by Michael Albert
PEOPLE TALK. Others understand whether in French, Hebrew, Ibo, or Swahili. (1) What knowledge is in the mind of the person who knows a language? (2) How does that knowledge get there?
You may ask: Why should we care? First, informed people ought to know at least something about modern science. Second, linguists' modes of thought are generalizable and can inform other studies. Third, linguistics says much about human nature that we ought all be interested in.
What Is Language: The Universal Grammar Hypothesis
How do we go from the statement "George Bush will appoint reactionary judges," to the question "Will George Bush appoint reactionary judges?" If we adopt a scientific approach taking the two expressions as data we can see that in going from the sentence to the question we moved the third word to the first position. Thus, we make our first linguistic hypothesis: part of the knowledge that a native speaker of English has is an awareness that to form a question he or she should move the third word of a statement to its first position.
But if we then apply this rule to the sentence "This is the first issue of Z's second year" we get the ungrammatical expression "The this is first issue of Z's second year." Apparently our hypothesis is wrong, a common occurrence in real science and nothing to get upset about since having refuted it we now have new evidence to form a new hypothesis that might last longer. For example, the word that is moved must be what is called an "auxiliary."
"The man who is president is a thug" is a grammatical sentence but if we move the first "is," a bone fide auxiliary, we get the ungrammatical expression "Is the man who president is a thug." Another hypothesis has failed, but using the same data we can note that if we move the second auxiliary instead of the first we get the sensible question "Is the man who is president a thug?" So we try still another hypothesis: to form a question from a statement English speakers know that they should move the second auxiliary to the first position.
Testing further might bring us to the sentence "The thug is the man who is president" at which point we would see that in this case to get a grammatical question we would have to move the first, not the second auxiliary, and that moving the second would give us ungrammatical nonsense.
Study of this sort reveals that English questions involve moving the auxiliary from the "main sentence" rather than from "relative clauses" so that the choice of which auxiliary to move doesn't depend on where the auxiliary is located relative to the beginning or end of the sentence, but on the structure of the sentence.
It turns out that further evidence reveals that formation of passive voice sentences from active voice sentences is also "structure dependent." And, even more amazingly, all known operations involving moving words or phrases in English, or any other language, are structure dependent rather than linear.
In other words, when linguists examine grammatical expressions in English or any other language they find that a host of rules about how to utter grammatical sentences are structure dependent and that none are linear. It would be simpler in the sense of the number of steps involved and the calculations required to form grammatical phrases if the rules of human languages were just linear, but in human languages they aren't, ever.
So, an analysis of what kinds of phrases and sentences are grammatical, and what kinds are not, shows linguists that structure dependency is a principle of universal grammar where universal grammar is, in Chomsky's words, "the system of principles, conditions, and rules that are elements or properties of all human languages."
This shouldn't be too controversial for most readers. It just says that if we characterize the knowledge that a person has when he or she knows a possible human language, we find that some things recur in every case (Italian, Arabic, Russian, etc.) and we call these ubiquitous things universal grammar. By whatever process we come to know languages, and whatever different things we come to know depending on whether we learn Rumanian, Chinese, or Hindi, knowledge of any language includes universal grammar, for example structure dependence.
Universal grammar, therefore, is part of the knowledge that resides in the human mind of a person who knows a language. The science of linguistics tries to ascertain what constitutes universal grammar and what beyond universal grammar differentiates languages from one another.
Some linguists study language as "externalized." They focus on the social circumstances and purposes of its use. Their linguistics is a social subject in more or less the same way that criminology is. Their study of linguistics is a study of social interaction. Other linguists study language as "internalized." They see any human language "as a system represented in the mind/brain of the particular individual." Their linguistics is more like biology wherein an underlying individual reality must be understood in its own right. Their study of linguistics is part of a study of mind and human nature.
The externally oriented or "E-linguist" collects samples of actual speech uttered in diverse social circumstances and then assesses those utterances for evidence about usage, intention, etc. The internally oriented or "I-linguist," following usual scientific practice, does experiments constructing phrases, sentences, etc., testing to determine whether or not they are grammatical, what they mean, and why and how all normal speakers would readily these facts. The I-linguist doesn't deny social factors, but feels that getting to the essence of what a language is means focusing on the unadorned capacity to form intelligible grammatical sentences.
Okay. So what does the I-linguist uncover. First, structure dependency, as noted above. Next, by looking at the properties of expressions, the I-linguist also determines that each grammatical phrase has what is called a "head" and that a specific language can either be "head-first" or "head-last," but that remarkably, whichever way it is, to a good approximation it will be that way for all kinds of phrases--noun, verb, prepositional, etc. This is quite a discovery about human language. There is nothing intuitive about it. None of us are aware of it. Yet at some unconscious level we all apparently know it.
The discovery means that if you even vaguely hear just a few snatches of grammatical sentences from an unknown language and note that its prepositional phrases start with the preposition, then you know, automatically, without ever hearing one, that in any of its sentences all of that language's noun phrases and verb phrases will also be head-first. On the other hand, if you hear a prepositional phrase or two with the preposition last, you will know that all the language's phrases will be head-last. English is head-first: for example "in the bank" has its preposition first. Japanese is head-last: for example, Nihon ni, (Japan in) has its preposition last.
I-linguists study expressions in particular languages to uncover basic principles which sometimes have a limited range of flexibility. For example, in this case, universal grammar says languages must be head-first or head-last but different languages can choose which, though, having done so, they must then form all their phrases in accord. The basic principle and the subsequent choice between options have impact that ripples through all kinds of sentences.
A more subtle discovery which I-linguists also unearth is what is called the "projection principle" which says that the lexicon of usable words in a language includes information about how each word behaves syntactically (for example, that a verb is transitive or intransitive) and that this information projects into the syntax of the language which must accommodate to the characteristics of each word and not have any rules that duplicate or contradict those characteristics. This principle is not as easy to understand as the head principle or structure dependency, but the relevant point for our brief survey of the field is that like those other principles, it too allows many testable predictions about what kinds of sentences can and cannot appear grammatically in human languages.
There are other universal grammar discoveries as well, even more obscure. They fall into subsystems called such things as "X-bar theory," "case theory," "theta-theory," and "government theory," and "binding theory." Each gives basic principles about how words can be combined to form expressions with specific structure and meaning, and each has flexible options that may be adopted or ignored by particular languages.
English is head-first, Japanese is head-last. Each complies with universal grammar but makes a different choice from allowable options regarding this particular principle. Italian allows a subject to be suppressed. French does not. Again each complies with universal grammar but makes a different choice regarding another principle's options.
These types of evidence lead linguists to conclude that the principles of universal grammar have certain associated parameters which can be fixed one way or another. When a potential speaker knows universal grammar and sets all the associated parameters in particular ways, he or she knows the grammar of a particular language. As Noam Chomsky puts it: "We may think of the language faculty as a complex and intricate network of some sort associated with a switch box consisting of an array of switches that can be in one of two positions. Unless the switches are set one way or another, the system does not function. When they are set in one of the permissible ways, then the system functions in accordance with its nature, but differently, depending on how the switches are set. The fixed network is the system of principles of universal grammar; the switches are the parameters... When these switches are set, [a person] has command of a particular language and knows the facts of that language: that a particular expression has a particular meaning, and so on. Each permissible array of switch settings determines a particular language."
What this picture implies is that rules of language-use no longer exist in their own right but must instead be explained as outcomes of interaction between the universal grammar that we all know, the parameters that we each set for our own particular language, and the lexicon that we each learn for our own particular language.
So we already have a rough answer to our question, what knowledge constitutes a language: A person's particular language is the universal grammar, plus his/her particular setting of some number of parameters, plus his/her lexicon of available words. The second question arises naturally: how does a person acquire his or her language-knowledge?
Learning Language: The Innateness Hypothesis
At this point universal grammar linguistics begins to arouse passions rather than merely eyebrows. For Chomsky and his fellow linguists argue that universal grammar is not learned by mimicry or lessons or examples and correction, but is instead innate in the mind of every human being, a part of our genetic endowment, like the basic structure of our livers or spleens.
The argument for this view, "the poverty of stimulus argument," is particularly important since it can be applied, as we will see later, to other domains than just grammar.
People who know a language know universal grammar. How? This is a version of what is called Plato's problem which, as stated by Bertrand Russell, goes like this: "How comes it that human beings, whose contacts with the world are brief and personal and limited, are able to know as much as they do know?"
In short, how do we learn so much on the basis of so little evidence? Plato's answer was that much knowledge is from earlier existence and merely reawakened. The modern alternative explanation that Chomsky proposes is that "certain aspects of our knowledge and understanding are innate, part of our biological endowment, genetically determined, on a par with the elements of our common nature that cause us to grow arms and legs rather than wings."
Returning to the realm of linguistics, here the troubling question is why does every child unerringly select the computationally more complex structure-dependent rules in acquiring and using language, never even once considering readily available and computationally much simpler linear rules?
The child learning a language obviously attains very complex and rich knowledge in a very short time. Hearing some sentences and other utterances, the child becomes able to produce virtually an infinite number of others, many with structures that he or she has never heard before. There is a poverty of stimulus relative to the fantastically rich outcome. Language knowledge including universal grammar, the parameter settings, and the lexicon, becomes the child's in a very short span despite the fact that linguists working in the field for decades have only just begun to enumerate what this knowledge consists of. How does this occur?
There are two broad and conflicting hypotheses. First, the child starts with a more or less blank slate, hears parents talk, mimics them, says things, hears corrections, and learns the language. Second, the child starts with universal grammar as an innate endowment, already there, with all its parametrized options, and has only to hear how the options need to be set in his/her particular language to attain the full grammar of that language.
These opposed hypotheses are testable and thus scientific. We can consider the logical information possibilities of the kinds of interactions that can be had by children over the brief span when they "learn" languages, on the one hand, and we can look at real children's actual "learning" practice, on the other.
When linguists do the latter, for example, they discover that kids don't make errors that go against universal grammar; don't hear sentences that show all the forms which they quickly come to use; don't make errors that are corrected for forms they have not heard but use correctly, etc.
On the basis of logic regarding poverty of stimulus and of hard evidence regarding actual behavior of children, the I-linguists conclude that each child starts open to any language and acquires one particular one by setting a relatively limited number of parameters each on the basis of a few instances of relevant usage. To set the head-first, head-last parameter, for example, you need only one or at most a few examples. Then, you will be able to create phrases of great complexity, of a type that you have never heard, grammatically.
Similarly, in learning the language the child has also has to pick up the way words sound. How does this occur? Study shows that the precision of phonetic detail in child's imitation of what they hear exceeds what adults can even perceive without extensive training and study. There are rules of phonetics, it turns out, like rules of grammar, which govern how sounds or groups of sounds can combine to form acceptable words. And, again, without much evidence these rules are quickly "learned" so that the child, having become fluent in a language, can make phonetic judgments instantly that extend beyond all prior evidence.
For example, in an I-language type of evidence analysis, without hearing either word before speakers of English know "strid" is possible and "bnid" isn't in their language while speakers of Arabic know just the reverse and speakers of Spanish know that neither is possible. Regarding the sounds of their words, the languages have a phonetic basis in common and also have variation established by different choices among a narrow range of available options, as with their grammars.
As Chomsky summarizes all this: "It seems that the child approaches the task of acquiring a language with a rich conceptual framework already in place and also with a rich system of assumptions about sound structure and the structure of complex utterances. These constitute the parts of our knowledge that come `from the original hand of nature,' in Hume's phrase. They constitute one part of the human biological endowment, to be awakened by experience and to be sharpened and enriched in the course of the child's interactions with the human and material world. In these terms we can approach a solution of Plato's problem, along lines not entirely unlike Plato's own, though `purged of the error of pre-existence.'"
In short, "Language is not really something the child does; it is something that happens to the child placed in an appropriate environment, much as the child's body grows and matures in a predetermined way when provided with appropriate nutrition and environmental stimulation."
Language, the I-linguists tell us, is in large part a kind of mental organ. Moreover, given what we know of language-knowledge, it could not be otherwise. There is no way language knowledge, which linguists, after a few hundred years of mulling the issue, are only now beginning to understand, could be imbibed by children on the basis of the minimal stimulus available in the brief time when they "learn" a language. Well, alright then, if that's the story for language, what about other "intellectual organs"?
Extrapolating To Additional Realms
If posing universal grammar as innate drives E-linguists up the wall, imagine what the response from certain intellectual quarters is when Chomsky extrapolates the innateness hypothesis to science, aesthetics, all concepts, and morality? Later we'll briefly entertain a possible explanation for why the horror, outrage, and or incredulity is so pronounced.
The basis for the extension is simple. If people were mental blank slates we would in our finished form reflect the impact of our surroundings--a hypothesis called "environmentalism"--and nothing more. Two people, emerging from very different circumstances, would have nearly nothing mental in common. If our physical form was this flexible, which everyone realizes is not the case, some of us would perhaps walk, others slide, some bounce, some fly, some never move, etc. If we mold clay in different ways we get different products. Wildly different. The same would hold for us if our environments were "molding" us. Our physical forms have much in common, we realize, because bilateral symmetry and the presence of arms, legs, heart, spleen, etc. are genetically wired-in. We need nourishment to grow our organs. We need visual and auditory stimulation for our capacities to see and hear to emerge properly, but the basis for all this is an innate given, essentially the same from person to person.
Now we know it is true for language too. If our environments were giving us language rather than helping stimulate language that is already in us, none of us would be able to communicate with anyone other than an identical twin from whom we had never been separated, and even then the communication would be paltry compared to what human language now allows. But language is innate, so there is a rich shared structure allowing fantastically complex communication.
The extrapolation from language to other mental realms is that as with language, so with, for example, science, aesthetics, concept formation, and morality. In short, if there was no innate universal "organ" underlying the systems of understanding associated with these other realms that humans attain, then the systems that were finally attained would be much less complex and vary much more widely from person to person.
For centuries, philosophers of science have been trying to figure out what scientists do when they do science, much as linguists have been trying to figure out what people do when they converse. Yet just as people converse without being able to say how, after a modest learning time, likewise scientists do science without being able to say how, after modest learning time. Here is Chomsky on science: "As part of the human biological endowment, the scientist is endowed with a certain conceptual apparatus, certain ways of formulating problems, a concept of intelligibility and explanation, and so on. Call this the science forming capacity. As in other cases it may contain hidden resources that come to be recognized and used as the contingencies of life and experience permit, so access to this endowment may change over time. But we may assume it to be fixed in the manner of the language faculty."
Take a work of art produced in the fourth century and look at it today. Something resonates. How could that be? Certainly we are not learning the same things from our experience today that fourth century citizens learned then. Some sounds are aesthetic, some not. Why? Do we learn what to like, what to hear and see, from an initial blank slate? Or do we have some sort of innate organ or organs which respond in varying ways to varying types of stimulus, perhaps also adapting as a result of experience (like the setting of parameters but no doubt different), as innate aesthetic sense to go with our innate universal grammar and our innate science forming capacity.
As Chomsky formulates the view: "Work of true aesthetic value follows canons and principles that are only in part subject to human choice; in part, they reflect our fundamental nature. The result is that we can experience deep emotion--pleasure, pain, excitement, and so on--from certain creative work, though how and why remains largely unknown. But the very capacities of mind that open these possibilities to us exclude other possibilities, some forever."
Having or not having an innate aesthetic sense is for perceptual pleasure like the difference between being infinitely malleable clay and having an innate wired-in physical structure is for physical interaction with our environments. While our innate physical genes rule out being wildly diverse blobs or in a rare instance growing wings, they make growing arms and legs inevitable. The innateness hypothesis in any realm makes possible rich and complex shared characteristics in that realm even as it puts a limit on the possible diversity or range of outcomes in that same realm. Regarding aesthetics, some complex things appeal to us all, assuming we have our aesthetic organs fully nourished, whatever that may precisely mean, and other things don't appeal no matter what our previous experience is. Regarding science, for example, our minds are no doubt such that there are theories that are humanly possible to create and/or understand, but also others that are not, just as there are human languages and there are also languages that could be designed but which could not be used by humans for natural communication. There are limits on what humans can know for the same reason that we are able to know so much in such short lives and on the basis of so little evidence.
The most counter-intuitive of the applications of the innateness hypothesis is to the problem of how it is that humans come to have mastery of so many words--concepts--that we all use in common. As Chomsky says, "At the peak period of vocabulary growth, the child masters words at quite an astonishing rate, perhaps a dozen a day or more. Anyone who has attempted to define a word precisely knows that this is an extremely difficult matter, involving intricate and complex properties."
Here too, philosophers can spend hundreds of pages trying to define "object" or "freedom" and yet people can use these words in diverse ever-changing circumstances with nary a (non-ideologically induced) error even though they learned them very quickly and with a poverty of stimulus. The concept of "person," for example, is highly complex, studied for literally centuries to try to pin it down, and yet children have full and correct use of it almost immediately. A word like "persuade" is quite subtle--"force" is different, "suggest" is different, etc. And likewise for a word like "follow". Yet children become very facile with these words very quickly. Are they mimicking meaning? Are they trying various alternatives, being corrected, and slowly hashing out the truth? Or is the underlying concept (or at least some array of component underlying concepts) theirs innately, so that all they have to do is hang the sound patterns they hear on the pre-existing concepts they already have at their disposal?
As Holmes used to say, once you have ruled out all but one hypothesis, however strange that one hypothesis is, you must run with it. So, for Chomsky, "The speed and precision of vocabulary acquisition leaves no real alternative to the conclusion that the child somehow has the concepts available before experience with language and is basically learning labels for concepts that are already a part of his or her conceptual apparatus."
While the philosophers have apoplexy over the above claim, spelled out in greater detail in Chomsky's writings and talks, almost all intellectuals who know of his views on morality go ape over them. For here too, Chomsky follows the same line of thought. "It cannot be merely a matter of convention that we find some things to be right, others wrong. Growing up in a particular society, a child acquires standards and principles of moral judgment. These are acquired on the basis of limited evidence, but they have broad and quite often precise applicability."
The familiar logic is that the acquisition of a specific moral and ethical system which is wide ranging and often precise in its consequences, cannot simply be the result of `shaping' and `control' by the social environment. "As in the case of language, the environment is far too impoverished and indeterminate to provide this system to the child, in its full richness and applicability."
And so, given no alternative, as a first hypothesis on the subject, "It certainly seems reasonable to speculate that the moral and ethical system acquired by the child owes much to some innate human faculty."
So why do we have moral differences? On the one hand, "the environment is relevant, as in the case of language, vision, and so on; thus we can find individual and cultural divergence [though] there is surely a common basis, rooted in our nature." On the other, historical circumstances can preclude recognition and expression of our innate capabilities. The language capability will not emerge at all if we are not exposed to sufficient instances of grammatical usage to set our parameters for a particular possible human language. If we live in a context where our moral sense continually encounters conditions that cause its principles to conflict with one another (we cannot pursue personal fulfillment without oppressing others, lying, etc.) or that cause its principles to be overwhelmed by other priorities (for example trying to merely survive), divergences from an optimal accurate expression of human possibility may emerge and even dominate. Moreover, obviously any moral sense has to work in conjunction with a perceptual sense of what the actual conditions of ourselves and others are, and these can be wrong, manipulated, etc.
Moral progress, in this in part innatest view, is the sequential uncovering of human ethics based in a discovery of what it is to be a person, what capabilities need to be nourished, and so on. Thus humanity passes from seeing slavery as natural to rejecting it and, perhaps someday, we also understand that people need to manage their own working activities to fully express their human capabilities, at which time perhaps we reject wage labor as well. About such gains Chomsky says, "[They are] not merely a change but an advance, an advance toward understanding our own nature and the moral and ethical principles that derive from it."
And it is at this point that a connection of sorts between Chomsky's linguistics and his political activism. "Suppose" he says, "that a person decides to accept the status quo, or to try to change it whether by reform or revolution. If not based simply on fear, greed, or other forms of abdication of moral responsibility, the decision is taken in a specific way on the basis of beliefs--explicit or implicit--about what is good and right for human beings, hence ultimately on assumptions about fundamental human nature." And thus arises an extra-scientific motive for studying human nature, and, as the most promising current route toward it, linguistics.
One lesson from all this is that there are limits on human intelligence. Moreover, science itself needn't be deemed the only means of attaining knowledge of our circumstances, especially given its likely limitations, which are according to the innateness hypothesis part and parcel of its astounding power. We may always learn more about human behavior, for example, from simple intuition and fine novels than from psychology.
Likewise, the fact that people can know so much at an unconscious level, as with our knowledge of language, means that waiting for explicit instruction, or even taking too seriously explicit instruction from scientists studying such realms once it comes, can be a grave mistake. "People who are involved in some practical activity such as teaching languages, translation, or building bridges should probably keep an eye on what's happening in the sciences. But they probably shouldn't take it too seriously because the capacity to carry on practical activities without much conscious awareness of what you are doing is usually far more advanced than scientific knowledge."
Psychology and linguistics, for example, have in the past often done more harm than good in this respect, causing teachers or therapists to follow rules uncovered by theorists who simply erred, when had the teachers and supplicants instead followed their own intuitions they might have done much better.
A particularly direct lesson of the innateness hypothesis regarding language and other realms is the familiar dictum, already realized by many, that teaching should emphasize motivating, not "learning". As Chomsky urges, "The truth of the matter is that about 99 percent of teaching is making the students feel interested in the material. Then the other 1 percent has to do with your methods. And that's not just true of languages. It's true of every subject." As an aside we might wonder whether Chomsky or anyone else on the left has yet figured out what this means for presenting a critique of American foreign policy, American political "democracy", racism, wage slavery, etc.
Finally, on the political front, if we remember that one of the prerequisites of language acquisition is the opportunity to employ the capability we see how it is that his linguistics helps underpin Chomsky's view that: "A truly democratic community is one in which the general public has the opportunity for meaningful and constructive participation in the formation of social policy: in their own immediate community, in the workplace, and in the society at large. A society that excludes large areas of crucial decision-making from public control, or a system of governance that merely grants the general public the opportunity to ratify decisions taken by the elite groups that dominate the private society and the state, hardly merits the term `democracy'."
The Human Nature Controversy
As opposed to the evidence offered by linguistics and a reasoned extension of its lessons, it is commonly believed that humans are in "mental matters" shaped almost entirely by their environment, not largely determined by their natures. Why?
First we should note that the idea that "environmentalism" is somehow progressive is irrelevant to its truthfulness or lack of truthfulness. It is elementary that you can like or dislike a truth, but you cannot sensibly decide whether something is true by whether you like or dislike it. To do so is propaganda, not reason.
But in answering the question "why do intellectuals favor environmentalism so strongly?" questions of preference and interests do merit attention. Since intellectuals write the history of their own allegiances we might anticipate some murkiness in their accounts of this. The fact that so many have so much hostility for the innateness hypothesis may arise in large part from their own vested interests in an alternative view. Sometimes this could be associated with the fact of their attachment to texts, methods, etc. that are contradicted by innateness. Sometimes something more ideological may be at work. As Chomsky puts it: "The standard image is that intellectuals are fiercely independent, honest, defenders of the highest values, opponents of arbitrary rule and authority, and so on. The actual record reveals a different story. Quite typically, intellectuals have been ideological and social managers, serving power or seeking to assume power themselves by taking control of popular movements of which they declare themselves to be the leaders. For people committed to control and manipulation it is quite useful to believe that human beings have no intrinsic moral and intellectual nature, that they are simply objects to be shaped by state and private managers and ideologues who of course perceive what is good and right."
The point is that intellectuals may well find such favor for environmentalism because it is a credo that a priori rules out discovering in humanity potentials and needs which would obstruct intellectuals from having the right to rule over others, decide for others, delegate to others, etc. This might also explain why universal grammar linguistics has been a prohibited no-no in the "communist bloc" where a muddle-headed marxism, and it is hard in the world of nation-states and Leninist parties to find any other kind, proclaims that people are blank slates, ready to be written upon, by leaders with proper intellectual credentials, of course.