I first heard of Noam Chomsky in my Linguistics 101 class in college. I remember the professor telling us that the history of linguistics before 1955 was known as “B.C.” — Before Chomsky. That’s how much he revolutionized the field.
If you happen to already be familiar with Chomsky’s ideas, you can skip ahead to the next paragraph. If not, read on, because the rest of this story won’t make any sense otherwise. Chomsky’s Big Idea is something called “Universal Grammar.” We humans have circuitry in our brains that has evolved specifically to support language. Children learn to speak whatever language they’re exposed to because the basic structure of human language — the Universal Grammar — is innate. Learning a specific language is just a matter of plugging a vocabulary of words and a few arbitrary rules of syntax into our built-in language processors.
So what are the rules of this Universal Grammar? Well, Chomsky doesn’t really explain what the Universal Grammar is. He just says there is one.
I hope your eyes haven’t glazed over yet. See, I love this stuff. I’m just completely fascinated with how minds work. How we perceive. How we think. How we communicate. What it means to be conscious. What makes us human, and how we got this way. That’s why I majored in psychology, and why I took linguistics. It’s why I read books like The Ape That Spoke and The Language Instinct. It’s why I sought out John Lilly’s dolphin communication project in 1982. And it’s why, when Noam Chomsky gave a lecture about language during a visit to the University of Minnesota, it was a Must See event for me.
Chomsky came to the U of M some time in the early 1990’s. I wish I could remember when, exactly. I think the main reason for his visit was to speak about politics. His talk on language was just an “as long as I’m here” kind of thing for him, but it was the main attraction for me.
He gave his talk in a medium size lecture room. There were maybe 50 people in attendance. As I recall, it was a somewhat rambling, off-the-cuff talk.
Somewhere in the middle of it he said, “The biggest mystery of language is its purpose. What’s it for? It’s certainly not for communication. You don’t need it to communicate the most important things. You don’t need language to say ‘I love you’.”
I’m still perplexed by what he meant by that. Yeah, yeah, you don’t need language to say “I love you.” But you do need language to say “You five guys climb these trees and wait for the buffalo, and the rest of us will sneak around to the other side and jump out and scare it so it runs toward you, and then you guys hit it with your spears.” It seems pretty obvious to me that language becomes fabulously useful as cooperation among individuals gets more intricate and social structures grow more complex. So was Chomsky asking some really deep question that I utterly failed to fathom, or was he just poking us with a stick to see if we were paying attention? I don’t know.
Eventually it was time for questions. I put up my hand and asked the question I’d had in mind for many years: “Do you have any thoughts about how a nonhuman language might be structured? How might it be different from a human language?”
Chomsky replied, “There’s no evidence that dolphins or whales have anything that could be called a language,” and went on in that vein for a bit.
I was flummoxed. I hadn’t said anything about dolphins or whales. But I realized that he probably got asked about dolphin language pretty often by starry eyed students. He must have assumed I was one of those, and gave his stock answer. Whatever. I made another attempt. “I wasn’t thinking about dolphins…” I started. But before I could get any further, he interrupted and was off and running with a reply about how we’ve got no evidence of intelligent alien life elsewhere in the universe, and so on and so forth.
Well, dammit, that’s not what I meant, either. But my allotment of 15 seconds of Noam Chomsky’s attention was up and he was on to other questioners.
What I was trying to get at was this:
Let’s assume Chomsky is correct about humans having an innate universal grammar that underlies all human languages. This universal grammar evolved in the specific environment that humans evolved in. It was adapted to our peculiar needs. So let’s imagine some other intelligent species evolving an equally complex means of communicating with each other. Whether we’re imagining dolphins on earth or zingblorts on the planet Alfalfa, I don’t care. The point is:
Is the human “universal grammar” the only possible universal grammar? Would any species that evolves language develop the same universal grammar that humans have? Is it even possible for us to imagine what a nonhuman language might be like? Or is it sort of like asking what radio waves “look” like, given that our senses aren’t equipped to see them? Are we so stuck inside our own hardwiring that we could never hope to even recognize that a nonhuman language is a language, let alone comprehend it?
And what could we learn about ourselves by trying to imagine something so very different from ourselves?
But that would have been a very long-winded question.
I still wonder about these things.
Postscript: Many years after my encounter with Chomsky, I read another book by Steven Pinker, The Stuff of Thought. It comes closer answering my question than anything else I’ve seen. But Pinker has a different angle: what does the structure of our languages tell us about how our brains work? He postulates that language reflects our brain structure. The way our minds organize our perceptions of the world into things and events is revealed by the nouns, verbs, and grammatical constructs we use to describe their relationships. It’s a very interesting exploration, even though it doesn’t quite get to the heart of my question.