Ceaseless, Unpredictable Creativity: Language as Technology


  • Jan Koster


Notions like ‘biolinguistics’ have a trivial and a non-trivial interpretation. According to the trivial version, a cultural phenomenon like language is only based on our innate biological capacities. Language, in this view, is not a matter of biology per se but of applied biology, i.e. a form of technology. Under this interpretation, ‘biolinguistics’ is uncontroversial and trivial because all our cultural activities are grounded in our biology. According to the non-trivial interpretation, the concept of language can be sufficiently narrowly construed so that we can define a core capacity that is comparable to a biological organ (like the heart or the liver). Recently, it has become common to see this ‘faculty of language in the narrow sense’ (FLN) as some abstract form of syntax characterized by recursive Merge. According to this article, only the trivial interpretation of ‘biolinguistics’ is correct. It does not make sense to define language in such a way that it excludes words. Words are human inventions and the necessary tools to give linguistic functionality to whatever biological capacities for recursive syntax we may have. Ultimately, this means that only ‘lexicalist’ versions of generative grammar can be correct. The agentive function assignment involved in the invention of words distinguishes language from bodily organs, which do not derive their functionality from human agency. More generally, cultural transparency of biological structures is rejected as an ideological form of Panglossian determinism and a denial of the “ceaseless creativity” and freedom coming with human agency.