The concepts of the innateness, universality, species-specificity, and autonomy of the human language capacity have had an extreme impact on the psycholinguistic debate for over thirty years. These concepts are evaluated from several neurobiological perspectives, with an emphasis on the emergence of language and its decay due to brain lesion and progressive brain disease.
Evidence of perceptuomotor homologies and preadaptations for human language in nonhuman primates suggests a gradual emergence of language during hominid evolution. Regarding ontogeny, the innate component of language capacity is likely to be polygenic and shared with other developmental domains. Dissociations between verbal and nonverbal development are probably rooted in the perceptuomotor specializations of neural substrates rather than the autonomy of a grammar module. Aphasiologicaldata often assumed to suggest modular linguistic subsystems can be accounted for in terms of a neurofunctional model incorporating perceptuomotor-based regional specializationsand distributivity of representations. Thus, dissociations between grammatical functors and content words are due to different conditions of acquisition and resulting differences in neural representation. Human brains are characterized by multifactorial interindividual variability, and strict universality of functional organization is biologically unrealistic.
A theoretical alternative is proposed according to which (1) linguistic specialization of brain areas is due to epigenetic and probabilistic maturational events, not to genetic ”hard-wiring,” and (2) linguistic knowledge is neurally represented in distributed cell assemblies whose topography reflects the perceptuomotor modalities involved in the acquisition and use of a given item of knowledge.