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The Language Design
UQAM, May 27-29, 2010

The last decade has seen advances in our understanding of the factors entering into the human language design stemming from linguistic theory, biolinguistics, and biophysics. This workshop brings together participants from a broad array of disciplines to discuss topics that include the connection between linguistic theory and genetics, evolutionary developmental biology and language variation, computer science/information theory and the reduction of uncertainty/complexity. The questions raised in the workshop include, but are not restricted to the following:

Grammars: Recent works on Chomsky's hierarchy of formal grammars bring to the fore issues that go back to the fifties on the sort of grammar/automata that specifically describes/generates human language. Several questions arise, including whether more than one sort of formal grammar is part of the language design, perhaps distributed in different components (Idsardi), or possibly available within narrow syntax itself (Lasnik). Recent human/animal comparative studies on learnability raise similar questions (Fitch and Hauser, Friederici, Jarvis, Mitra, Trevisan et al.). To what extent do such studies shed light on the specificity of the human language?

Operators: One important question is the nature of the operators that derive the discrete infinity of human language. Merge and Agree are assumed to be the dyadic operators of the Faculty of Language. However, several questions arise with respect to their properties. Is Merge completely free (Boeckx), or is it subject to formal conditions (Frampton and Goodmann). Further questions arise on the nature of the representations derived by the Merge, and whether or not these are restricted to adjunction (Hornstein). More questions arise regarding the semantics of human language, the kinds of operators that derive the interpretation, and whether the derivations are external to narrow syntax (Hinzen, Pietrosky, Higginbotham).

Relations: Properties of relations such as symmetry, asymmetry and antisymmetry have been shown to be relevant in the language design. Symmetry-breaking has been proposed to drive the derivations (Moro) and the word-order differences (SVO,VSO, ...) between languages (Jenkins); antisymmetry has been argued to be a central property in syntax, as well as for linearization (Kayne), and asymmetry has been claimed to be part of Merge (Chomsky, Zwart, Di Sciullo and Isac). We know that properties of relations are used to describe the dynamics of morphogenesis in biology (Montell), and to formulate laws of physics. Why should these abstract properties of form participate in the language design? What is the basis of their dynamics in human language?

Complexity: It is generally assumed, since Chomsky's three factors, that the factors reducing derivational complexity are external to the language design. They include mechanisms that reduce the search space and the choice points in the derivations. Phases are part of the factors reducing derivational complexity in narrow syntax (Uriagereka, Boeckx and Grohmann). Other complexity-reducing factors include the mechanisms restricting the set of possible acquirable grammars (Yang, Roeper, Fong), those that reduce the set of possible interpretations for linguistic representations (Reinhart, Speas), and those that come from limits imposed by perception and memory (Chomsky and Miller, Bever). Are these computational constraints related to one another? Are there correlates to complexity-reducing factors in biology or in physics?

Variation: Advances in our understanding of language variation since Principles and Parameters have made it possible to derive observable differences between languages from abstract properties of the grammar and phylogenetics (Longobardi and Guardiano, Cavalli-Sforza). Recent findings in the dynamics of morphogenesis, regulatory HOX genes (Ghering and Ikeo), and philogenetic patterns of variance (Palmer, Lewontin) are interesting from a biolinguistic perspective (Niyogi and Berwick, Di Sciullo). They point at the central role of asymmetry in the dynamics of variation and change in the biological world. How can our knowledge of variation and change in genetics and population biology enhance our understanding of language diversity?

Genetics: From an evolutionary and comparative standpoint, FOXP2 has been intensely analyzed as potentially shedding light on the unique characteristics of the human species as well as on human origins. However, given FOXP2's multifactorial neural influence and its role as part of the externalization system for language, it would then seem speculative at this point to base strong conclusions on such evidence (Piattelli-Palmarini, Uriagereka, Berwick). How do advances in our understanding of SLI and other genetically endowed language impairments, such as Williams-Beuren syndrome (Perovic and Wexler), as well as advances in the study of brain-level mechanisms that support language (Peoppel, Tanenhaus, Phillips), shed light on the language design?

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