The Other Side of Noam Chomsky's Brilliant Mind
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The following is an excerpt from Power Systems: Conversations on Global Democratic Uprisings and the New Challenges to U.S. Empire by Noam Chomsky, interviews with David Barsamian (Published by Metropolitan Books (2013).
It’s been more than five decades since you first wrote about universal grammar, the idea of an inborn capacity in every human brain that allows a child to learn language. What are some of the more recent developments in the field?
Well, that gets technical, but there’s very exciting work going on refining the proposed principles of universal grammar. The concept is widely misunderstood in the media and in public discussions. Universal grammar is something different: it is not a set of universal observations about language. In fact, there are interesting generalizations about language that are worth studying, but universal grammar is the study of the genetic basis for language, the genetic basis of the language faculty. There can’t be any serious doubt that something like that exists. Otherwise an infant couldn’t reflexively acquire language from whatever complex data is around. So that’s not controversial. The only question is what the genetic basis of the language faculty is.
Here there are some things that we can be pretty confident about. For one thing, it doesn’t appear that there’s any detectable variation among humans. They all seem to have the same capacity. There are individual differences, as there are with everything, but no real group differences—except maybe way at the margins. So that means, for example, if an infant from a Papua New Guinea tribe that hasn’t had contact with other humans for thirty thousand years comes to Boulder, Colorado, it will speak like any kid in Colorado, because all children have the same language capacity. And the converse is true. This is distinctly human. There is nothing remotely like it among other organisms. What explains this?
Well, if you go back fifty years, the proposals that were made when this topic came on the agenda were quite complex. In order just to account for the descriptive facts that you saw in many different languages, it seemed necessary to assume that universal grammar permitted highly intricate mechanisms, varying a lot from language to language, because languages looked very different from one another.
Over the past fifty to sixty years, one of the most significant developments, I think, is a steady move, continuing today, toward trying to reduce and refine the assumptions so that they maintain or even expand their explanatory power for particular languages but become more feasible with regard to other conditions that the answer must meet.
Whatever it is in our brain that generates language developed quite recently in evolutionary time, presumably within the last one hundred thousand years. Some- thing very significant happened, which is presumably the source of human creative endeavor in a wide range of fields: creative arts, tool making, complex social structures. Paleoanthropologists sometimes call it “the great leap forward.” It’s generally assumed, plausibly, that this change had to do with the emergence of language, for which there’s no real evidence before in human history or in any other species. Whatever happened had to be pretty simple, because that’s a very short time span for evolutionary changes to take place.
The goal of the study of universal grammar is to try to show that there is indeed something quite simple that can meet these various conditions. A plausible theory has to account for the variety of languages and the detail that you see in the surface study of languages—and, at the same time, be simple enough to explain how language could have emerged very quickly, through some small mutation of the brain, or something like that. There has been a lot of progress toward that goal and, in a parallel effort, to try to account for the apparent variability of languages by showing that, in fact, the perceived differences are superficial. The seeming variability has to do with minor changes in a few of the structural principles that are fixed.