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The Other Side of Noam Chomsky's Brilliant Mind

An excerpt from the new book "Power Systems" explore's Chomsky's contributions to the raging academic debate on linguistics and how children learn to speak.

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A lot of people conflate linguistics with the ability to speak many languages. So in your case, people think, Oh, Chomsky, he must know ten or twelve languages. But in fact linguistics is another universe. Explain why the study of language is important. Clearly, you’re animated by it. You’ve devoted most of your life to it.

I should say, sometimes there’s a distinction made between languist and linguist. A languist is somebody who can speak a lot of languages. A linguist is some- body who is interested in the nature of language.

Why is it interesting? Think about the picture that I presented before, which I think is fairly uncontroversial. At some time in the very recent past, from an evolutionary point of view, something quite dramatic happened in the human lineage. Humans developed what we now have: a very wide range of creative capacities that are unknown in the previous record or among other animals. There is no analogue to them. That’s the core of human cognitive, moral, aesthetic nature—and right at the heart of it was the emergence of language.

In fact, it’s very likely that language was the lever by which the other capacities develop. In fact, other capacities may just be piggybacking off language. It’s possible that our arithmetical capacities and—quite likely—our moral capacities developed in a comparable way, maybe drawing from the analytical, computational mechanisms that yield language in all of its rich complexity. To the extent that we understand these other things, which is not very much, it seems that they’re using the same or similar computational mechanisms.

Clearly, culture influences and shapes language, even if it doesn’t determine it.

That’s a common comment, but it’s almost meaningless. What’s culture? Culture is just a general term for everything that goes on. Yes, sure, everything that goes on influences language.

If we’re, let’s say, in a violent environment, doesn’t that shape the vocabulary? Wouldn’t that lead us to talk about “epicenter” and “Ground Zero” and “terrorism” and other terms in the lexicon of violence?

Sure, there’s an effect on lexical choices. But that’s peripheral to language. You could take any language that exists and add those concepts to it—a fairly trivial matter. But we don’t know anything really about the effects of culture on lexical choices. In my view, it’s unlikely cultural environments meaningfully affect the nature of language. Take, say, English, and trace it back to earlier periods. English was different in Chaucer’s time or King Arthur’s time, but the language hasn’t fundamentally changed, the vocabulary has. Not long ago Japan was a feudal society, and now it’s a modern technological society. The Japanese language has changed, of course, but not in ways that reflect those changes. And if Japan went back to being a feudal society, the language wouldn’t change much either.

Vocabulary does, of course. You talk about different things. For example, the tribe in Papua New Guinea that I mentioned before wouldn’t have a word for computer. But again that’s fairly trivial. You could add the word for computer. Ken Hale’s work from the 1970s on this question is quite instructive. He was a specialist on Australian aboriginal languages, and he showed that many of these languages appear to lack elements that are common in the modern Indo-European languages. For example, they don’t have words for numbers or colors and they don’t have embedded relative clauses. He studied this topic in depth and showed that these gaps were quite superficial. So, for example, the tribes he was working with didn’t have numbers, but they had absolutely no problem counting. As soon as they moved into a market society and had to deal with counting, they just used other mechanisms. Instead of number words, they would use their hand for five, two hands for ten. They didn’t have color words. Maybe they just had black and white, which apparently every language has. But they used expressions such as like blood for what we would call red.

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