Against the evidence

I would have thought that the argument was over (but of course this sort of argument never is). I keep thinking that Chomsky and his adherents will have accepted the evidence and moved on but I keep being surprised that they have not changed their theories.


Chomsky has not yet accepted that language has been around for a very long time – since before Homo split into Neanderthal and us. The adaptations to speech in the ear, throat, and brain can be traced ‘way back’, not the short 50 to 140 thousand years ago that he proposed. There is enough time for language to evolve slowly without any miraculous single mutation events, just normal evolution of a function under the pressure of improving an advantageous behavior. In the fossil record, we can almost see the pressure working on the ear, throat, and brain. There is no sensible reason why the body would change in preparation for speech that was not yet in existence. Evolution is not something that foretells an advantage. That makes absolutely no sense. The fossil record makes sense if Homo started to communicate in a way that became a big advantage and so that ability to communicate was under evolutionary pressure to improve hence the changes in ear, throat and brain.


Chomsky would have us believe that we used language as an internal thinking tool before we used it for communication. This implies that our thinking requires this internal language, and so is qualitatively different from that of other animals. But the trend in the last couple of decades is for the thinking of mammals and birds to be found more similar to our own, not less. Further, there appears to be no evidence from studies of the brain to imply that language is necessary for thought. Concepts seem necessary – concepts for object, actions, attributes – but it does not seem that these need be verbal concepts, although they often seem to be. The sequence of situation – agent – action – outcome - new situation seems so deeply structured in the brain (and in animal brains) that its resemblance to a sentence appears to be a case of language fitting into the brain’s structure. rather than the brain fitting into the structure of language. It seems that we communicate with ourselves using the facility that evolved to communicate with others.


Chomsky appears to be still saying that there is not enough language presented to a child for them to learn the language without some built-in language scaffold. Many researchers who study infant learning disagree and point out that the child actively engages in the learning and is not a passive receiver of language examples. It does appear that children seek out language and avidly learn it, but that does not mean that they necessarily have a universal grammar template. The learning process appears far more complex than Chomsky’s model or the behaviorist model he unseated.


The idea of ‘merge’ as the test for true ‘language’ seems fairly thin. It is true that we can replace words with phrases over and over again, to any number of merge levels, and still have a sentence. Great - but who cares. I suspect that a large percentage of people (people who successfully live their lives without any communication problems) have never uttered a sentence with more than one level of merge. And if you spoke to them and used more than three levels, they would shake their heads and walk away saying that you should learn how to say what you mean. Is there ‘true’ and ‘untrue’ language? Is there some measurement that separates ‘tall’ from ‘short’ people so that in some single night’s sleep a teenager goes to bed short and wakes up tall? Why do we need a firm line between the earliest steps to language and our present day language, a line to divide off ‘true’ language. This concern with ‘true’ language seems a way to move the goal posts for the sole purpose of insisting that language is found only in humans, that it is about logic and not about communication, and it is not something that psychologists, geneticists, paleontologists, neuroscientists etc. or even some schools of linguistics should have a say about.


This rant was brought on by my reading another great posting to Babel’s Dawn, Biology without Darwin. I recommend it.


2 thoughts on “Against the evidence

  1. judith copithorne

    I don’t understand why a language template or deep structure has to be untouchable. Why can’t there be bits and pieces which may or may not be universal and other parts which help with the growth of language but which can change if the situation is powerful enough? For example the Amazonian language group which so far appears to have no recursion. Why does the Chomsky group refuse to allow their approach to be modified somewhat?

    1. JKwasniak Post author

      Thanks for the comment. I don’t understand either. It is so obvious that we inherit a lot of our ability to learn and use language - so why the insistence on a particular structure that no longer fits the data. I can only think that it has little to do with the subject but has to do with things like: we are different from animals in kind not degree; we think in language; language is about logic and not communication.


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