By Bryan Peacker ’18
If neither the “bow-wow” theory nor the “pooh-pooh” theory of language development is still regarded as plausible, then what are the opinions of modern linguists? Although the study of the evolution of language predates Darwin, linguists abandoned the study of the origins of language by the end of the nineteenth century in accordance with an edict by the Linguistic Society of Paris in 1866 that prohibited further discussion on the subject (Scott-Phillips, 2010). It came into prominence again in the late 1900s, and although linguists have still not come to a consensus on the subject, various thinkers in the field have proposed a multitude of theories.
One such thinker, Noam Chomsky, has asserted that the faculty of language in humans was the result of a chance mutation in the human genome (Chomsky, 2004). He considers the ability of humans to communicate using language to be the direct result of a functional “language organ,” just as vision is a result of the visual system, and the immune response the result of the immune system. Like other organs, the function and structure of the language organ are determined by the expression of genes in a specific way. This in itself is remarkable, considering that the initial state of all humans, as dictated by the expression of these genes, must be flexible enough to allow humans to acquire any language. The “language organ” must thus contain specific instructions for each of the different prerequisites for producing language, such as the ability to articulate different sounds, and the ability to interpret the sound and meaning of expressions (Chomsky, 2004). How and when did these abilities come about?
According to Chomsky, it must have happened a little over 50,000 years ago in a small group of people from whom we are all descended (Chomsky, 2005). As a sudden and emergent event, the mutation that led to the development of language must have rewired the brain in such a way that it allowed for the origin of modern language with the syntax and structure that it has today. This, in turn, allowed for the social development of humans, and triggered the migration of humans out of Africa. Although experience leads to variation in the growth of language, according to Chomsky, this change is very gradual and occurs within a very narrow range. This observation supports the argument that a single mutation led to the growth of language, rather than gradual changes in experience that built up over time (Chomsky, 2005).
The best explanation for the mechanism by which language developed is that the brain was reprogrammed by a mutation, which allowed humans to take a set of n objects, already made, and form a new object from these n objects. Some would argue that expressions consisting of two units were formed first, giving way to larger expressions as a result of further mutations. However, Chomsky believes that it is also possible that one single mutation allowed humans to form an infinite number of expressions from a finite number of objects. He calls this model an “infinite use of finite means” (Chomsky, 1996). This process might seem rather sudden and idealistic. In the next column in this series, I will discuss a theory that describes a process of gradual development.
Chomsky, N. (1996). Powers and prospects: Reflections on human nature and the social order. London: Pluto Press.
Chomsky, N. (2004). Language and mind: Current thoughts on ancient problems.
Chomsky, N. (2005). Three factors in language design. Linguistic Inquiry 36(1): 1-22.
Scott-Phillips, T. C. (2010). Evolutionary psychology and the origins of language. Journal of Evolutionary Psychology, 8(4), 289-307.
This article is the second in a recurring series of posts focusing on the origins of language. Check here throughout the rest of the semester for the rest of Bryan Peacker’s posts.