Pedro Tiago Martins

Why I don't like the term 'biolinguistics' anymore

Apr 12, 2019

The research group I am in used to be called Biolinguistics Initiative Barcelona.1

Some of the articles I have written have titles such as the following:

I have reviewed a book for a journal called Biolinguistics, and collaborated with the journal in other ways as well, over the years.

I have delivered talks that had biolinguistics somewhere in the title, sometimes in academic meetings that had the term somewhere in their name as well.

I’ve used the term as a keyword for my own work where it seemed appropriate or when asked to do so.

Most of the (admittedly few) people who recognize me in conferences know I have something to do with biolinguistics.

In turns out the term doesn’t refer to anything interesting (to me) anymore. I used to like it very much, and I used to defend it, often in writing. But I don’t really care for it these days. Make no mistake: I like the work I do. In my mind studying the biological bases of language is still a great scientific endeavor, probably more so than ever. I just think that fighting for the term ‘biolinguistics’ is leading nowhere.

Generative linguistics is what kick-started it (as a term and as a scientific enterprise). Eric Lenneberg, Noam Chomsky, Morris Halle and a few friends were responsible for a paradigm shift that made it possible to put ‘language’ and ‘biology’ in the same sentence and not sound esoteric, and this approach was later called “biolinguistics” by Massimo Piattelli-Palmarini.

But this linguistics pedigree is also where the problem lies. Most of the people who use the term ‘biolinguistics’ don’t really want to integrate with other fields; they don’t want to question their assumptions (or at least they don’t want the questioning to come from different fields). They don’t really want to confront their theories—which have biological implications—with biological knowledge. Biology is always kept at a very abstract level. The “bio” prefix was supposed to allow us to move past that, not perpetuate it. The result, in my view, and I don’t think I’m alone in this, is that most current uses of ‘biolinguistics’ refer to a stagnant, ultimately uninteresting field if what you’re after is the biology behind language. Very detailed descriptions of languages and structural patterns keep being devised, new knowledge is being generated, but all of the interesting biological insights were there before the field became mainstream, and well before the “bio” prefix became common. There aren’t any new ones that inform or foster biological work.2 Of course, for those who don’t care about the biology of our linguistic capacity—as good a choice as any other—, none of this is interesting nor should it be. There is a plethora of work in different branches of linguistics pertaining to other, markedly or even completely different questions. For those who care about the biology of language, on the other hand, this state of affairs is a bit worrying, I would think.

And then there’s the fact that there are actually many people working on the biology of language, doing the work that in my mind ‘biolinguistics’ should refer to. Most of these people are probably oblivious to the term or the shenanigans around it (or perhaps vaguely aware). A few might be known voices in this terminological discussion which doesn’t really affect their work, and they might take part in it because of historical accidents or other connections to the literature.

Whole research groups keep hacking at the biological and evolutionary bases of language while people who call themselves biolinguists keep telling them “we [as in everyone] just don’t know enough to go that far”. Well, if we keep avoiding going somewhere, we’re not going to get very far. So much more is known today than 50 or 60 years ago. Actually, so much more is known and possible today than just 10 years ago. This is no secret. This doesn’t mean of course that all of the work being carried out on the biology and evolution of language—of which there are many strains—is in the right direction. Of course it isn’t. But that’s the case by default in any scientific endeavor.

It would be dishonest on my part to say I didn’t at some point do the same “biolinguistics” I criticize. The prospect of studying the biology of language is great for a linguistics student, and for a while you keep to conceptual arguments—something which I still very much enjoy—and still do bread and butter linguistics. You talk about the things that could be, about how biology is important, about how in the future science will yield a lot of interesting results on the biology of language. And you resort to the “we know nothing about X” argument when you want to avoid delving into it. But this should be a transition period, an acclimatization of sorts, if you are serious about making a contribution.

So I’m done with the term “biolinguistics”. Maybe I’ll still have to refer to it for historical reasons, but I will avoid it to the extent that I can. Those who use biolinguistics as a synonym of generative linguistics have won the battle, and they get to keep what unfortunately became a meaningless buzzword.3 It was a great word, though.


  1. The current name is Cognitive Biology of Language Group. The name change stems from the sentiment I try to express in this text, and from the way in which our work changed over the years. We find it to be a more appropriate name. 

  2. This could be due to my ignorance of such insights. If anyone who’s reading this thinks I am overlooking something, I am of course all ears. 

  3. There are some generativists who hate the word as well, and do not defend it in any way. Several reasons for this exist. I talk about this is—among other things relevant to this discussion—in a 2016 paper with Cedric Boeckx. Yes; it’s one of those with biolinguistics in the title! 

© Pedro Tiago Martins