My research addresses a constellation of issues surrounding two guiding questions: how did language arise in our species and what are the limits of variation in human language? These questions are of interest to me because of their potential to shed light on the nature of the cognitive systems that are involved in language and get to the heart of what makes us human.
Advances in neuroscience, genetics, evo-devo, computer modeling techniques, and studies of learning in a variety of animals have revolutionized our understanding of cognition and the biology that makes it possible. My work synthesizes cutting-edge findings from all of these areas and applies them to the question of what systems and abilities underlie the human language externalization system (phonology and its interfaces). I hypothesize that very little in this domain is unique to humans, though we may be the only species in which all the relevant abilities are found. In light of this view, I have proposed a theory of phonology that makes maximal use of operations and representations that were plausibly present in our species prior to the emergence of externalized language. I believe that long-standing debates concerning the nature of phonological theory, for example the status of ‘unnatural’ patterns and the status of markedness, can be at least partially adjudicated by biological evidence. A biological approach also helps to define components of our language faculty in terms that are domain-general enough yet specific enough that they may be studied by cognitive neuroscientists, among others.