Explore how six college students use the language of physical anthropology to study the human origins of language.

20 April 2011

From the Desk of MIT Linguistics Professor Noam Chomsky: Theories on the Origins of Language

From Steven Pinker’s The Language Instinct: How the Mind Creates Language (print source)
Chapter 4: “How Language Works”
There are two facts related to the human ability of conveying and understanding sentences or messages. Pinker describes this ability as the “essence of language instinct: language conveys news." The first method to understanding is “the arbitrariness of the sign.” This means that we understand the sound of the word and the meaning together as one. For example, we pair the word “dog’ with its meaning even though the word itself does not bark or walk like a dog. The second method behind the language instinct was developed by Humboldt and Chomsky. Together they captured the idea that “language makes infinite use in finite media.” Because of this we can decode the order of the words to formulate thoughts. Chomsky called this idea generative grammar, which allows humans to communicate with meaningful understanding (Pinker 75).

The fact that we have grammatical rules and an order to our language does not necessarily mean the sentences always makes sense. Chomsky’s example can be recognized as grammatically correct in terms of syntax, but it is understood only as nonsense: “Colorless green ideas sleep furiously” (Pinker 79) -- SEE ABOVE DIAGRAM.

Chomsky’s theories became famous during the 1960s. Most notable was his “deep structure” idea that referred to hidden and meaningful concepts. Over time it developed into the deep structure of poems and myths. Although the abstract and deep structure ideas have become a major part of our language today, Chomsky and other linguists believe that humans do not need the complicated “deep structure” (Pinker 114). Overall, Chomsky and Pinker believe grammar has a logic of its own and cannot be tied down by psychologists’ ideas, which usually argue that grammar responds to speech muscles and the mental commands that interact with the mind and the muscles. They both believe that learning complicated syntax is not caused by learning itself.

Chomsky’s “principles and parameters” theory posits a guideline (i.e., “super-rule”) for the way a given phrase must look in order for a human to understand. This “principle” become usable only if the phrase exists in a language-specific setting dependent on order. Chomsky argues for the universality and innateness of these super-rules, whose learning consists only of developing an understanding for the culturally constructed syntactical order (Pinker 104). Pinker writes, “The details of syntax have figured prominently in the history of psychology, because they are a case where complexity in the mind is not caused by learning; learning is caused by complexity in the mind” (Pinker 118).

From MIT World: “The Biology of the Language Faculty: Its Perfection, Past and Future” 
Noam Chomsky Lecture (October 2007):

In this video lecture, Chomsky shares some of his thoughts on the biology behind human language. He explores two main components of a language system that has biological roots. The first is what is termed Universal Grammar, and from there comes the growth and learning approaches of an individual. Although a Universal Grammar has been considered controversial, Chomsky argues that the alternative would have to be something as silly as “magic.” There has to be a reason why his “granddaughter picked out part of her environment as language-related, and almost reflexively developed a language while her pet kitten, a chimp or songbird - exposed to exactly the same data - didn’t take the first step and couldn’t conceivably take the second.” Chomsky talks further about a third factor of linguistics involving research that has found that around 50 to 100 thousand years ago, humans had a large leap forward in their cognitive capabilities. This most likely was related to the emergence of language, which we know takes a highly functioning brain. Chomsky’s argument is that in an abrupt change such as this, the materialization as something as near perfect as a Universal Grammar would be possible. This has come to be termed the strong minimalist thesis (SMT). Chomsky links this to the idea of transformational grammar, saying, “A simple form of transformational grammar is just the optimal system, and if you don’t have it, you’d have to have an argument as to why you don’t.”

From YouTube: “Language and the Mind Revisited: The Biolinguistic Turn”
Noam Chomsky Lecture (July 2003):

In a lecture given at the University of California-Berkeley, Noam Chomsky discusses his innateness hypothesis and how it differentiates humans from animals. This hypothesis has been interpreted in various ways by different linguists and refuted by many as well. The basic argument of the hypothesis is that all humans already have some language faculty at birth. From the moment their life begins, every human already knows something about language and is capable of learning more about it. In this lecture, Chomsky notes that there is no one definition of the innateness hypothesis, but many. He explains that the first language a person learns (I languages) is learned in a different way from any language that may be acquired later on in life; animals do not have this ability, thereby distinguishing human language from any other form of communication used by animals.

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