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Reviewed by:
  • On nature and language by Noam Chomsky, and: The language organ: Linguistics as cognitive physiology by Stephen R. Anderson, David W. Lightfoot, and: Language in a Darwinian perspective by Bernard H. Bichakjian
  • Frederick J. Newmeyer
On nature and language. By Noam Chomsky. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002. Pp. 206. ISBN: 0521815487. $60.00.
The language organ: Linguistics as cognitive physiology. By Stephen R. Anderson and David W. Lightfoot. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002. Pp. 263. ISBN: 0521809940. $65.00.
Language in a Darwinian perspective. By Bernard H. Bichakjian. Frankfurt am Main: Peter Lang. Pp. 316. ISBN: 0820454583. $47.95.

1. Introduction

The three books under review share a biological approach to language. Chomsky’s On nature and language (ONL) advocates ‘studying language as a natural object, a cognitive capacity that is part of the biological endowment of our species, physically represented in the human brain and accessible to study within the guidelines of the natural sciences’ (ix). The goal of The language organ (TLO) by Anderson and Lightfoot is to ‘establish for the non-specialist the biological nature of the language faculty’ (xiv). And the ‘central idea’ of Bichakjian’s Language in a Darwinian perspective (LDP) is that ‘every linguistic feature, be it a speech sound, a grammatical marker, or a syntactic strategy, interfaces with a neuro-muscular algorithm, and that selection pressures have steadily guided languages toward alternatives that are ever more functional in their linguistic use and ever more economical in their neuro-muscular production and cerebral processing’ (x). As might be expected, Chomsky and Anderson and Lightfoot agree on most of the fundamental issues, though one finds surprising metatheoretical and methodological differences. Bichakjian’s approach, biological though it may be, stands in sharp contrast in many respects to that taken in the other two books.

ONL is edited by Adriana Belletti and Luigi Rizzi. Oddly, however, their names do not appear on the book’s cover. Nevertheless, Ch. 1 (1–44) was written by them and is entitled ‘Editor’s introduction: Some concepts and issues in linguistic theory’. After reaffirming the basics of the ‘Chomskyan’ program, they go on to devote twenty pages to justifying the need for parameterized principles, illustrated for the most part by analyses from the later years of the government and binding (GB) theory. The final fourteen pages of Ch. 1 introduce the minimalist program (MP), stressing representational and derivational economy and appealing to the need to eliminate uninterpretable features as a justification for movement. Chs. 2 and 3, ‘Perspectives on language and mind’ (45–60) and ‘Language and the brain’ (61–91) respectively, are the published versions of lectures that Chomsky gave in Italy in 1999. Both are essays on the history and philosophy of science, raising the question of whether principles of cognition might be unified with those governing the physical world. Chomsky feels that such unification is a ‘distant goal; . . . for the present the study of language and other higher human mental faculties is proceeding much as chemistry did, seeking to “establish a rich body of doctrine,” with an eye to eventual unification, but without any clear idea of how this might take place’ (56). Ch. 3 is devoted to discussing and detailing three ‘generally reasonable’ theses: first, that minds are emergent properties of brains; second, that to fully understand some trait (including language), our perspective should be mechanistic, [End Page 583] ontogenetic, functional, and phylogenetic; third, that the functional organization of the brain is modular, incorporating ‘specialized organs’ (64). Ch. 4, the heart of ONL, is ‘An interview on minimalism’ (92–161), in which Chomsky replies to questions posed by Belletti and Rizzi about the goals, internal structure, and achievements of the MP. This chapter and the three that precede it assert that, as a result of this program, ‘it has become possible to pose in a productive way the question of the “perfection of language”: specifically, to ask how closely human language approaches an optimal solution to design conditions that the system must meet to be usable at all’ (58). Ch. 5, ‘The secular priesthood and the perils of democracy’ (162–86), develops one of Chomsky’s familiar political themes, namely, that intellectuals have tended...