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Human evolution: Why can everyone learn Portuguese?

Noam Chomsky

Noam Chomsky/John Soares

Republishing a New Scientist article, Slate offers Graham Lawton interviewing Noam Chomsky (“Everything Was a Problem and We Did Not Understand a Thing,” Sunday, March 25, 2012) on why there really is a universal grammar, despite claims to the contrary ( we covered that here.):

Why can everyone learn Portuguese? Are some aspects of our nature unknowable? Can you imagine Richard Nixon as a radical? Is Twitter a trivializer? New Scientist takes a whistle-stop tour of our modern intellectual landscape in the company of Noam Chomsky.

Let’s start with the idea that everyone connects you with from the 1950s and ’60s—a “universal grammar” underlying all languages. How is that idea holding up in 2012?

It’s virtually a truism. There are people who misunderstand the term but I can’t deal with that. It’s perfectly obvious that there is some genetic factor that distinguishes humans from other animals and that it is language-specific. The theory of that genetic component, whatever it turns out to be, is what is called universal grammar.

But there are critics such as Daniel Everett, who says the language of the Amazonian people he worked with seems to challenge important aspects of universal grammar.

It can’t be true. These people are genetically identical to all other humans with regard to language. They can learn Portuguese perfectly easily, just as Portuguese children do. So they have the same universal grammar the rest of us have. What Everett claims is that the resources of the language do not permit the use of the principles of universal grammar.

That’s conceivable. You could imagine a language exactly like English except it doesn’t have connectives like “and” that allow you to make longer expressions. An infant learning truncated English would have no idea about this: They would just pick it up as they would standard English. At some point, the child would discover the resources are so limited you can’t say very much, but that doesn’t say anything about universal grammar, or about language acquisition. Actually, I doubt very much that a language like that could exist.

English is an interesting choice because it is actually a hybrid language that surfaced a couple of centuries after the Norman conquest in 1066. Peasants, it turned out, had just put elements of Saxon and Old French together.

Note: As late as the 18th century, the progressive passive tense was not known to many English speakers. For example, someone might have said, “the bath chair is bringing downstairs.” The speaker means “is being brought downstairs” but does not know how to phrase what she is saying in the passive voice and trusts you’ll understand what she must mean anhyway. Generations of schoolmarms have fixed that problem by teaching grammar as a compulsory subject …. and probably, in part, inventing it as they went along.

See also: Language: The Power of Babel

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One Response to Human evolution: Why can everyone learn Portuguese?

  1. Rather then imagining genetic stuff about language ability why not just believe people are very thoughtful/intelligent, like as if made in a creators image, and the mechanism for language is very easily learned by us.
    The error is seeing languages as complicated when its really our thoughts that are complicated and language is minor combinations of sounds.
    language is so simplistic children can learn a bunch of them before they are ten years old.

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