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Detail of contribution

Auteur: Giuseppe LONGOBARDI

Toward historial biolinguistics

Abstract/Résumé: Beyond its theoretical success, the development of molecular biology has brought about the possibility of extraordinary progress in the historical study of classification and distribution of different species and different human populations, introducing a new level of evidence (molecular genetic markers) now susceptible to quantitative and computational treatment. I argue that, even in the cognitive sciences, purely theoretical progress in a certain discipline, such as linguistics, may have analogous historical impact, equally contributing to Renfrew’s ‘New Synthesis’, and in turn may be confirmed by such results. So, exactly on the model of molecular biology and its fruitful balance between evolutionary and theoretical concerns, I propose to unify two traditionally unrelated lines of investigation: 1) the formal study of syntactic variation (parameter theory) in the biolinguistic program 2) the reconstruction of relatedness among languages (phylogenetic taxonomy) I argue that due to progress in parametric grammatical theories, and relying on the methodological parallelism with evolutionary genetics, we are now in a position to measure the syntactic distance among languages in a precise fashion and to explore its historical significance through the application of clustering algorithms borrowed from computational biology. Through such formal methods, it will be shown that the distribution of actual syntactic distances provided by an elaborate parametric system is statistically significant (that is, non-accidental and requiring historical explanation) and empirically matches well assessed historical expectations. The properties commonly attributed to parametric variation (uniform discreteness and universality), akin to those displayed by genetic polymorphisms, make it particularly suitable for addressing the unsolved issue of comparison between remote, etymologically unrelated languages, opening the way for completely new interactions with the empirical results of molecular anthropologists. Further experiments suggest that pattern-based classifications are phylogenetically less accurate than those founded on deductively structured parameters, so that the latter better represent actual historical relations. Therefore, abstract parametric theories are likely to encode a higher level of reality than surface-oriented typologies. Thus, I suggest 3) that a parametric model of the language faculty and language acquisition/transmission (more broadly a theory of generative grammar) receives original support from its historical adequacy; 4) that through these new tools one can explore the possibility of testing Darwin’s (1859) prediction that, when properly identified, the genealogical trees of human populations and of their languages should eventually turn out strictly parallel.