That Was Not ‘Lenneberg’s Dream’
Eric Heinz Lenneberg (1921–1975), a neuroscientist and linguist born in Düsseldorf, published his masterpiece Biological Foundations of Language in 1967. This book, now recognized as a classic in the field, inaugurated the scientific study of the biology of language, and has since its publication exerted an enormous influence. However, some interpretations of this work do not accurately capture the author’s biological and linguistic thinking. Here I concentrate on one such interpretation, that of leading generative acquisitionist Kenneth Wexler (1942-), who has formulated what he terms ‘Lenneberg’s dream’, portraying Lenneberg as believing that a trait like language is directly rooted in the genome. The present paper will show that Lenneberg’s view was in fact quite different from that assumed by Wexler. First, while the latter author explicitly adopts the genocentric stance that has characterized generative grammar since its very inception, the former relativized the role of genes and rejected the genome as the direct source of language. Second, Wexler’s position can be shown to be preformationist, assuming the genome to contain a specific program for language; Lenneberg, in contrast, never embraced that position and instead adopted an opposite, epigenesist stance. In sum, Lenneberg dreamt a completely different dream.
Published online: 20 June 2018
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