Reflections on language Hardcover – January 1, 1975
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He wrote in the Preface to this 1975 book, “Part I of this book is an elaboration of the Whidden Lectures, delivered in January … To preserve the internal coherence of the discussion in part II, I have retained some material that recapitulates themes that are developed in a somewhat different form in the Whidden Lectures.”
He notes, “Investigating the cognitive ability of humans, we might consider, say, the ability to recognize and identify faces on exposure to a few presentations, to determine the personality structure of another person on brief contact… to recognize a melody under transposition and other modifications, to handle those branches of mathematics that build on numerical or spatial intuition, to create art forms resting on certain principles of structure and organization, and so on. Humans appear to have characteristic and remarkable abilities in these domains, in that they construct a complex and intricate intellectual system, rapidly and uniformly, on the basis of degenerate evidence. And structures created by particularly talented individuals within these constraints are intelligible and appealing, exciting and thought-provoking even to those not endowed with unusual creative abilities.” (Pg. 21-22)
He observes, “I argued that the principle of structure-dependence must be attributed to universal grammar, since it is used correctly in the cases illustrated there even in the absence of relevant experience… It is difficult to imagine that every speaker of English who is capable of the discriminations on which the argument is based has been given instruction, or even relevant evidence, to establish the fact. A far more reasonable assumption is that the general principles … are simply innate to the language faculty, on part of the schematism that determines admissible grammars and the ways in which their rules apply, thus determining the class of languages accessible to humans by application of the language facility.” (Pg. 91)
He states, “The study of language falls naturally within human biology. The language faculty, which somehow evolved inhuman prehistory, makes possible the amazing feat of language learning, while inevitably setting limits on the kinds of language that can be acquired in the normal way, interacting with other faculties of mind, it makes possible the coherent and creative use of language in ways that we can sometimes describe, but hardly even begin to understand.” (Pg. 123)
He asserts, “we may say that humans are innately endowed with a system of intellectual organization, call it the ‘initial state’ of the mind. Through interaction with the environment and maturational processes, the mind passes through a sequence of states in which cognitive structures are represented. In the case of language, it is fairly obvious that rapid and extensive changes take place during an early period of life, and a ‘steady state’ is achieved which then undergoes only minor modification. Abstracting away from the latter, we can refer to the steady state as the ‘final state’ of the mind, in which knowledge of language is somehow represented. We can construct hypotheses concerning the initial and final states, and can proceed to validate, or reject, or sharpen these hypotheses by methods of inquiry that are familiar.” (Pg. 137-138)
He points out, “To the extent that [a person] succeeds in characterizing the innate properties of mind that make possible the learning of grammar and common sense, he would be able to explain why these systems are qualitatively so different from the third cognitive structures mentioned earlier, knowledge of physics. That is, he would now regard the properties of mind that underlie the acquisition of language and common sense as biological properties of the organism, on a par in this respect with those that enable a bird to build a nest or reproduce a characteristic song; or, for that matter, comparable to the properties that account for the development of particular organs of the body… Humans are not specially adapted, in the same way, to the learning of physics.” (Pg. 155)
He argues, “Equally misleading, I think, is the tendency in philosophical discussions to speculate on the ways in which language and its use might be taught. Language is not really taught, for the most part. Rather, it is learned, by mere exposure to the data. No one has been taught the principle of structure-dependence of rules… Nor is there any reason to suppose that people are taught the meaning of words. It may be true that ‘teaching someone how to use an expression is the native soil from which talk about meaning has grown,’ but this historical comment gives little reason to suppose that explanations of meaning are exhausted, or even advanced, by an account of teaching. The study of how a system is learned cannot be identified with the study of how it is taught; nor can we assume that what is learned has been taught.” (Pg. 161)
This is an extremely thought-provoking, that provides an excellent summation of Chomsky’s view of language at this point. It be of great value to anyone studying modern linguistics.
The following is one such piece of UG. One may turn declarations into questions by moving the "is" in front, e.g. "the man is tall" becomes "is the man tall". But consider now the statement "the man who is tall is in the room". If language was nothing but a social construction then it would be perfectly reasonable for children trying to form the corresponding question to say "is the man who tall is in the room" in analogy with the above. However, "children make many mistakes in language learning, but never mistakes such as [this]" (p. 31). Apparently, "the child is employing a 'structure-dependent rule'" rather than the much simpler rule to put the first "is" in front. Why? "There seems to be no explanation in terms of 'communicative efficiency' or similar considerations. It is certainly absurd to argue that children are trained to use the structure-dependent rule, in this case ... The only reasonable conclusion is that UG contains the principle that all such rules must be structure-dependent. That is, the child's mind ... contains the instruction: Construct a structure-dependent rule, ignoring all structure-independent rules." (pp. 32-33). Feeling confident, then, that this principle must be part of UG, we conclude that it should hold universally in all human languages, and it does.
Later we find more components of UG (principle of subjacency, trace theory, specified-subject condition, etc.). "From one point of view, we can properly say that these principles provide explanations for the fact that the data are such-and-such, and thus go well beyond the descriptions of such facts in particular grammars. From another point of view, the same principles serve to account for an important aspect of human learning, that is, for the construction of certain cognitive structures that play an essential role in thought and its expression" (p. 111).
Just as UG places restrictions on human languages, human learning in general is surely restricted by innate properties of the mind, for example in the domain of scientific inquiry. "An intellectually significant science, an intelligible theory, can be developed by humans in case something close to the true theory in a certain domain happens to fall within human 'science-forming' capacities. The [learning theories] involved in scientific inquiry, whatever they may be, must be special and restrictive, or it would be impossible for scientists to converge in their judgement on particular explanatory theories that go far beyond the evidence at hand, as they customarily do in those few fields where there really is significant progress, while at the same time rejecting much evidence as irrelevant or beside the point, for the moment at least. The same [learning theories] that provide for the vast and impressive scope of scientific understanding must also sharply constrain the class of humanly accessible sciences. There is, surely, no evolutionary pressure that leads humans to have minds capable of discovering significant explanatory theories in specific fields of inquiry. Thinking of humans as biological organisms in the natural world, it is only a lucky accident if their cognitive capacity happens to be well matched to scientific truth in some area. It should come as no surprise, then, that there are so few sciences, and that so much of human inquiry fails to attain any intellectual depth." (pp. 24-25).