Conceptualizing Language

by Mark English

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Complex language is a precondition not only for the kinds of interaction which characterize human societies but also for many kinds of thinking. It is both social and biological. A language only develops in a context of social continuity over an extended period of time, though it is typically learned very quickly by infants who are exposed to it. There is still controversy about the extent to which natural language is shaped and constrained by the structure and physiology of the human brain, but it is clear that the advent of complex human language was associated with genetic changes which impacted on various aspects of human physiology (including brain function).

What, then, is language? How should we conceptualize it? The approach I am outlining (and recommending) here is strongly idiolectal.

The term “idiolect” can be understood in different ways and taken more or less seriously in the study of language. Taken in a strong sense, it inclines us to see the individual rather than the language or linguistic community as the primary focus of study. As I see it, language only exists insofar as it is used (or instantiated) by individuals. A social context is a given. But speaking and writing and listening and reading and the thinking (or cognitive processing) which supports these activities or which impinges in some other way on linguistic forms or structures are all things which are done by, or (in the case of cognitive processing) occur within the brains of, individuals.

I don’t deny having been greatly influenced by Noam Chomsky’s ideas in my thinking about language. I was first introduced to linguistics by a former student of Chomsky’s who followed a broadly (but by no means doctrinaire) Chomskyan approach. This general approach appealed to me. Chomsky put the focus firmly on what he originally called (linguistic) “competence” (the individual speaker’s internal intuitions about grammar etc.) rather than “performance” (as a behaviorist might). This distinction was developed over time into one between I-language and E-language. For Chomsky the focus was on the former and consequently on idiolects rather than languages.

The entry for “idiolects” in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (credited to Alex Barber and Eduardo Garcia Ramirez) highlights the philosophical implications of the concept and some of the confusions which surround it. Those who claim that idiolects (in any strong sense of the term) do not exist or that such a notion is useless or incoherent “are nonetheless happy to use the word ‘idiolect’ to describe a person’s partial grasp of, or their pattern of deviance from, a language that is irreducibly social in nature.”

But nobody is denying the social dimension of language. Of course a language is a social product, but “partial grasp”? Of what exactly? And (as I see it) any attempt to define idiolects in terms of patterns of deviance from a norm is likely to be arbitrary or trivial unless the norm itself is defined in terms of idiolects.

In what sense does a language exist as distinct from particular instances of language use? Spoken words and written texts are generally assignable to this language or that, but precise boundaries are impossible to draw. Grammars and dictionaries try to do this but they can never reflect the constantly shifting contours of actual linguistic practice which always depend on the knowledge and behavior of individual speakers. In the final analysis, then, what we have is a set of unique and (to a greater or lesser extent) overlapping idiolects. We find it convenient, however, to group sets of idiolects into what we call dialects or languages.

“The substantial debate,” Barber and Ramirez explain, “is not over how to define [the word ‘idiolect’]. It turns, rather, on whether an idiolectal perspective on language is to be preferred to a non-idiolectal one. Someone taking an idiolectal perspective on language treats idiolects […] as having ontological or investigative priority and [sees languages as] nothing but more-or-less overlapping idiolects. […] At issue, then, is what we should take languages to be.”

They go on to explain that Chomsky does not deny that language is at least in part a social product. But he is skeptical of E-language-based approaches. The term “E-language” is used by Chomsky to refer to those things (whatever they might be) that are the target of study for those who take languages and their properties to be external to the mind.

“Chomsky’s case for introducing and using the notion of an I-language is, in the end, indistinguishable from his case for a cognitivist approach to the study of language as a natural phenomenon. And his case against E-languages is that there is no scientifically coherent project to which they belong as posits.”

Chomsky does not deny the existence of some linguistic arbitrariness (emphasized by Ferdinand de Saussure and David Lewis, for example). But he sees the core aspects of language as being constrained by the specifics of our biological nature and the (undoubted) arbitrary and contingent aspects of language as operating within these constraints.

The facts of first language acquisition arguably demonstrate this. It is clear that language learning in infants represents a special kind of learning. Infants are not like little scientists observing and inferring the linguistic conventions prevailing among adult users. And even if they were, even if they were masterminds, they would still be unable, on the basis of the fragmentary, flawed and often inconsistent evidence which the typical linguistic environment provides, to zero in on an appropriate grammar. Logically speaking, there would be countless possible languages which would be compatible with the data. (This is the “poverty of stimulus” argument.) What we see in fact is very rapid, and apparently effortless, linguistic progress. And it calls for an explanation.

According to Chomsky, language acquisition can be thought of as a series of brain states, developing from an initial state, S0 [S zero], through intermediate states to a relatively stable mature state, SM.

From the SEP:

S0 is the initial state common to all humans, idealizing away from individual linguistic impairments and the like. Subsequent states arise through exposure to a particular linguistic environment. Nothing said so far requires that these states be thought of as representational states we could call “knowing a language”. […] [L]anguage acquisition can be described—usefully—as a matter of children evolving through various stages of knowledge en route to acquiring adult competence. This description is useful because the empiricist/nativist debate can now be couched as a debate over what linguistic information must already be known by someone in S0 if information supplied by the linguistic environment is to culminate in knowledge of the mature language M. Empiricists claim that nothing much is needed, that S0 is a “blank slate” to be filled in using environmental data. Nativists claim that plenty of information must already be provided, in the form of innate knowledge of a language dubbed Universal Grammar (UG) by Chomsky. We each come predisposed to acquire only certain languages, the humanly possible ones that can grow out of UG.

Despite the controversies surrounding the notion of Universal Grammar, I tend to agree with Barber and Ramirez that nothing much is added to this account, as an account of language learning, by describing it as development towards the learning of an externalistically specified social language (as opposed to some specific mature linguistic state (SM) of an individual). On this view, the primary target of investigation is the human language faculty, its nature and limits. Of course, other approaches to language are possible but, to the extent that they have scientific pretensions, they will probably be in tension with an idiolectal approach.

Because there is considerable variety […] in the underlying conceptions of languages, Chomsky’s criticisms can seem sweeping, but the underlying thought is that, because E-languages are less “real” than I-languages, the concept [of an E-language] appears to play no role in the theory of language. […] Linguistic behaviour is the product of both the language faculty on the one hand and external influences—performance systems in the mind/brain of the individual and social factors—on the other. At issue is not whether anything at all can ever be said, usefully, about these “downstream” effects, but whether the notion of an E-language has any pivotal explanatory role to play in saying it (save as a useful shorthand).

This is well put.

It is worth noting also that Barber and Ramirez explicitly recognize the challenges that idiolectal (or I-language-focused) approaches pose to traditional approaches in the philosophy of language.

One apparent corollary of [Chomsky’s view of language] is significant for those many philosophers of language who have agonized over how to construct a theory of meaning for English. A common thought is that such a theory ought to take the form of a statement of the referential properties of the expressions of English—a link between words and objects in the world—from which the truth conditions of all English sentences can be derived (e.g., [Donald] Davidson, [Richard] Montague). Echoing P.F. Strawson, Chomsky suggests that referring is something people do. They use words in doing so, it is true, but referring is not something that words somehow do by themselves, through some fantastical medium, English. If referential properties of expressions amount to anything, rather than being relational properties between expressions and external objects (or “word-world” relations) they should be thought of as embodying instructions to the individual’s conceptual system, one of the performance systems with which the language faculty interfaces. If Chomsky is right, a great deal of the philosophy of language is either radically off beam or needs considerable re-interpretation.

I have barely scratched the surface here and don’t have a fully worked out position. But I am convinced that an idiolectal perspective has been and will continue to be extremely useful in the quest to develop a truer and more parsimonious account of human language.

53 comments

  1. Interesting and admirably clear piece. I am a semantic externalist, which I don’t think need contradict an idiolect-focused approach, but I also agree with Wittgenstein that language is fundamentally social, “all the way down,” as at its core it involves rule-following, which cannot be made sense of outside of a community.

    1. Dan

      What Wittgenstein was interested in was language per se, not specifically human language, which is Chomsky’s focus as a linguist.

      As I made clear, my position is not fully worked out or settled. Maybe this doesn’t matter. At least I know enough to have some strong convictions which guide my thinking in a general way and keep me interested.

      Also, writing this has helped me see more clearly the distinction between the philosophy of linguistics and the philosophy of language — not an absolute distinction, but a useful one. (You are obviously more focused on the latter than I am.)

  2. Each time I read that language is, at the core, rule-following, I’m reminded of a conversation I once had with my wife.
    We were cycling in a beautiful 19th century park, when we saw two female cyclists riding together. One looked like the archetypical butch lesbian, the other one not so much. So I asked my wife “Hey, do you think they’re a couple?”
    She took a look and replied: “The one on the left, yeah, but the one on the right not.”
    I wonder what Wittgenstein would have thought about that reply. Some people make up their own language and their own rules while speaking. I still understood my wife, though.

      1. No objection intended. Just wanted to point out that if language is at the core rule-based, the rules are amazingly flexible and robust against abuse, hidden associative thinking etc.

          1. I was thinking about Wittgenstein too, and his famous “paradox”:

            “No course of action could be determined by a rule, because every course of action can be made out to accord with the rule.”

            when I wrote that my wife seemed to make up her own rules.

            Wittgenstein also points out that “for an utterance to be meaningful it must be possible in principle to subject it to public standards and criteria of correctness.” (I’m quoting the SEP here). For me, that’s more paradoxical than his paradox.

            I’ve told about my wife’s reply to many people. Every single one agreed that it was nonsensical: a person can’t be a couple. It fails public standards and criteria of correctness. But at the same time every single one understood what my wife was saying. Here utterance was meaningful. If Wittgenstein is to be believed, it paradoxically did and didn’t fail public standards of correctness at the same time.

            Language can be wonderful, especially when it goes off the rails.

            But I don’t want to derail this discussion, so enough about my wife and her unique use of language.

          2. Perhaps I shouldn’t have asked what Wittgenstein would have thought about my wife’s reply°° but what Chomsky thinks about it.

            °° (I think W. would have like examples of language use that work when they shouldn’t.)

    1. Each time I read that language is, at the core, rule-following, …

      I’m reminded of Wittgenstein’s argument on the impossibility of following a rule.

      I’m a Chomsky skeptic, though I don’t yet know whether I’ll further comment on that in this thread. I see language as primarily driven by semantics, while Chomsky sees it as primarily driven by syntax.

      1. Neil Rickert

        “I see language as primarily driven by semantics, while Chomsky sees it as primarily driven by syntax.”

        Language may be “primarily driven” by semantics but it wouldn’t be language without syntax etc..

  3. Thanks for posting this article. I am puzzled by what this means: “they should be thought of as embodying instructions to the individual’s conceptual system, one of the performance systems with which the language faculty interfaces.”

    I think Kripke has persuasively argued that when I use the name “Boris Johnson”, I am referring to Boris, not my concept of him, and if you and I have very different ideas associated with Boris, we are, nevertheless, both referring to him when we say “Boris, better move quickly on the vaccine”. And this is based on what is fundamentally a causal relation. The semantics of properties and predicates is, I think, holistic i.e., you can’t have the concept of “imperialism” if you don’t have the concept of “government” or “bachelor” if you don’t have the concept of “marriage”. When we use Indexicals like “I am here” we have a rules (“here” means the place of utterance), and that, plus the context, gives the proposition expressed.

    So, when we talk about “instructions to the individual’s conceptual system”, we mean a tacit understanding that indexicals, for example, function a certain way?

    1. Gottlob Frege

      I will quote the context of the sentence to which you draw attention and tell you how I interpret what is being said.

      “… Chomsky suggests that referring is something people do. They use words in doing so, it is true, but referring is not something that words somehow do by themselves, through some fantastical medium, English. If referential properties of expressions amount to anything, rather than being relational properties between expressions and external objects (or “word-world” relations) they should be thought of as embodying instructions to the individual’s conceptual system, one of the performance systems with which the language faculty interfaces.”

      When one talks about *people* referring to things, one is talking about actual language use and this encompasses a broader physical and social environment. Because that’s where “people” exist. The bit at the end you quoted is making a subtle point about the referential properties *of expressions*. If you want to talk about them having referential properties in themselves — that is, as distinct from the referring that people do when they use language — you need to see this in terms of linkages between brain systems or functions.

      The point I want to emphasize is that the approach to language which I am describing is very focused. For Chomsky, the language faculty is what linguistics is primarily about. It interacts/interfaces with other brain systems or functions which are *not* specifically linguistic (as well as with the wider environment, of course).

  4. I find myself switching camps or sides and am now on team Daniel Everett; I do think Chomsky’s position on language to be more flawed and unsustainable than not. The really interesting question for me, aside from the importance of Everett’s research, is why somebody like Chomsky has been so abiding in his popularity, so dominant. Sometimes i think dominant ideas and figures can be right and at least partially deserving of their place. I am not a knee jerk contrarian. But I think Chomsky’s approach to linguistics is riddled with problems.
    I think this piece here and others reflect the tenor of the times which emphasizes common sense, human universality and so on. I think the climate has gone too far in this direction in a way that it did in the direction of social constructionism in the 70s – 90s.

    1. 1970scholar

      Does one really need to take sides like this?

      “The really interesting question for me, aside from the importance of Everett’s research, is why somebody like Chomsky has been so abiding in his popularity, so dominant. Sometimes, I think, dominant ideas and figures can be right and at least partially deserving of their place. I am not a knee jerk contrarian. But I think Chomsky’s approach to linguistics is riddled with problems.”

      There has been a lot of hype about Everett’s claims, some of it very misleading. But let’s assume (for argument’s sake) that Everett turns out to be correct and Chomsky’s approach is fatally and fundamentally flawed. Even in such a case you would have to recognize the crucial role that Chomsky played in bringing to prominence issues like recursion and making bold conjectures which could be tested and (in this hypothetical future) falsified. This is how science works and progresses. (Note also that Everett was educated and worked for many years within a Chomskyan framework.)

      As it happens, I am skeptical of some of Chomsky’s claims. But I see value in his work and recognize the impact he has had on linguistics and intellectual history more generally.

      1. Mark English wrote: But let’s assume (for argument’s sake) that Everett turns out to be correct and Chomsky’s approach is fatally and fundamentally flawed. Even in such a case you would have to recognize the crucial role that Chomsky played in bringing to prominence issues like recursion […]

        Chomsky’s claims about recursion have been tested, not only by Everett but also by other linguistic researchers like Ted Gibson at the MIT Language Lab (Chomsky’s old stomping grounds). The case against recursion in the Pirahã language seems pretty strong at this point. Chomsky’s response to this was to publicly call Everett a “charlatan”, while his linguistic acolytes in Brazil started a smear campaign against Everett, leading to his being banned from further visiting the Pirahã, in a bizarre case of international academic cancel culture. Chomsky asks rhetorically whether the Pirahã can learn Portuguese (a language, like most, with recursion). The answer obviously being affirmative, Chomsky dismissively concludes that Pirahã must therefore also have recursion.

        But Everett wants to draw an important distinction between thinking and speaking recursively. He notes that the Pirahã do seem to have recursion in their stories–weaved within the narrative–just not in the atomic sentences they use. Everett feels recursion isn’t an inherent property of language per se, but is instead possibly embedded in our way of thinking. Like Wittgenstein, Everett sees language as primarily social, that culture shapes the way we structure our meanings. Hence he believes the Pirahã do not have recursion because of the way their culture specifically developed throughout their history in which recursion was not required in order to communicate effectively. Just as they do not have words for colors or numbers, or distant past and future events, for the same reason: in their culture they have no need for them.

        If culture can constrain grammar, then grammar could not be prespecified by some biological instinct or Language Acquisition Device independently and in advance of its social and cultural context. If this is the case, then this would in turn undermine the theory of a Universal Grammar, of which recursion is a major component. All the pillars of the Chomskyan paradigm–recursion, universal grammar, language acquisition device, syntactic structures, etc.– would begin to crumble.

        For Chomsky, E-language is the mechanical output of I-language, triggered by the stimulus of other speakers using E-language, all generated (within parameters) by a universal grammar shared by all humans. Creativity is made possible by substituting an infinite number of predicates and noun phrases supplied by the culture. And although culture plays a role in shaping language, it can never alter or constrain the underlying structure of grammar. Yet it is this paradigm that is now being seriously challenged by Everett and others.

        1. Joe Smith

          “Chomsky asks rhetorically whether the Pirahã can learn Portuguese (a language, like most, with recursion). The answer obviously being affirmative, Chomsky dismissively concludes that Pirahã must therefore also have recursion.”

          That’s not the conclusion he drew at all. Chomsky sometimes makes idiosyncratic and perhaps exaggerated claims but he is not an idiot. The conclusion he drew (in the interview I heard) was about their innate language capacity (or faculty), not about their language.

          It has long been evident that syntactic differences between languages can be very great. Have Chomsky and his fellow researchers overemphasized the similarities and underestimated the differences over the years? To an extent they did. Does this totally undermine their work? Not at all. It challenges aspects of it, and this has been reflected in changes made to theoretical frameworks. Competing frameworks more or less closely aligned with Chomsky’s own developing and changing framework have constantly been proposed and tested against newly analysed data.

          “If culture can constrain grammar, then grammar could not be prespecified by some biological instinct or Language Acquisition Device independently and in advance of its social and cultural context.”

          Nobody is saying that the grammar of a language is “prespecified” by human biology. If it were, all languages would be same. The claim — on the face of it very plausible — is simply that our biology sets parameters, places constraints on the kinds of language we can learn. The extent and nature of these constraints is the subject of ongoing research. Obviously, every language develops within a particular cultural context and is shaped by all sorts of circumstances. Your implicit suggestion that the brain is a blank slate with respect to linguistic capacities is an extreme position and, given the evidence, wildly improbable in my opinion.

          And your remark that “this [i.e. Chomsky’s] paradigm … is now being seriously challenged by Everett and others” sounds very odd in light of the fact that Chomsky’s views on language have faced serious challenges from the beginning, more than sixty years ago.

          I never cease to be amazed by the strong (negative) feelings which Chomsky’s ideas evoke in people. Actually I see this as a mark of his stature as a thinker. Not many intellectuals can make what on the face of it are relatively dry and technical ideas the subject of passionate debate.

          1. Mark English wrote: The conclusion he drew (in the interview I heard) was about their innate language capacity (or faculty), not about their language.

            No, Chomsky explicitly says the Pirahã must have recursion in their actual language, not in their language ‘capacity’ (which is an abstraction). That’s what the debate is about, otherwise there would be no debate. Everett doesn’t deny we use recursion in our thinking.

            Nobody is saying that the grammar of a language is “prespecified” by human biology.

            This is precisely what Chomsky is saying. His whole paradigm is about grammar being a universal innate biological capacity that is prespecified and encoded in our genes. We acquire a specific language from being able to understand its grammar with relatively minimal stimulus due to our endowment of a universal grammar with which we are programmed. This is Chomsky’s position in a nutshell.

            Your implicit suggestion that the brain is a blank slate with respect to linguistic capacities is an extreme position and, given the evidence, wildly improbable in my opinion.

            Not implying a blank slate at all. Learning is not the opposite of innateness. What I am saying is that there is a structure encoded in our nervous system that allows us to learn language, yet it is not prespecified for language. From what we are now finding out through comparative linguistics, early childhood learning, and cognitive psychology, is that language seems to be a more general capacity than that. Chomsky takes this structural capacity for language too literally, that’s all. And it is too mired in mechanistic computer metaphors.

            And your remark that “this [i.e. Chomsky’s] paradigm … is now being seriously challenged by Everett and others” sounds very odd in light of the fact that Chomsky’s views on language have faced serious challenges from the beginning, more than sixty years ago.

            The Chomskyan paradigm has ruled linguistics since at least the 1970s. It was challenged in the 1950s and ’60s during its early phase, but eventually became generally accepted conventional wisdom. I was taught Chomskyan linguistics in the 1980s when I did my degree in anthropology. During that whole time it was never seriously challenged to my knowledge.

  5. (1) It would be helpful if you said a little something about what is an “account of human language” is supposed to be or to do.

    (1) I think the philosophical case for idiolects — to be found, in different forms, in Davidson and Cavell, for example — is stronger than the linguistic case, not least because I think Chomsky’s theory merely masquerades as scientific and because Chomskians invoke some pretty cartoonish philosophy of science. (I say this even though I would agree that much analytic philosophy of language is misguided.)

    (2) I would be interested to hear what the idiolect theory has to say about (i) metaphor and (ii) (recognized) mistakes.

    1. Please excuse the misnumbering and typos. I hope I’m clear enough.

    2. “It would be helpful if you said a little something about what is an “account of human language” is supposed to be or to do.”

      What is a scientific account of anything supposed to do? Why put limits on it? There is this thing or phenomenon. What is it? How should we describe or conceptualize it? Is it something which is meaningfully distinct from other related things or phenomena? How does it work or operate? How did it come about? When did it come about?

      “I think the philosophical case for idiolects … is stronger than the linguistic case, not least because I think Chomsky’s theory merely masquerades as scientific and because Chomskians invoke some pretty cartoonish philosophy of science. (I say this even though I would agree that much analytic philosophy of language is misguided.)”

      I gave my reasons for taking an idiolectal approach in the OP.

      “I would be interested to hear what the idiolect theory has to say about (i) metaphor and (ii) (recognized) mistakes.”

      It’s not a theory, it’s a way of seeing language. On metaphor: we think, to a large degree, in terms of metaphors. Language reflects this. I don’t see it as a problem for an idiolectal approach.

      On mistakes. As a child I used to say “multipication”. Then I noticed that virtually everyone else was saying “multiplication”. I had no reason to persist saying it my way and good reasons not to do so. So I started saying it “correctly”. I revised my idiolect. Is there a problem I am missing?

      1. I’m wondering what your thoughts are on Quine’s argument in Word and Object that Indeterminacy “starts at home”; i.e. applies at the level of idiolect?

        1. I don’t know that I have anything useful to say on this. Quine’s concerns are (like those of Wittgenstein, whom you mentioned earlier) very general and concerned with meaning and reference at a high level of abstraction.

          Also, Quine tended to behaviorism so that would obviously put him at odds with a cognitive science-based approach to the study of language which draws heavily on the intuitions of native speakers (even if the intuitions in question are about such things as word order or the “correctness” of grammatical forms).

          1. Well, I was asking specifically regarding his argument that indeterminacy applies at the level of the idiolect, as that is the level you talk about in the essay. I was just curious as to what you thought the implications might be for your view, if he is correct.

      2. “On metaphor: we think, to a large degree, in terms of metaphors. Language reflects this. I don’t see it as a problem for an idiolectal approach.”

        I don’t either. (I suppose in these contexts it’s too easy for comments to come off as challenges.) There are a handful of theories about metaphor. I was wondering if seeing language in terms of idiolect supported or opposed any of them — that is, helped with a new sorting of better and worse.

        “What is a scientific account of anything supposed to do? Why put limits on it? There is this thing or phenomenon. What is it? How should we describe or conceptualize it? Is it something which is meaningfully distinct from other related things or phenomena? How does it work or operate? How did it come about? When did it come about?”

        Again, I was requesting clarification, not offering a challenge. You say an “idiolectical perspective” is “useful for” a better “account of human language.” I don’t think it’s unreasonable of me to expect a better understanding of the perspective you’re outlining upon understanding what it’s supposed to provide; so it’s not unreasonable of me to request a clarification of what it’s supposed to provide. A story explaining how X works is different from a story explaining what X is, which itself is different from a story explaining how we should describe or conceptualize X. I’ll misunderstand and misjudge a story that’s trying to explain how X works if I read it as trying to explain how we should describe or conceptualize X. Unfortunately for me, your list offers very little orientation.

        1. Animal Symbolicum

          “I was wondering if seeing language in terms of idiolect supported or opposed any [particular theories of metaphor] — that is, helped with a new sorting of better and worse.”

          I am not really familiar enough with the various approaches to metaphor to make an informed judgment but obviously one would be more concerned here with semantics than phonology or syntax and so you would be looking at various general forms of thinking and not just at the language system, narrowly conceived.

          “Again, I was requesting clarification, not offering a challenge. You say an “idiolectical perspective” is “useful for” a better “account of human language” […] so it’s not unreasonable of me to request a clarification of what it’s supposed to provide. […] Unfortunately for me, your list offers very little orientation.”

          In the sentence from the OP which you quote I used the words “truer” and “parsimonious”. One attraction of seeing “a language” as being less significant (less “real”) than individual speakers and listeners is that you can put aside an unnecessary (and rather problematic) abstraction and focus on actual language users. (Occam’s razor.) But it is not a panacea. I also see the value of relying on the intuitions native speakers regarding questions of acceptibility and grammaticality. Both strategies just seem like common sense to me, contributing to a no-nonsense approach.

          *If* such a constrained or parsimonious approach is truer to the realities under investigation then it is naturally going to be useful in helping to smooth the way for researchers to construct a lucid account of human language which answers the sorts of questions I listed as well as contributing (at least indirectly) to the computational side of things (natural language processing, etc.).

          “A story explaining how X works is different from a story explaining what X is, which itself is different from a story explaining how we should describe or conceptualize X. I’ll misunderstand and misjudge a story that’s trying to explain how X works if I read it as trying to explain how we should describe or conceptualize X. Unfortunately for me, your list offers very little orientation.”

          The goal of linguistics is to do all these things and more with respect to human language. But it is a joint effort from people working in different fields and subfields. In the OP I am just sketching out a few ideas which I think have abiding value and which have played and will continue to play a positive role in linguistic inquiry.

  6. I would want to push very hard in the opposite direction to say that language is very much a collective phenomenon. What gets me about Chomsky is how his analysis is so formal it pretty much ignores what language is for, which is to communicate. To me, the individual is not the right level to understand language. A group of people share a vocabulary and a grammar, a way of speaking, and they use this shared way of speaking to communicate with each other. The essence is the fact that the words and their meanings are shared amongst a group of people. The fact that we can use language to personally understand things is all derivative from the shared reality, and not the other way around. I think it is too easy to see language on the level of the individual because of the ubiquity of mass media like print that acts as a standard of reference, when in fact language exists amongst large groups, where different individuals understand and use different sets of words, so that no one person knows everything. The knowledge is collective. This is less obvious once we get to literate civilization because then there seems to be an “objective” standard for the language in literature and dictionaries.

    1. Charles Justice

      “I would want to push very hard in the opposite direction to say that language is very much a collective phenomenon.”

      It is a product of social interaction and a central element of culture. Nobody is denying this. Collective? Well, linguistic knowledge is stored in individual brains and we all speak and listen and write and read as individual agents (interacting with other individuals). *Collective* action is rare in linguistic contexts (singing in a choir?).

      “What gets me about Chomsky is how his analysis is so formal it pretty much ignores what language is for, which is to communicate.”

      There are branches of linguistics which deal directly with communication (notably pragmatics). I don’t deny that the functions of language *are* predominantly communicational but, as it is an evolutionary (as well as a social) product, its precise functions may be difficult to specify in a comprehensive and explicit way. The way you put it could be seen to suggest that complex language is something our ancestors consciously invented and designed.

      “To me, the individual is not the right level to understand language.”

      The individual brain has necessarily been formed *within a cultural context*. This goes without saying.

      “A group of people share a vocabulary and a grammar, a way of speaking…”

      And where does this grammar and lexicon reside if not in individual brains?

      “… and they use this shared way of speaking to communicate with each other.”

      And, for example, to think things out, especially when writing is used (as in a note pad not meant to be read by others). More generally, language competence *changes the way we think*. It makes possible ways of thinking which non-linguistic animals cannot achieve. (It also creates traps and pitfalls.)

      The role and functions and implications of linguistic competence are more complex than you are making out.

      “The essence is the fact that the words and their meanings are shared amongst a group of people. The fact that we can use language to personally understand things is all derivative from the shared reality, and not the other way around.”

      I have stated all along that language is a social product (i.e. it *derives from* social interaction).

      “[L]anguage exists amongst large groups, where different individuals understand and use different sets of words, so that no one person knows everything. The knowledge is collective.”

      Again, collective is not a word I would use here. There is no collective mind.

      And when you talk about each individual only having partial knowledge are you not implicitly postulating the existence of an abstract (and not scientifically tractable) entity, i.e. “a language”?

      If you want to go this way, fine.

      (An idiolect, by contrast, is complete in the sense that it doesn’t represent partial knowledge of *something else*.)

      1. I think we are looking at a clash between two philosophical perspectives here. You say “collective action is rare in linguistic contexts (singing in a choir?)” It seems to me that a language is a form of collective action, but unlike a choir it doesn’t happen simultaneously. We take turns in conversation, we speak and we listen to others alternatively. We remember what others have said and we add to their sayings. We learn to speak from our elders and our peers, perhaps most importantly from our peers, because this is where we develop our own version of our dialect.

        Basically, whatever we do, we do as individual agents. But the essence of language is that it is a shared means of communication, it is a technology that we share by the very act of communicating. We learn it from listening and speaking to others. It exists in discourse and memory which derives from and is revived through further discourse. Language does not exist in a brain, it exists through usage, like all other technologies. A language that has only a handful of speakers is on its way out, it is dying, not because it exists in people’s brains, but because it can only keep living if it is passed on from one generation to the next.

        Our thoughts and writings are ultimately derived from conversations, things we’ve heard others say, things we want to say to others, and sometimes conversations with ourselves, but thinking in words is parasitic on the social reality of communication – it simply would not exist without it.

        Language is also a normative system, a way of doing things that involves public adherence to standards. If we misuse words we are corrected by our elders, our peers, even our own children. If we mispronounce words we are corrected. We are judged by others if we speak unintelligibly or abstrusely, if we misinterpret or misrepresent what others have said. All normative systems are by their nature collective. They are collective because by participating in the system everyone, to some degree, agrees to adhere and enforce the rules. There is no need to posit a “collective mind”.
        A language as a whole was never deliberately created as a whole, but, over time, most of its elements were, such as when we “coin” a new word; although many minor changes in pronunciation and meaning may have occurred unconsciously.
        We can conceive how grammar could emerge like paths in a forest, through collective practice over time. If nobody uses the paths, the undergrowth comes back and the paths cease to exist. We can remember where they went, but if we don’t use them they eventually vanish.

        The idea that human language somehow evolved is dubious. Sharing on the scale of language does not occur in the animal kingdom outside of humans. Human sharing, at the scale that it occurs, could only be possible through a normative system, in which we hold ourselves and everyone around us to standards of proper language use, and we generally don’t let people get away with serious errors or abuse. If I say that your argument is mxcpelrting, you will rightly protest that I am doing something wrong. You might dismiss what I say, or insist I explain the term – in either case you and I simply assume that we are part of the same normative system.

        1. Charles Justice

          “I think we are looking at a clash between two philosophical perspectives here.”

          I thought perhaps it was just a matter of you misinterpreting to some extent my point of view, using words like “collective” in ways that I would not and emphasizing things I would not be inclined to emphasize in this context. But this statement makes me wonder whether perhaps the gulf is wider than I thought:

          “The idea that human language somehow evolved is dubious.”

          And yet you admit that “language … was never deliberately created as a whole” and see grammar emerging “like paths in a forest, through collective practice over time.”

          Complex language has certain biological prerequisites. Social factors cannot be ignored, sure. In fact, social and cultural developments can affect and interact with biological evolution and probably did so as language was evolving in our ancestors.

          1. I think I mostly agree with Charles Justice here.

            But this statement makes me wonder whether perhaps the gulf is wider than I thought:

            “The idea that human language somehow evolved is dubious.”

            Mark is replying to Charles.

            Of course languages evolve culturally, and I don’t think Charles is disagreeing with that.

            Something evolved biologically, but I doubt that it had to be anything more than an urge to communicate with others in the social group. That would be part of our evolution as a social species, and not really specific to language.

            In particular, I doubt that anything evolved biologically that would fit Chomsky’s idea of a universal grammar. If that is what Charles is saying, then I agree with him. If he is saying something different, perhaps he can clarify.

          2. This is such a fascinating topic – whether or how language evolved. It has proved very difficult to figure out. There does not seem to be a continuity between human language and the way that any other animal communicates. Chomsky has conjectured that a genetic mutation just happened in one human that created the ability to merge words into flexible repeatable patterns. This I find ridiculous, along the lines of receiving free will from God so that he can’t be blamed for my fuck-ups.

            The problem is that human language is radically different from other animal “languages”. There’s the syntax, the rules that we need to follow – but were not explicitly taught. There is the infinite generativity that powers much of human creativity. Think of poetry, literature, songs. There just are no good intermediaries in the animal world. My thought is that if you look at the big difference it is the scale of sharing that goes on between humans. There is nothing like it in the rest of the animal world. Language is about sharing – all kinds of communication. With other animals communication has a far narrower focus. Food, sex, danger…. Invitations, threats, and maybe sometimes an expression of camaraderie. Yes, I do believe that language was invented and didn’t evolve biologically. It’s just too big of a gap to fill.

            With anything human, you have to look at it at in three or more dimensions. Deep time, historical time, developmental time, and current time. languages evolve without conscious control over historical time, we each learn a language in developmental time, and I am using language now, and maybe subtly changing the meaning of some concepts as I write this.

            Wittgenstein was right – a rule is an agreement. Everyone who speaks a particular language basically agrees to follow the vocabulary and grammar. First we learn by observation, then we are corrected, and we generate new levels of understanding about what we and others are saying. All the while we are willing participants, like the players in a game. By playing a game we agree to abide by the rules. Almost everyone wants to communicate and language is a pretty awesome way to do it. We learn the rules, and we correct others if they break them.

            Go back in deep time, and language had to be the basis of an agreement. But what is different is that this agreement opens up a vast scale of cooperation that is not available to any other creature. How did that happen? There is a “fitness valley” that could not be spanned by natural selection, it had to be in some ways a deliberate collectivity, a deliberate collective agreement. It could be largely implicit and unsaid, just as our individual agreement to learn our own dialect is implicit. But it’s nevertheless there, because we follow the rules of grammar and vocabulary and don’t hesitate to correct other speakers when they speak incorrectly.

            Of course there are conditions for language – large enough brains, tool using capabilities, physical structures in the throat, memory abilities, etc. The continuity with other animals is there. But not with the agreement. There is something that we do, which to some extent transcends Darwinian natural selection. If animals make agreements, they are not the kind that lead to human kinds and scales of cooperation. Animal forms of communication are always closely tied to the animal’s physical state. A big lion has a big roar, a persistent songbird is physically competent enough to get enough to eat so that it can spend it’s spare time impressing females with its song. Human communication transcends the physical as well as the here and now. We can talk about things that don’t exist, that might or might not exist. We can do that because we agree to rules of communication that are universalizable that don’t benefit only the strongest or the fittest of us. Everyone gets to be part of it as long as they can agree to follow the rules.

  7. Dan

    I don’t want to avoid your questions but I am having trouble addressing them directly.

    We always have trouble talking about these questions (like Putnam’s twin earth, Quine’s gavagai, Davidson’s closet, and Kripke’s ideas which we may not have discussed). I just don’t find the arguments clear or compelling — they don’t get off the ground for me — and you want me to engage with them and provide clear and compelling refutations.

    Now I am beginning to think that the reason I have trouble entertaining/going along with these arguments is because my beliefs and assumptions about the human mind/brain and how it relates to the world are different from Quine’s, Putnam’s, Kripke’s, etc..

    I don’t see it perfectly clearly but the outline of a possibility is forming. And the passage from the SEP which I quote at the end of the OP may help flesh it out. They talk about the many philosophers of language who “have agonized over how to construct a theory of meaning” and suggest that the whole project is driven by a particular (possibly false) view of language which requires *words themselves* to refer in some direct way to things in the world instead of seeing *people* as doing the referring (using language).

    “If referential properties of expressions amount to anything, rather than being relational properties between expressions and external objects (or “word-world” relations) they should be thought of as embodying instructions to the individual’s conceptual system, one of the performance systems with which the language faculty interfaces. If Chomsky is right, a great deal of the philosophy of language is either radically off beam or needs considerable re-interpretation.”

    Given that my natural perspective on the mind and language is closer to Chomsky’s than to the philosophers under discussion, it’s no wonder that the arguments of these philosophers seem to me to be unmotivated.

    A final note. I don’t particularly like the phrasing of the second last sentence of the quote: “instructions to the individual’s conceptual system.” I would prefer to see it simply in terms of linked brain systems interacting. A lexical entry (a remembered word) would incorporate its phonological and morphological properties, its syntactic functions, how it fitted in to possible sentence structures and so on. Its meaning would not be defined within “the language faculty” (to use the Chomskyan term) but rather through linkages to other brain areas, and expressed through actual use.

  8. Neil Rickert

    “Of course languages evolve culturally… Something evolved biologically, but I doubt that it had to be anything more than an urge to communicate with others in the social group.”

    I think we can safely say that it did have to be more than that. The development of language was dependent on changes in the brain and elsewhere. Even Charles seems to accept this. He mentions large brains, tool-using abilities, structures in the throat and memory capacity.

    And I have made the point that social and cultural factors affect the course of biological evolution which in turn feeds back into culture, and so on. There is a lot of research on this (gene-culture coevolution), some of it specifically on language.

    “In particular, I doubt that anything evolved biologically that would fit Chomsky’s idea of a universal grammar.”

    This idea is controversial as I readily admit. But you go too far in the other direction in my opinion by rejecting the view that linguistic processing is facilitated by specific brain structures.

    1. The development of language was dependent on changes in the brain and elsewhere.

      Of course it was. But the question is whether these were language-specific changes.

      We developed an ability to use finely articulated motor movements. And speech depends on that. But so does knitting.

  9. Charles Justice

    “This is such a fascinating topic – whether or how language evolved. It has proved very difficult to figure out.”

    Certainly the “how” is difficult to figure out.

    “Chomsky has conjectured that a genetic mutation just happened in one human that created the ability to merge words into flexible repeatable patterns. This I find ridiculous…”

    Chomsky’s view on this does seem a bit extreme, I agree.

    “The problem is that human language is radically different from other animal “languages”. There’s the syntax, the rules that we need to follow – but were not explicitly taught. There is the infinite generativity that powers much of human creativity.”

    Precisely, precisely.

    “Language is about sharing – all kinds of communication. With other animals communication has a far narrower focus. Food, sex, danger…. Invitations, threats, and maybe sometimes an expression of camaraderie. Yes, I do believe that language was invented and didn’t evolve biologically. It’s just too big of a gap to fill.”

    My view is that, once the capacity for complex language developed, narratives etc. became possible for the first time and so the scope for human communication was necessarily broadened dramatically.

    “Wittgenstein was right – a rule is an agreement. Everyone who speaks a particular language basically agrees to follow the vocabulary and grammar. First we learn by observation, then we are corrected, and we generate new levels of understanding about what we and others are saying. All the while we are willing participants, like the players in a game. By playing a game we agree to abide by the rules. Almost everyone wants to communicate and language is a pretty awesome way to do it. We learn the rules, and we correct others if they break them.”

    Language does not develop quite like this, in my opinion. Language comes naturally to most children. This is strange because the syntactic rules are immensely complicated. Learning the rules of formal, relatively complicated (but much less complicated than language) games does not come so easily. They have to be deliberately taught and consciously learned.

    “There is a “fitness valley” that could not be spanned by natural selection, it had to be in some ways a deliberate collectivity, a deliberate collective agreement. It could be largely implicit and unsaid, just as our individual agreement to learn our own dialect is implicit. But it’s nevertheless there, because we follow the rules of grammar and vocabulary and don’t hesitate to correct other speakers when they speak incorrectly.”

    You overemphasize, in my opinion, the extent to which all this is a consciously created thing (and also the role of “corrections” in language learning).

    “There is something that we do, which to some extent transcends Darwinian natural selection… Human communication transcends the physical as well as the here and now. We can talk about things that don’t exist, that might or might not exist. We can do that because we agree to rules of communication that are universalizable that don’t benefit only the strongest or the fittest of us. Everyone gets to be part of it as long as they can agree to follow the rules.”

    You are idealizing language which is probably used just as much to deceive and manipulate as it is to share and cooperate.

    1. Language does not develop quite like this, in my opinion. Language comes naturally to most children. This is strange because the syntactic rules are immensely complicated.

      Yes, language does come naturally to children. But children routinely flub the syntax. That the syntactic rules are complicated does not seem to be a problem. We want to be able to communicate with children. We allow a lot of broken syntax because of that interest in communicating.

      Learning the rules of formal, relatively complicated (but much less complicated than language) games does not come so easily.

      Of course. That’s because, in most cases, the rules are constitutive of the games. If the child does not follow the rules, he/she is not playing the game. But the syntax rules are not constitutive of language. Rather, it is communication that is constitutive. If a child is able to communicate, then we accept that he is a participant in the language game.

      1. Neil Rickert

        “[Quoting me] “Learning the rules of formal, relatively complicated (but much less complicated than language) games does not come so easily.” Of course. That’s because, in most cases, the rules are constitutive of the games. If the child does not follow the rules, he/she is not playing the game. But the syntax rules are not constitutive of language. Rather, it is communication that is constitutive. If a child is able to communicate, then we accept that he is a participant in the language game.”

        Your idea of syntax is different from mine. You talk about “syntax rules” as if they are dispensable. But, as I remarked earlier: no syntax, no language. Can we communicate without utilizing the syntax of natural languages? Of course. We can and often do use words in isolation or juxtaposed in simple ways to communicate with people with whom we don’t share a common language/grammar (including infants).

        You are apparently thinking of language in this very general sense (as philosophers like Wittgenstein did). I am talking about it in a more specific sense. The focus of the OP and my focus in the comments is the phenomenon of natural language — in all its complexity.

        1. Your idea of syntax is different from mine. You talk about “syntax rules” as if they are dispensable. But, as I remarked earlier: no syntax, no language.

          Fair enough. In that case, I agree that Chomsky’s theory gives a pretty good account of language.

          I will simply take the view that a natural language is not actually a language.

    2. “You are idealizing language which is probably used just as much to deceive and manipulate as it is to share and cooperate.” – Any model of a system is going to be an idealization to some extent. You are right that language is often used to deceive, that’s why we invented the idea of “truth” as in truthfulness vs lying and true versus error. That’s another difference between language and animal communication. In animal communication, cries and vocalizations reflect physical states and are hard to fake. But there is no natural demarcation for deception in human language – we had to develop the normative concept of truth and use it to regulate our social behaviour.

      I can also go over another point of disagreement on language acquisition: children don’t develop language if they don’t hear it. The fact that they and we can all make up sentences we have never heard before just demonstrates the power of language use to suggest and guide us along previously carved pathways of language use. We are not learning to speak either deductively or inductively, it is always more of an active conjectural thing. We have to participate by constantly producing speech in order to be functioning members of society. I think the idea of collective agreement as a way to preserve our knowledge and culture is key. A social contract that is partly self-organizing, through mutual expectations but also depends on the participants actively enforcing the rules above and beyond their own individual interests.

  10. Charles Justice

    “I can also go over another point of disagreement on language acquisition: children don’t develop language if they don’t hear it.”

    Of course not. But just because we don’t come equipped with a built-in language doesn’t mean that the brain is not configured to deal with linguistic input (and output) in certain ways. There are optimal times (stages of brain development) for learning language. The brain is primed for discerning certain patterns in the noise it encounters.

    “The fact that they and we can all make up sentences we have never heard before just demonstrates the power of language use to suggest and guide us along previously carved pathways of language use.”

    You keep emphasizing brain-external factors and rejecting out of hand, it seems, the possibility that our brains may be structured in specific ways to deal with language.

    “We are not learning to speak either deductively or inductively, it is always more of an active conjectural thing.”

    Yes, it is an active process. But then you go well beyond the topic of natural language to make general claims about social contracts etc..

    “We have to participate by constantly producing speech in order to be functioning members of society. I think the idea of collective agreement as a way to preserve our knowledge and culture is key. A social contract that is partly self-organizing, through mutual expectations but also depends on the participants actively enforcing the rules above and beyond their own individual interests.”

    You are making huge conceptual leaps here.

  11. Making huge conceptual leaps and jumping to conclusions is how I get my exercise these days.

  12. Joe Smith

    “No, Chomsky explicitly says the Pirahã must have recursion in their actual language, not in their language ‘capacity’ (which is an abstraction). That’s what the debate is about…”

    I know what the debate is about. What I objected to was your claim that Chomsky argued that the fact that the Pirahã can learn Portuguese proves that the Pirahã language incorporates recursion.

    ” [Quoting me] “Nobody is saying that the grammar of a language is “prespecified” by human biology.” This is precisely what Chomsky is saying.”

    He is not. He is *not* saying that *the grammar of a language* is “prespecified”.

    “His whole paradigm is about grammar being a universal innate biological capacity that is prespecified and encoded in our genes…”

    You are slipping from one sense of grammar to another. I was very precise and clear in what I said. Sure, he claims that a “universal grammar” (which is basically just a technical term for the language faculty) is built in.

    “Not implying a blank slate at all. Learning is not the opposite of innateness. What I am saying is that there is a structure encoded in our nervous system that allows us to learn language, yet it is not prespecified for language.”

    Prespecified?? I take it that you mean that there are structures built into the nervous system but they are general learning structures and not specifically concerned with particular kinds of learning; at least not specifically with *language* learning. This is a common view (I am tempted to say ‘dogma’). It doesn’t match the evidence I have seen which points to our brains having different systems operating simultaneously and sometimes interacting.

    “Chomsky takes this structural capacity for language too literally, that’s all. And it is too mired in mechanistic computer metaphors.”

    This is mere handwaving.

    ” [Quoting me] “And your remark that “this [i.e. Chomsky’s] paradigm … is now being seriously challenged by Everett and others” sounds very odd in light of the fact that Chomsky’s views on language have faced serious challenges from the beginning, more than sixty years ago.” The Chomskyan paradigm has ruled linguistics since at least the 1970s. It was challenged in the 1950s and ’60s during its early phase, but eventually became generally accepted conventional wisdom. I was taught Chomskyan linguistics in the 1980s when I did my degree in anthropology. During that whole time it was never seriously challenged to my knowledge.”

    There may have been a time (1970s to early 1980s?) when it was the “conventional wisdom”, especially amongst the general public (and maybe anthropologists?). But it was *continually* being challenged by serious researchers within the field. There were some quite savage battles in the late 1980s, for example.

    1. Mark English wrote: “I know what the debate is about. What I objected to was your claim that Chomsky argued that the fact that the Pirahã can learn Portuguese proves that the Pirahã language incorporates recursion”.

      But he does argue that…

      Chomsky, “The speakers of Pirahã share the common human language faculty; they are fluent speakers of Portuguese. That ends the discussion.” https://www.lavocedinewyork.com/en/2016/10/04/chomsky-we-are-not-apes-our-language-faculty-is-innate/

      Everett: “Chomsky and others have even made the false claim that many Pirahãs speak Portuguese, strengthening the case that they can use recursion. Again, they use this to claim that it is therefore the case that the Pirahãs do have recursive abilities and so the hypothesis of the narrow faculty of language is safe and sound after all” https://aeon.co/essays/why-language-is-not-everything-that-noam-chomsky-said-it-is

      “He is not. He is *not* saying that *the grammar of a language* is “prespecified”.

      Yes he is. Chomsky claims that the faculty of language is innate and unique to humans. But since human infants learn language remarkably well and with almost magical ease (which they could not possibly do merely by rote learning and environmental stimuli…i.e. poverty of stimulus argument), then there must be some sort of innate a priori knowledge of language grammar in general i.e. universal grammar) in order to grasp the grammar of a specific language.

      A priori innate knowledge about language is just another way of saying prespecified. If universal grammar isn’t prespecified then what the hell is it? Language, for Chomsky, is a specific faculty specifically encoded in our genes, presumably in specific genes. And since universal grammar is supposedly not acquired, but endowed, then it must by definition be prespecified.

      I don’t know how to explain this any more clearly. If I seem to be equivocating between the two senses of ‘grammar’, it’s because that’s what Chomsky is doing, and in order to explain Chomsky’s ideas I have to incorporate his own confused construals. Ask yourself why Chomsky would deliberately confuse things by using the word grammar as both a technical term for language, and to mean the general rules of syntax? In the end, I don’t see much logical or even ontological difference between the two senses of grammar anyway. Otherwise, how — according to the theory of innate universal grammar — would infants learn the grammar of a specific language without a general (i.e. universal) grammar template of some kind?

      Chomsky: “As a matter of simple logic, it would be impossible for the language [Pirahã] to contradict any theory of mine, even if the claims about the language were true. The reason is simple. These theories have to do with the faculty of language, the basis for acquiring and using individual languages.”

      Notice how when cornered, Chomsky retreats into the general abstract concept of ‘faculty of language’. Yet it is specific empirical claims, like Chomsky’s claim of recursion, which he has always insisted is a fundamental component of every language, that are being challenged. If there is no recursion in Pirahã, then recursion can’t be universal. And if recursion isn’t universal but is a fundamental feature of universal grammar, then this in turn undermines universal grammar.

      Even Steven Pinker admits Chomsky’s ideas on language and universal grammar are confusing and that he keeps moving the goalposts: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vg4BtHuLtCY

      “Prespecified?? I take it that you mean that there are structures built into the nervous system but they are general learning structures and not specifically concerned with particular kinds of learning; at least not specifically with *language* learning. This is a common view (I am tempted to say ‘dogma’). It doesn’t match the evidence I have seen which points to our brains having different systems operating simultaneously and sometimes interacting.”

      No one has yet produced any physical evidence for an organ, gene, allele, tissue, or any other biological structure, dedicated specifically and only to language. Broca’s area in the brain seems to be involved in speech functions, but Broca’s area is also linked to bodily movement and action. Same for the brain’s Wernicke region. Damage to these two areas may or may not cause serious aphasia and language deficts, it all depends on the specific neuroanatomy of the injured individual. Besides, neural correlates in and of themselves are not proof of any innate causal relationship between language and biology. There is no “Language Acquisition Device”.

      “This is mere handwaving.”

      No it isn’t, for all the reasons I’ve just rehearsed.

      “There may have been a time (1970s to early 1980s?) when it was the “conventional wisdom”, especially amongst the general public (and maybe anthropologists?). But it was *continually* being challenged by serious researchers within the field. There were some quite savage battles in the late 1980s, for example.”

      No challenges to the Chomskyan paradigm over the past 30 years have been “serious” until recently.

      The Grammar of Happiness: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5NyB4fIZHeU&t=1466s

      1. Joe Smith

        Your quotes from Chomsky confirm what I originally said. He is talking about the language faculty, not the Pirahã language specifically.

        You have a very frustrating way of arguing, slipping and sliding and subtly changing the subject as you go.

        Then you quote Everett attacking Chomsky as if this is evidence for what *Chomsky* said.

        And then, in support of your (false) claims about Chomsky’s views not having previously been seriously challenged *within linguistics*, you post a link to a fawning television documentary about Everett and the Pirahã!

        “A priori innate knowledge about language is just another way of saying prespecified. If universal grammar isn’t prespecified then what the hell is it? Language, for Chomsky, is a specific faculty specifically encoded in our genes, presumably in specific genes. And since universal grammar is supposedly not acquired, but endowed, then it must by definition be prespecified.”

        You keep using the word “prespecified” in a rhetorical and imprecise way (as well as slipping and sliding between two senses of grammar).

        In fact, you admit what you are doing — and then blame Chomsky for doing it first!

        “If I seem to be equivocating between the two senses of ‘grammar’, it’s because that’s what Chomsky is doing, and in order to explain Chomsky’s ideas I have to incorporate his own confused construals.”

        If you want to argue against Chomsky you can do so perfectly well without adopting his own “confused construals” as you put it.

        “Ask yourself why Chomsky would deliberately confuse things by using the word grammar as both a technical term for language, and to mean the general rules of syntax? In the end, I don’t see much logical or even ontological difference between the two senses of grammar anyway. Otherwise, how — according to the theory of innate universal grammar — would infants learn the grammar of a specific language without a general (i.e. universal) grammar template of some kind?”

        Whether or not there is a faculty of language in the narrow sense (FLN), there is obviously a distinction to be made between an hypothesized and very abstract linguistic template and the actual grammar of this language or that.

        “Notice how when cornered, Chomsky retreats into the general abstract concept of ‘faculty of language’. Yet it is specific empirical claims, like Chomsky’s claim of recursion, which he has always insisted is a fundamental component of every language, that are being challenged. If there is no recursion in Pirahã, then recursion can’t be universal. And if recursion isn’t universal but is a fundamental feature of universal grammar, then this in turn undermines universal grammar.”

        This is a fair argument. I agree that linguistic data has over the years (this is not a new thing) challenged some of Chomsky’s claims. My view is that languages are more varied than Chomsky wants to admit. I have made it clear all along that I am not endorsing everything Chomsky says. But the basic kind of approach he has advocated (idiolect-centered, utilizing the intuitions of native speakers, etc.) has been and still is a productive one. The nature of the human human faculty is still up for grabs, but language acquisition and other aspects of linguistic processing cannot (in my view) be explained entirely in terms of *general* cognitive processes or learning mechanisms.

        I deplore the hostility (both sides are guilty) and hype associated with the Everett affair but anything that gets people thinking about fundamental questions of human thought and language can’t be all bad.

        1. Mark English wrote: “Your quotes from Chomsky confirm what I originally said. He is talking about the language faculty, not the Pirahã language specifically”.

          Huh? You still don’t get it, do you. Chomsky is saying that BECAUSE Pirahã is a human language it therefore has recursion BECAUSE all human languages have recursion, BECAUSE his theory says they do. That’s why he keeps retreating into the vague catch-all concept of ‘language faculty” as it wards off having to address specific claims about recursion. It’s a tautological argument. I really don’t understand why you can’t see this. Unbelievable. So no, the quote from Chomsky doesn’t confirm what you said.

          “You have a very frustrating way of arguing, slipping and sliding and subtly changing the subject as you go”.

          No I’m not. You just don’t seem to understand what Chomsky is saying. I can explain it to you, I can’t understand it for you.

          “And then, in support of your (false) claims about Chomsky’s views not having previously been seriously challenged *within linguistics*, you post a link to a fawning television documentary about Everett and the Pirahã!”

          It wasn’t meant to support that particular claim. I just added it in for background in case others reading this wanted to know more. But if you actually watched it, you’d see Pinker saying that Chomsky’s ideas have been the dominant views in linguistics for a long time. This implies no serious challenges.

          “You keep using the word “prespecified” in a rhetorical and imprecise way (as well as slipping and sliding between two senses of grammar).”

          What’s imprecise about it?

          “In fact, you admit what you are doing — and then blame Chomsky for doing it first!”

          If there’s a better way of explaining Chomsky’s views without obviating his own equivocations, please let me know.

          “Whether or not there is a faculty of language in the narrow sense (FLN), there is obviously a distinction to be made between an hypothesized and very abstract linguistic template and the actual grammar of this language or that.”

          The distinction is only “obvious” to you. You’d need to explain, according to Chomskyan theory, how children pick up the grammar / syntax rules of any specific language so easily without being helped by some sort of closely related universal grammar template.

          1. Joe Smith

            I will ignore the rudeness.

            One of your original claims concerned what Chomsky said in the context of a particular exchange, what conclusion(s) he explicitly drew from the fact that the Pirahã can learn Portuguese. This is what you said:

            “Chomsky asks rhetorically whether the Pirahã can learn Portuguese (a language, like most, with recursion). The answer obviously being affirmative, Chomsky dismissively concludes that Pirahã must therefore also have recursion.”

            I replied: “The conclusion he drew (in the interview I heard) was about their innate language capacity (or faculty), not about their language.”

            JS: “No, Chomsky explicitly says the Pirahã must have recursion in their actual language, not in their language ‘capacity’ (which is an abstraction).”

            ME: “What I objected to was your claim that Chomsky argued that the fact that the Pirahã can learn Portuguese proves that the Pirahã language incorporates recursion.”

            JS: “But he does argue that… [He said:] “The speakers of Pirahã share the common human language faculty; they are fluent speakers of Portuguese. That ends the discussion.” ”

            I know what Chomsky believes about Pirahã and all human languages. My point was about what he is explicitly saying/arguing in the quote. And he did not explicitly talk here about the *Pirahã language* but rather about the innate language capacity of the Pirahã people.

            I agree, however, that the final sentence (“That ends the discussion”) is ambiguous and could be interpreted as suggesting a conclusion concerning the Pirahã language.

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