS is neutral regarding its nature as a competence or performance system. In the second part of the talk, however, I will argue that CS is not a mere processing (performance) system but, on the contrary, a cognitive system. I would like to suggest that given the good and significant predictions obtainable from the Extension Condition of CS — and unobtainable in other non derivational frameworks, let’s say in passing—, a crucially bottom-up condition, one is compelled to assume that CS is not a processing system. Indeed, such a system has to work necessarily on-line (sequentially) and not bottom-up.


JESÚS TUSON. (Department of General Linguistics. University of Barcelona)

Brain, tools, migration and words. On the origins of language

After almost one and a half century of controversies, purely speculative on the origins of language, recent paleoanthropological research, along with the advances in linguistics, have put the bases which allow us to figure out from a different view the initial conditions of our more distinctive faculty. This lecture focuses on the problem of the language origins in parallel with the evolution of brain, tools and other factors present in the natural and cultural endowment of the Homo sapiens.


AGNES NOY I FREIXA (Group of Molecular Modeling and Bioinformatics. Barcelona Science Park. University of Barcelona)

What could say genes of language?

Problems in acquiring speech and language disorders have long been hidden of any kind of scientific explanation. Lately, these issues, related to the genetic basis, probably multifactorial, have begun to be analyzed and have lead to the identification of four cromosomical regions which could contain gens involved in the most common speech disorders. Besides, it has been characterized the gene called FOXP2, responsible for a rare monogenetic inherited alteration of language. In this lecture we will be talking about the last advances that together with molecular biology, comes to term with the disection of the neurological basis underlying speech disorders.


JUAN URIAGEREKA (Department of Linguistics. University of Maryland, College Park)

The evolution of the language virus

Approximately 120,000 years ago, a mutation took place in a gene in the hominid genome called FOXP2. Within a mere sixty thousand more years our species, which at the time of the genetic change consisted of approximately 20,000 individuals in Central Africa, had reached Asia, Europe and Australia, crossing desserts and seas in the process. FOXP2 is implicated in the production of speech. What is language that it may have evolved so rapidly? What is evolution that it may apply to language so dramatically? While addressing these issues, the present lecture proposes that the evolution of syntactic structures shares central properties of the evolution of the immune system.