Protolanguage, Mirror Neurons, and the "Front-Heavy" Brain: Explorations in the Evolution and Functional Organization of Language


  • Robin Melrose School of Languages and Area Studies, University of Portsmouth



Protolanguage, Pragmatism, Semiotic Systems, Lexicogrammar, Cognitive Linguistics, Discourse Analysis


In recent years, linguistic research into protolanguage and interpersonal semantics, and neuroscientific research into mirror neurons and the central role of the prefrontal cortex in language processing have provided new insights into how language may have evolved and how it may be functionally organized. This paper attempts to draw together these two strands of research by linking (1) studies of the neural processing of attitude, evaluation and theory of mind to the evolution of interpersonal semantics, and (2) research into mirror neurons and the processing of verbs and nouns to the evolution of ideational semantics. The paper then goes on to investigate the role of the prefrontal cortex in the functional organization of language, concluding that although language is widely distributed in the brain, there is some evidence for distinct ideational and interpersonal pathways in the brain controlled by the prefrontal cortex.

Author Biography

  • Robin Melrose, School of Languages and Area Studies, University of Portsmouth

    Robin Melrose taught English overseas for twenty years, but for the last fifteen years he has taught English and Linguistics at universities in the UK. Working within the framework of systemic functional linguistics, he has published books and papers on syllabus design, literary stylistics, and critical discourse analysis, with the interdisciplinary aim of integrating the work of theorists as diverse as Peirce, Derrida and Foucault into mainstream linguistics. More recently, he has become interested in research into the neural processing of language, believing that systemic functional linguistics has as much to offer neuroscience as neuroscience undoubtedly has to offer linguistics.


Aboitiz, F. and Garcia, V. (1997) The evolutionary origin of the language areas in the human brain: a neuroanatomical perspective. Brain Research Reviews 25: 381–396.

Arbib, M. and Bota, M. (2003) Language evolution: neural homologies and neuroinformatics. Neural Networks 16: 1237–1260.

Buckingham, H. W. Jr. (1981) Lexical and semantic aspects of aphasia. In M. T. Sarno (ed.) Acquired Aphasia. New York: Academic Press.

Chao, L. L. and Martin, A. (2000) Representation of manipulable man-made objects in the dorsal stream. NeuroImage 12: 478–484.

Deacon, T. (1997) The Symbolic Species: the co-evolution of language and the human brain. London: Penguin.

Deacon, T. (2004) Monkey homologues of language areas: computing the ambiguities. Trends in Cognitive Sciences 8: 288–290.

Ellis, A. W. and Young, A. W. (1988) Human Cognitive Neuropsychology. Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

Farrer, C. and Frith, C. D. (2002) Experiencing oneself vs another person as being the cause of an action: the neural correlates of the experience of agency. NeuroImage 15: 596–603.

Gallagher, H. L. and Frith, C. D. (2003) Functional imaging of ‘theory of mind’. Trends in Cognitive Sciences 7: 77–83.

Gallagher, H. L., Happé, F., Brunswick, N., Fletcher, P. C., Frith, U. and Frith, C. D. (2000) Reading the mind in cartoons and stories: an FMRI study of ‘theory of mind’ in verbal and non-verbal tasks. Neuropsychologia 38: 11–21.

Gallese, V. (2003) A neuroscientific grasp of concepts: from control to representation. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London Series B-Biological Sciences 358: 1231–1240.

Grossman, M. G., Carvell, S., Gollomp, S., Stern, M. B., Vernon, G. and Hurtig, H. I. (1991) Sentence comprehension and praxis deficits in Parkinson’s disease. Neurology 41: 1620–1628.

Grossman, M., Koenig, P., DeVita, C., Glosser, G., Alsop, D., Detre, J., et al. (2002a) The neural basis for category-specific knowledge: an fMRI study. NeuroImage 15: 936–948.

Grossman, M., Koenig, P., DeVita, C., Glosser, G., Alsop, D., Detre, J., et al. (2002b) Neural representation of verb meaning: an fMRI study. Human Brain Mapping 15: 124–134.

Halliday, M. A. K. (1975) Learning How To Mean. London: Arnold.

Halliday, M. A. K. and Matthiessen, C. M. I. M. (1999) Construing Experience through Meaning: a language-based approach to cognition. London: Continuum.

Lieberman, P. (2002) On the nature and evolution of the neural bases of human language. Yearbook of Physical Anthropology 45: 36–62.

Martin, J. R. (2000) Beyond exchange: appraisal systems in English. In S. Hunston and G. Thompson (eds) Evaluation in Text: authorial stance and the construction of discourse 142–175. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Melrose, R. (2005) How a neurological account of language can be reconciled with a linguist’s account of language: the case of systemic-functional linguistics. Journal of Neurolinguistics 18: 401–421.

Müller, R.-A. and Basho, S. (2004) Are nonlinguistic functions in 'Broca’s area' prerequisites for language acquisition? FMRI findings from an ontogenetic viewpoint. Brain and Language 89: 329–336.

Painter, C. (1984) Into the Mother Tongue. London: Pinter.

Painter, C. (1999) Learning Through Language in Early Childhood. London: Cassell.

Painter, C. (2003) Developing attitude: an ontogenetic perspective on appraisal. Text 23: 183–209.

Painter, C. (2004) The ‘interpersonal first’ principle in child language development. In G. Williams and A. Lukin (eds) Language Development: functional perspectives on evolution and ontogenesis. London: Continuum.

Perani, D., Cappa, S. F., Schnur, T., Tettamanti, M., Collina, S., Rosa, M. M. and Fazio, F. (1999) The neural correlates of verb and noun processing: a PET study. Brain 122: 2337–2344.

Pulvermüller, F. (2001) Brain reflections of words and their meaning. Trends in Cognitive Sciences 5: 517–524.

Rizzolatti, G. and Arbib, M. (1998) Language within our grasp. Trends in Neurosciences 21: 188–194.

Sayg?n, A. P., Wilson, S. M., Dronkers, N. F. and Bates, E. (2004) Action comprehension in aphasia: linguistic and non-linguistic deficits and their lesion correlates. Neuropsychologia 42: 1788–1804.

Ullman, M. T. (2004) Contributions of memory circuits to language: the declarative/ procedural model. Cognition 92: 231–270.

Ullman, M.T. and Pierpont, E.I. (2005) Specific language impairment is not specific to language: the Procedural Deficit Hypothesis. Cortex 41: 399–433

Wicker, B., Keysers, C., Plailly, J., Royet, J.-P., Gallese, V. and Rizzolatti G. (2003) Both of us disgusted in my insula: the common neural basis of seeing and feeling disgust. Neuron 40: 655–664.

Wood, J. N., Romero, S. G., Knutson, K. M. and Grafman, J. (2005) Representation of attitudinal knowledge: role of prefrontal cortex, amygdala and parahippocampal gyrus. Neuropsychologia 43: 249–259.

Xu, J., Kemeny, S., Park, G., Frattali, C. and Braun, A. (2005) Language in context: emergent features of word, sentence, and narrative comprehension. NeuroImage 25: 1002–1015.

Zysset, S., Huber, O., Ferstl, E. and von Cramon, D. Y. (2002) The anterior frontomedian cortex and evaluative judgement: an FMRI study. NeuroImage 15: 983–991.






How to Cite

Melrose, R. (2008). Protolanguage, Mirror Neurons, and the "Front-Heavy" Brain: Explorations in the Evolution and Functional Organization of Language. Linguistics and the Human Sciences, 2(1), 89-109.