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To my understanding, there are some linguists that would claim Merge is a cognitive mechanism which came about suddenly at some point in our evolutionary history. Is there any neurological evidence to support this claim, or is it supported purely because it is a parsimonious way to describe how linguistic expressions are constructed?

From http://chomsky.info/talks/20040517.htm:

The simplest account of the “Great Leap Forward” in the evolution of humans would be that the brain was rewired, perhaps by some slight mutation, to provide the operation Merge, at once laying a core part of the basis for what is found at that dramatic moment of human evolution...

  • It would help if you could provide some sources for those who claim this. – curiousdannii Oct 5 '15 at 3:43
  • Chomsky for one (from here: chomsky.info/talks/20040517.htm ) "...The simplest account of the “Great Leap Forward” in the evolution of humans would be that the brain was rewired, perhaps by some slight mutation, to provide the operation Merge, at once laying a core part of the basis for what is found at that dramatic moment of human evolution..." – RECURSIVE FARTS Oct 5 '15 at 3:57
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    You should edit and add that quote to the question itself, comments are meant to be ephemeral. – curiousdannii Oct 6 '15 at 14:10
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Neuroscientists/neurolinguists don't typically use the term "Merge" (which comes with some theoretical baggage that they may or may not ascribe to), but there's definitely been some recent neuro work on combinatory linguistic operations. David Poeppel and Liina Pylkkaänen are researchers who come to mind. Some quick googling turned up the following:

http://journals.plos.org/plosone/article?id=10.1371/journal.pone.0073949

On the theoretical neurolinguistics side, there's the following:

http://rstb.royalsocietypublishing.org/content/royptb/367/1598/1971.full.pdf

(the 3rd paragraph references the left inferior frontal gyrus as being involved in "syntactic and semantic unification [...] real-time combinatorial operations"

Also

http://www.mitpressjournals.org/doi/abs/10.1162/jocn.2007.19.6.971#.VhRnlRNVhBc

from the abstract: "Crucially, a significant interaction demonstrated that the sMMN specifically distinguished syntactic violations from common grammatical strings, but not uncommon from common grammatical word strings. This significant interaction argues in favor of a genuinely grammatical origin of the sMMN and provides direct neurophysiological evidence for a discrete combinatorial system for word and morpheme sequences in the human brain (emph mine---fm). The data are more difficult to explain in the context of serial order models that map co-occurrence probabilities of words."

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    As it is understood in the MP (Minimalist Program), Merge always combines two constituents in a bottom up fashion. I strongly doubt that there is any neurophysiological evidence for the existence of that sort of mechanism. A "discrete combinatorial system" may exist in some sense, but the notion that this system operates bottom up cannot, I believe, be verified emperically in any concrete way. Merge as it is commonly understood in the MP is a thought experiment; it is a "what-if" sort situation that lacks any basis in real science. – Tim Osborne Oct 8 '15 at 4:43
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I'm not sure there's any direct evidence for Merge at the moment. However there's evidence for lack of any human-like combinatorial operations in non-human species (so far birds and chimpanzees are tested). This particular paper tackles recursion in non-human species, you might want to give it a read. They don't use the word Merge, however.

You should also bear in mind that Merge itself is not a small thing in our brains that literally takes two objects and combines them. Rather it is a convenient set-theoretical notion to bring clarity in how sentences might be generated (think of it as a function of some sort, if you're familiar with maths). No one argues there's a biological object that allows us to add or multiply numbers for example, yet it is obvious that anyone is capable of that. No one argues that there are visible orbits of planets, yet orbits are there - we can infer that from observing movements and positions of planets.

Why shouldn't we consider Merge a domain-general capability is yet another, difficult question, though.

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Many aspects of cognition lack neurobiological evidence - consciousness for instance. Now if Cartesian duality is correct (and given its formidable presence in the history of philosophy, it's not a totally insane possibility), it follows that human cognition will never be completely understood within any biological framework. The language faculty can then be one of the 'magical' aspects of cognition, in which case, biological inquiry will be useless. However, this does not preclude the notion that the language faculty employs computational mechanisms like Merge. In light of such possibilities, the computational approach to the language faculty, namely that sentences are formed via Merge, is correct to the extent that we can successfully account for natural language syntax with Merge along with the other assumptions of the minimalist program (e.g. The Strong Minimalist Thesis). I would say that Merge has been very successful in this regard.

On the other hand, it's possible that neurolinguistic research will one day provide a more illuminating account of the language faculty. For instance, perhaps Merge can be localized to Broca's or Wernicke's area. Or as an extreme case, perhaps the language faculty doesn't exist at all, and by extension neither does Merge. That language is nothing more than the result of domain general cognitive processes is a view held by many (e.g. Lakoff and most functionalists). My personal view is that the current generative approach will be vindicated when generative ideas are used to solve the central problem of AI. Once we create robots that speak indistinguishably from humans, using such hated principles of Universal Grammar, generativism's detractors will be at a loss of words.

  • "perhaps Merge can be localized to Broca's or Wernicke's area." How familiar are you with most recent psycholinguistic/neurolinguistic research? – Alex B. Oct 30 '15 at 22:05

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