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Auteur: Cedric BOECKX

Lexicon, Syntax, and Grammar: Biolinguistic concerns

Abstract/Résumé: Although much discussion in recent biolinguistics forums has revolved around the concept of recursion (and syntax), due largely to the Hauser, Chomsky, and Fitch 2002 publication, I would like to demonstrate in this talk that the nature of the lexicon may be in greater need of clarification if one is to shed light on the emergence of the language faculty in the Homo lineage. A careful examination of the theoretical linguistics literature (across models and frameworks) reveals that syntax, and more generally, grammar, is subordinated to the lexicon. Lexical items provide all the relevant properties ('features') to perform the kinds of computations ascribed to syntax. But where do these features come from? What is the generative engine behind the feature structures routinely assumed in linguistic analyses? Do the features of lexical items form a natural class? Is there, in fact, a single, coherent notion of lexical item? I will address these questions and claim that there are in fact two senses of 'lexical item' (and 'lexicon') that must be strictly kept apart in a biolinguistic context. The distinction maps partially onto the well-known Chomskyan I-/E-language distinction, but not completely, for in biology (and therefore, in biolinguistics, too), the Internal/External distinction is often not as clear cut as the linguistic literature claims it is. The first sense of lexical item is a very minimal one: it corresponds to a unit of unbounded combination, a property that gives human language its distinctive profile. I claim that this sense of lexical item should be the focus of biological evolutionary studies. Lexical items in this sense can be said to lie at the heart of what Marc Hauser has called 'humaniqueness', which essentially amounts to the ability to think across cognitive modules, an ability plausibly associated with the sapiens-specific developmental trajectory of the brain. The second sense of lexical item refers to everything other than the property of unbounded combination and includes everything that makes 'words' (or 'morphemes' or 'constructions') substantive units of specific languages. Lexical items in this second sense are the products of cultural evolution. Failure to keep these two sense of 'lexical item' separate prevents one from seeing that the grammatical structure that is the focus of linguistic theorizing has in fact a dual source: biological and cultural.