A recent blog by Dorothy Bishop (here) discusses the ideas of Noam Chomsky. It is easy to agree with her. I have thought for some time that the language that Chomsky talks about is not the language I utter or listen to. It is something strange and alien.
My first problem is that Chomsky does not seem interested in communication. How well some particular example of language is at communicating something seems somewhat irrelevant to him. To me communication is the core of language. We can communicate things like information, requests, commands, but also we can communicate emotion, attitude, bonding and such like. Of course we can communicate without language but it is communication that gives value to language. It is the reason we value it. And better communication was almost without doubt the evolutionary pressure that molded language.
Chomsky seems to think of language as a form of logic. This is an old idea and we can see that from the etymology of our words for grammatical entities, like ‘subject’ and ‘predicate’. But Venn diagrams are easier to comprehend than syllogisms – we can ‘do’ logic outside language. He starts out dealing with sentences as the basic unit of language. However, if you have ever read accurate transcripts of actual unprepared utterances, you will know how rare the well formed sentence is. Most communication is phrases, with some sentences and some carry-on sentences that are more like paragraphs. The absolute rather than relative importance of the sentence comes when bits of language are taken out of the context of a conversation so that they have to stand alone and when language is written. And, the sentence is important very specially when language is treated as a form of logic. There is something dry and unnatural about single written sentences being parsed with diagrams. Gone is the voice, the rhythm, the volume, the face and hands. We communicate with our whole bodies and it loses a lot when it is reduced to 10 or so words in a diagram.
Chomsky seems to think that language is essential for thought. In my experience, thought is multi-dimensional and language is a two-dimensional string. Grammar is only the way to translate multi-dimensional thoughts in and out of strings of words. Chomsky seems to think that I could not have the thought if I didn’t have the language. If that were the case than why is it so difficult to put many clear thoughts into words? I agree that many thoughts start out as words – thinking in words as opposed to pictures or numbers or metaphoric concepts or music for example. But I cannot think of a type of thinking (other than purely semantic games) that could not be done without language. But communicating thoughts without language is much more difficult. Language can have the form that a has an attribute b. This is an extension of a normal perception process, the perceptual binding of b to a. We do it all the time without words. It does not take language to think ‘the sky is blue’ or ‘my mother is happy’ – it takes language to communicate the thought not to think it. We also have as a normal way to understanding the world the agent-action-outcome framing of events. This way of thinking is built right into the brain. We do not need language to think is subject – verb – object. We naturally think in terms of a continuum of time centered on a ‘now’. The brain thinks about different types of things in separate regions – people separate from small objects separate from places and so on. Verb tenses, noun cases, number are there with or without language. Language is not essential for thought.
Anyone who has tried to learn a foreign language can tell you how much more important words are than grammar in communicating with minimum knowledge of a language. Chomsky seems to think that semantics are much less (something – interesting, important, critical – I am not sure) than grammar. This is not true when the criteria is communication success. People do communicate in pidgins with the most rudimentary grammar. The Bishop posting (link above) has much on the learning of language by children and how Chomsky has misjudged that.
Finally, Chomsky has a somewhat unusual idea of the origin of language. He gives lip service to evolution but he never actually uses the idea. He prefers, a one mighty leap approach. There was no language and then all of a sudden there was ‘merge’ and that allowed language. We can see why he finds this easier to deal with than a long slow evolution. He wants a distinct clear separation of man from other animals, a difference of kind rather than degree. If man is unique because of language than language must not be found in other animals. I think that Chomsky finds this idea very, very important. Other animals communicate and some of them can use devices similar to words. The more we look at animals (especially primates, dogs, elephants, whales, crows, parrots) the more we find roots of language, until all that is left that has not been demonstrated in some animal or other is ‘merge’. Those that are interested in the evolution of language look for those traces of continuity between how various animals communicate and how we do. Chomsky seems to be trying to identify a discontinuity as the main prize.