All humans can acquire at least one natural language. Biolinguistics is the name given to the interdisciplinary enterprise that aims to unveil the biological bases of this unique capacity.
Cedric Boeckx and Pedro Tiago Martins
There are two main theoretical traditions in semantics. One is based on realism, where meanings are described as relations between language and the world, often in terms of truth conditions. The other is cognitivistic, where meanings are identified with mental structures. This article presents some of the main ideas and theories within the cognitivist approach. A central tenet of cognitively oriented theories of meaning is that there are close connections between the meaning structures and other cognitive processes. In particular, parallels between semantics and visual processes have been studied. As a complement, the theory of embodied cognition focuses on the relation between actions and components of meaning. One of the main methods of representing cognitive meaning structures is to use images schemas and idealized cognitive models. Such schemas focus on spatial relations between various semantic elements. Images schemas are often constructed using Gestalt psychological notions, including those of trajector and landmark, corresponding to figure and ground. In this tradition, metaphors and metonymies are considered to be central meaning transforming processes. A related approach is force dynamics. Here, the semantic schemas are construed from forces and their relations rather than from spatial relations. Recent extensions involve cognitive representations of actions and events, which then form the basis for a semantics of verbs. A third approach is the theory of conceptual spaces. In this theory, meanings are represented as regions of semantic domains such as space, time, color, weight, size, and shape. For example, strong evidence exists that color words in a large variety of languages correspond to such regions. This approach has been extended to a general account of the semantics of some of the main word classes, including adjectives, verbs, and prepositions. The theory of conceptual spaces shows similarities to the older frame semantics and feature analysis, but it puts more emphasis on geometric structures. A general criticism against cognitive theories of semantics is that they only consider the meaning structures of individuals, but neglect the social aspects of semantics, that is, that meanings are shared within a community. Recent theoretical proposals counter this by suggesting that semantics should be seen as a meeting of minds, that is, communicative processes that lead to the alignment of meanings between individuals. On this approach, semantics is seen as a product of communication, constrained by the cognitive mechanisms of the individuals.
Valentina Bambini and Paolo Canal
Neurolinguistics is devoted to the study of the language-brain relationship, using the methodologies of neuropsychology and cognitive neuroscience to investigate how linguistic categories are grounded in the brain. Although the brain infrastructure for language is invariable across cultures, neural networks might operate differently depending on language-specific features. In this respect, neurolinguistic research on the Romance languages, mostly French, Italian, and Spanish, proved key to progress the field, especially with specific reference to how the neural infrastructure for language works in the case of more richly inflected systems than English. Among the most popular domains of investigation are agreement patterns, where studies on Spanish and Italian showed that agreement across features and domains (e.g., number or gender agreement) engages partially different neural substrates. Also, studies measuring the electrophysiological response suggested that agreement processing is a composite mechanism involving different temporal steps. Another domain is the noun-verb distinction, where studies on the Romance languages indicated that the brain is more sensitive to the greater morphosyntactic engagement of verbs compared with nouns rather than to the grammatical class distinction per se. Concerning language disorders, the Romance languages shed new light on inflectional errors in aphasic speakers and contributed to revise the notion of agrammatism, which is not simply omission of morphemes but might involve incorrect substitution from the inflectional paradigm. Also, research in the Romance domain showed variation in degree and pattern of reading impairments due to language-specific segmental and suprasegmental features. Despite these important contributions, the Romance family, with its multitude of languages and dialects and a richly documented diachronic evolution, is a still underutilized ‘treasure house’ for neurolinguistic research, with significant room for investigations exploring the brain signatures of language variation in time and space and refining the linking between linguistic categories and neurobiological primitives.
Sign phonetics is the study of how sign languages are produced and perceived, by native as well as by non-native signers. Most research on sign phonetics has focused on American Sign Language (ASL), but there are many different sign languages around the world, and several of these, including British Sign Language, Taiwan Sign Language, and Sign Language of the Netherlands, have been studied at the level of phonetics. Sign phonetics research can focus on individual lexical signs or on the movements of the nonmanual articulators that accompany those signs. The production and perception of a sign language can be influenced by phrase structure, linguistic register, the signer’s linguistic background, the visual perception mechanism, the anatomy and physiology of the hands and arms, and many other factors. What sets sign phonetics apart from the phonetics of spoken languages is that the two language modalities use different mechanisms of production and perception, which could in turn result in structural differences between modalities. Most studies of sign phonetics have been based on careful analyses of video data. Some studies have collected kinematic limb movement data during signing and carried out quantitative analyses of sign production related to, for example, signing rate, phonetic environment, or phrase position. Similarly, studies of sign perception have recorded participants’ ability to identify and discriminate signs, depending, for example, on slight variations in the signs’ forms or differences in the participants’ language background. Most sign phonetics research is quantitative and lab-based.
The tongue is composed entirely of soft tissue: muscle, fat, and connective tissue. This unusual composition and the tongue’s 3D muscle fiber orientation result in many degrees of freedom. The lack of bones and cartilage means that muscle shortening creates deformations, particularly local deformations, as the tongue moves into and out of speech gestures. The tongue is also surrounded by the hard structures of the oral cavity, which both constrain its motion and support the rapid small deformations that create speech sounds. Anatomical descriptors and categories of tongue muscles do not correlate with tongue function as speech movements use finely controlled co-contractions of antagonist muscles to move the oral structures during speech. Tongue muscle volume indicates that four muscles, the genioglossus, verticalis, transversus, and superior longitudinal, occupy the bulk of the tongue. They also comprise a functional muscle grouping that can shorten the tongue in the x, y, and z directions. Various 3D muscle shortening patterns produce large- or small-scale deformations in all directions of motion. The interdigitation of the tongue’s muscles is advantageous in allowing co-contraction of antagonist muscles and providing nimble deformational changes to move the tongue toward and away from any position.