Biolinguistics or Physicolinguistics? Is the Third Factor Helpful or Harmful in Explaining Language?


  • Sverker Johansson


Noam Chomsky (2005) proposed that a ‘third factor’, consisting of general principles and natural laws, may explain core properties of language in a principled manner, minimizing the need for either genetic endowment or experience. But the focus on third-factor patterns in much recent bio-linguistic work is misguided for several reasons: First, ‘the’ third factor is a vague and disparate collection of unrelated components, useless as an analytical tool. Second, the vagueness of the third factor, together with the desire for principled explanations, too often leads to sweeping claims, such as syntax “coming for free, directly from physics”, that are unwarranted without a case-by-case causal analysis. Third, attention is diverted away from a proper causal analysis of language as a biological feature. The point with biolinguistics is to acknowledge the language faculty as a biological feature. The best way forward towards an understanding of language is to take the biology connection seriously, instead of dabbling with physics.