Weekly Worker, 12 February 2015 **** Front Page

The Origin of Language

By Hannu Reime

In the lead story of Weekly Worker 1044 (Feb. 5, 2015), Chris Knight gives a completely distorted picture of what is Noam Chomsky's view on the origin of human language. Knight claims that Chomsky is “arguing that humans are so utterly different from apes or monkeys that the question of evolution is irrelevant.”

This is utter non-sense. Evolution is, of course, very relevant, and Chomsky has never denied it. Humans and apes or monkeys and, in fact, all the species of “higher” vertebrates are very similar. Taking a more abstract viewpoint of theoretical biology, the same is true of all the living organisms: the existing forms of life have developed from earlier ones. This is evolution, an observational and, after the discovery of the genetic code, also an undisputable descriptive fact of nature.

The fact that humans have a specific capacity, faculty of language, does not make us “utterly different” anymore than the capacity for echolocation in some species of bats separates them from the rest of nature. The sophisticated ability of migratory birds to navigate, the behavior of social insects, and all the specific properties of the various species of living creatures have all evolved, ultimately from unicellular organisms. The tough question is how.

Chris Knight refers to the published version of a lecture in Delhi (January 1996), where Chomsky writes about a “strange cosmic ray shower [… which…] reorganized the brain, implanting a language organ in an otherwise primate brain.” This is not science, Knight writes, but a slightly disguised biblical miracle account of human origins

Knight fails, however, to mention that Chomsky calls his “cosmic ray account” a fairy tale. The whole point of the passage is ironical: because of the lack of evidence, all accounts on the origin of human language are just stories. But a relatively sudden emergence of language as a result of a genetic mutation in one of our ancestors some 75 000 to 100 000 years ago might be more plausible than a slow evolution during hundreds of thousands or millions of years.

The same time frame of somewhat less than 100 000 years ago is also the period when the first archeological evidence of a symbolic behavior, art etc. on the part of our ancestors appeared, starting what paleoanthropologists call a creative explosion. About 50 000 years later, the hunter-gatherers of Cro Magnon people were surely like us, anatomically and behaviorally modern humans. It is reasonable to suppose that this “creative explosion” had something to do with the emergence of the faculty of language in humans.

As for the characterization of language as an organ, this is innocuous as long as the term ‘organ' is taken to mean a system that can be studied in a relative isolation from the rest of an organic whole. So the respiratory, circulatory and digestive systems together can be said to form the organ of metabolism.

Chomsky has always criticized the very common view of human language as an organ of communication, stressing that language is first and foremost an organ of thought. Language can be used for communication but it can also be used for many other purposes. Basically, language permits “the free expression of thought over an unbounded range.” (For this quotation by Chomsky, see C.P. Otero (ed.), Language and Politics, p. 251. AK Press. 2004.)

Some scholars go even further and say that linguistic expressions are, in fact, identical with thoughts: there is no thought without language. Thoughts are simply silent linguistic expressions, and the difference between the two is no more than the difference between speech bubbles of various shapes in a comic strip. Note, for example, that the notion of ‘truth' would be impossible without language. (For this view, see the very interesting book by Wolfram Hinzen & Michelle Sheehan, The Philosophy of Universal Grammar. Oxford. 2013.)

Note also that the human language faculty also consists of sub-systems which in themselves are not devoted to language, and which we share with other animals. One of them is memory, the other a capacity to categorize the outside world. Then there are the perceptual and motor systems, which are used to externalize linguistic expressions: hearing and speech as the most common of them, sight and signing for deaf people, and even touch for deaf-blind as, for ex., the fate of Helen Keller shows. One of the major tasks of linguistic inquiry is to sort out which component parts in the human faculty of language are specifically devoted to language, and which of them are shared with other physiological functions.

Chris Knight's story on the origin of human language is sympathetic but it is just that, a story with no scientific basis. The greatest problem with tales like that is that they don't analyze the structure of human language at all. Such an analysis requires hard scientific work. But without such an analysis, it is impossible to present any even slightly reasonable account on how nature gave us the wonderful ability to organize our thoughts and make them understandable to our fellow humans.


The archive: Hannu Reime, Languages, Noam Chomsky


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