The Nature of Language

Many people think that thought would be impossible without language, and that the two are pretty much the same. Others equate language with speech. In the view of linguists, neither proposition is true. Animals may have quite rich thought processes—chimpanzees certainly know the position of all the individuals in their hierarchy and who must be recruited in a conspiracy—but are unable to put their thoughts into words. And speech is just one modality for language, which can also be written, or conveyed as signs, as in American Sign Language. Linguists regard this and other signing systems as proper languages with the same properties as spoken languages, including a fully developed syntax, or set of grammatical rules. In the view of linguists, language is neither thought nor speech but rather a system for translating thought into a physical output, usually speech or writing. The brain behaves as if it were performing this translation process with a pair of combinatorial systems, one of which generates vocabulary, the other syntax. The combinatorial system for vocabulary is a remarkable solution to a difficult problem. Many animal species communicate with a set of calls, each of which has a specific meaning. If the same principle were followed in human language, the calls after a certain number would start to merge into one other and become very hard to distinguish. But natural selection has somehow hit on a way of generating infinite variety, by basing the vocabulary system on a very small set of individually discrete sounds. The sounds can be joined in a limitless number of combinations, and any of these compound sounds can be arbitrarily associated with a meaning to form words. The system is called combinatorial because it is based on combining different elements to generate words. The combinatorial system for syntax is tricky to describe because it seems to perform several different though related tasks. The original fix on it came from Noam Chomsky's insight that there must be a universal system in the human brain for allowing children to learn the grammatical rules of whatever language they hear spoken around them. Languages have many different rules of grammar, but all seem to be variations on the same model. Chomsky called this learning machinery Universal Grammar, but the phrase is also used to refer to the basic design underlying all grammars.

This proposal still attracts objections from researchers who believe the mind is a general purpose learning system, a blank slate with no prepro gramming or genetically based circuitry dedicated to particular behaviors such as the faculty for language. It's certainly true that human behavior seems to be under conscious control to a far greater extent than is that of other animals. But equally it is clear that many behaviors in animals are genetically guided. In some animals, like the laboratory roundworm, biologists have already learned how to alter certain genes and induce a different behavior. It's reasonable to assume that there is a genetic basis for much human behavior, particularly such basic but highly complex faculties as learning a language or recognizing faces. In the case of language, the combinatorial systems for vocabulary and syntax are so sophisticated that it seems unlikely an infant could quickly learn them from scratch. It would seem far more efficient for evolution to embed the general ability for learning language in the brain's neural circuitry. As Darwin observed, the ability to learn the spoken language seems instinctual, but the ability to write is not, which is why it must be learned so laboriously in school. In support of the view that the basic elements of language are innate, a human gene that seems fairly specific to language has recently been identified, as discussed below.

The fact that children around the world learn languages so easily, and at the same stage of development, points strongly to the unfolding of a genetic program as the children reach a certain age. Chomsky asserted that Universal Grammar was innate, and indeed the language-learning machinery seems to be one of the many developmental programs that are wired into the genes and scheduled to unfold at a given time. But Chomsky and other theoretical linguists have been less interested in the question of what evolutionary stimulus might have prompted the evolution of language. No full length article about the evolution of language appeared in the Linguistic Society of America's journal Language until 2000. "Why linguists have tacitly accepted just such a self-denying ordinance should be a topic of some interest to sociologists of science," writes Derek Bickerton of the University of Hawaii, one of the

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