Biological Foundations of Language
By Eric H. Lenneberg
Appendix B (p.455-461)
By Otto Marx
Separate by paragraph in stead of by page. Do you know why?
Even for the author of the “National History” …..The Theory of Language and Universal Grammar,” published in 1762 by Joseph Priestley (1733-1804). All social creatures have a God-given way of communication, and languages are like plants, which grow, blossom, and then wilt. The complexity of a language is never the result of design, but is due to accident and the structure of Man’s speech organs. Languages are subject to natural law, therefore one should not attempt to fix strict rules for its usage . Do not omit the references and footnote!
The president of the Court of Dijon, Charles de Brosses (1709-1777), constructed a language theory in which reason played no basic role. Originally, language had been determined by the properties of the speech organs and by the nature of the objects to be named. Man’s speech organs can produce only certain sounds, and the nature of the objects compelled man to designate them with those sounds which depicted their properties. These sounds became names which could arouse the idea of the object in the mind . De Brosses had directly applied the philosophical idea that names are physis to a language theory. He concluded that there must have been one organically developed language which all people possessed at some time but which is no longer spoken or known. For natural language was later elaborated by the intellect and utilized to fashion the various languages. The remnants of the original natural language inherent in all languages cannot be easily recognized because of all the multiple fortuitous changes to which languages have been subjected. In this process, the natural relationship between sound and meaning was lost, so that the languages we know are deteriorated languages. The original words and their true meanings can be rediscovered by Etymology  (a belief which had also been held by those Greeks who believed that language in physis).
De Brosses’ ideas have been considered the most typical expression of the spirit of the Enlightenment in the field of language theory. He had attributed language to a biological and a natural basis, but considered contemporary languages predominantly the product of man’s reason. The immediate contact with nature had been lost by the intervention of reason. For reason was not a part of nature, and primitive man, a barbarian, did not possess it.
This assumption led Jean Jacques Rousseau (1712-1788) and James Burnet, Lord Monboddo (1714-1799) to believe that man must have fashioned language for himself, after he had become an intelligent being, had formed societies, and developed his arts11. The implication was that man had not been originally a social being . Adam Ferguson professor of moral philosophy in
“Man’ s use of language and articulate sound, like the shape and erect position of his body are to be considered as so many attributes of his nature: they are to be retained in his description, as the wing and the paw are in that of the eagle and the lion…”
The exploration of man’s mind is not aided by the study of “a wild man caught in the woods, “ which would “teach us nothing important or new.,“ for the normal development of mental functions is dependent on society. The isolated individual would be defective just” as the anatomy of the eyes which had never received the impressions of light…would probably exhibit defects in the very structure…arising from their not being applied to their proper functions…” . Apparently,
“Society appears as old as the individual and the use of the tongue is as universal as that of the hand or the foot” .
But for most thinkers in mid-eighteenth century, language as a function of the mind was a problem for philosophical speculation. Although the natural and inherently biological basis of language has been mentioned, it played no role in the heated argument about the origin of language. The quarrel of whether man had invented language by application of his reason or whether it was God’s revelation could assume immense proportions without taking into consideration the biological basis of language. This was only possible because God and man’s reason were considered separated and above nature12 .
The argument was resolved by Johann Gottfried Herder’s (1744-1803) essay on “The Origin of Language,” written in 1770. Herder proposed that language was the product of man’s reason and a part of it, but that both language and reason were natural to man13 .
This quarrel and its resolution exemplifies another aspect of language theory. None of the major participants had based their theoretical arguments on work with language, just as most of the proponents of a natural or physiological basis of language had been heretofore satisfied to subordinate their viewpoint philosophically14. The concern with language theory had been shared by philosophers, theologians, poets, scientists and thinkers.
This was to change drastically in the nineteenth century, when language theories were to come from men whose work was dedicated to the study of language. In the first part of the century these men were primarily philologists and their efforts were directed at the examination of a particular language as the expression of a particular culture. The biological basis of language received little attention from them. Nevertheless, Frank Bopp (1787-1932) the founder of Indogermanic philology and Rasmus Rask (1787-1932) a student of Icelandic, recognized language as “a natural object, its study resembling natural history” .
The biological basis of language became of great interest to quite another group of men; the physicians. To the first among them, the interest in language was not only derived from his encounter with patients who had a language disturbance, but also from his own difficulties with the study of languages as a youth15 .
Franz Joseph Gall (1758-1828) whose importance for the development of neuro-anatomy and neurophysiology has recently been reviewed  wanted to put an end to the “highhanded generations if the philosophers” who had regarded the functions of the soul without consideration for their biological basis . He thought “to be on firm ground: to say that the language of words in terms of its cause, is not just a product of our faculties” . The internal faculties presiding over language were represented in the brain by organs. (As Gall assumed for all” drives, technical abilities, affections, passions, moral and intellectual functions”).
Language was common to man and animals. The latter supposedly had sufficient words for their own needs . The two faculties for language were the memory of words, and the sense for spoken language. Man had the natural language of gestures and interjections. The language of words. Gall considered arbitrary invented signs. Words are not the basis of intelligence, they only aid in its development . Gall’s postulation of two simple language centers could not do justice to the complexity of language.
Jean Baptiste Bouillaud (1796-1881) picked up Gall’s ideas in consideration with cases of aphasia, already in 1825. His thoughts on language were based on his clinical experience, and language was defined in terms of the difficulties his aphasic patients showed in the expressions or understanding of singles words .16 Most of the subsequent work on aphasia, including the famous papers of Paul Broca (1824-1880), published in the
Wilhelm von Humboldt (1767-1835) had accepted and expanded Herder’s original viewpoint which had brought language from the sphere of philosophy into the realm of nature, by including reason in man’s natural endowment. Man can understand meaning attributed to sound, or the single word as a concept, only because language as a whole is innately in him. It is therefore inconceivable that language resulted from an accumulation of words. Language capacity is an attribute of intellectual man’s physiology. The changes which occur in languages with the passage of time, are part of historical development .
Language science will have to study both man’s language capacity and the history of languages. It will, have two aims, of which the inquiry into man’s language capacity is primary, and the exacting examination of particular language is secondary.
The biological nature of man’s language capacity appeared confirmed by the observation that all children acquire language at nearly the same age, although they may be raised under quite different circumstances. It is “characteristic for the unfolding of other biologically given attributes that a certain time is denoted for their development,” von Humboldt wrote .
No language can be understood in terms of a progressive accumulation of words which later becomes structured. Even the most primitive language requires an understanding of sentence structure . Words cannot be equated with the well-defined symbols of mathematics, for they save more often to discover unverified truths than to define a truth which has been fully recognized . Languages differ from each other in that each one has a distinctive facility to discover certain truths, so that every language represents a particular view of the world. The similarity of the language structures results from the fact that all languages are the expression of man’s inborn language capacity which should be the central point of all language studies. Yet “it is still too early to attempt an over-all theory of human speech…or even a general grammar” .
Humboldt’s discrimination between man’s language ability as a biological attribute, and the development of language in terms of language history was well taken. Many of the arguments about the origin and nature of language could have been avoided by adhering to a clear-cut separation of these two basic aspects. For Humboldt understood that they were but two integral components of language and that eventually languages would have to be considered in conjunction with man’s language capacity. But the work on languages had not yet progressed to a point where this was feasible.
Humboldt’s exposition of the aims of language science had not included a discussion of the appropriate methods. But by mid-century the question as to whether linguistics would belong to the natural or to the social sciences and this would determine its commitment to a methodology. August Schleicher (1821-1868), linguist and professor at
Because language is man’s most outstanding characteristic, people should be classified according to their language which is a much more important attribute than their racial characteristics. Language being a “symptom” of cerebral activity, language differences must rest on some slight anatomical difference of the brain . This direct connection between the characteristics of a language and the organ related to language ability was a rash conclusion. Had Schleicher adhered to Humboldt’s differentiation (of languages and language ability), his formulations might have proven more fruitful.
Very view linguists concurred with Schleicher’s thinking and his commitment to natural science. Friedrich Max Muller (1823-1900) favored the idea that linguistics was a natural science, for he had rejected Schleicher’s opinion that language evolved from natural sounds. This German born,
The public acclaim which Muller received was not based on his erudition, and this irritated the linguists who recognized his fallacies. In 1892, William Dwight Whitney (1827-1894), professor at Yale, opposed Muller’s view on the identity of language and thought, and denied the possibility of a natural science of linguistics. Language was a social product based on a God-given energy. He feared that the inclusion of linguistics in the natural sciences would be used to deny free will which Whitney wanted to preserve at all costs .
The view that language was unique to man was not considered contradictory to evolution by Charles Darwin 91809-1882). “The faculty of articulated speech does not in itself offer any insuperable objection to the belief that man has been developed from some lower form” .For Darwin articulation, association of ideas, and the ability to connect definite ideas with definite sounds, were not unique characteristics of human language. Man differed from animals solely by his infinitely larger power of associating together the most diversified sounds and ideas. Originally, language had evolved out of man’s imitation of animal noises. Man had shard with the apes their strong tendency to imitate sound. Now, “man has an instinctive tendency to speak, as we see in the babble of our young children, whilst no child has an instinctive tendency to brew, bake or write. Moreover, no philologist no supposes that any language has been deliberately invented.” He found that “The intimate connection between the brain is well shown by these curious cases of brain disease in which speech is specially affected” .
The study of aphasia lead John Hughlings Jackson (1834-1911) to formulations on language which went beyond the simple conceptualizations of his predecessors. In his paper written in 1864, he differentiated between intellectual speech used for propositions, and oaths which, like other interjectional expression, are nonpropositional. Among the workers on aphasia, he was the first to emphasize that “language is not a wordheap” and that meaning is gained by placing words in context . In order to understand the disturbances of language, it would be necessary to have a psychology and a physiology of language. Her drew on Herbert Spencer for his psychological formulations and proceeded to construct a very complicated hypothesis to explain the cerebral processes serving language function .
He formulated his findings, derived from the observation of cases of aphasia, in terms of cortical function. Learning language would have to be related to the establishment of sensory motor reflexes. For example:
“we learn the word ball, by hearing it and by the consequent articulatory adjustments… We learn the object ball, by receiving retinal impressions and by the occurrence of consequent ocular adjustment” .17
Most physicians were content with the simple mechanistic explanations about single words, but Hughlings Jackson’s interest in a language psychology was shared by the most prominent linguist H. Steintal.18
Nearly fifty years after von Humboldt had formulated the aims of linguistics, Heymann Steinthal (1823-1899) undertook the task of providing the discipline with a scientific basis. With the advantage of having voluminous compendiums and detailed grammars at his disposal, Steinthal realized that language could only be fully understood, if it was regarded a part of mind. Its scientific study would have to be based on psychology. Only psychological description would permit the elucidation of man’s language capacity and the conditions under which it can develop. “Language appears of necessity… when mental development has reached a certain point.” It comes about after reflexive body movements had entered man’s consciousness, and after the association of perceptions with sounds.