At the Birth of Language

Robert C. Berwick and Noam Chomsky
Donna Coveney
Robert C. Berwick and Noam Chomsky

Noam Chomsky’s long-standing engagement with American politics—recently described in these pages*—has tended to obscure his seminal work as a scholar. Yet for him, academe has been anything but a tranquil retreat from the hurly-burly of public life. His principal (but far from exclusive) field of linguistics was already a hotbed of controversy long before he arrived on the scene; so much so that as early as 1866 the Linguistic Society of Paris specifically banned discussion of the origin of language as being altogether too disruptive for the contemplative atmosphere of a learned association. And on assuming an assistant professorship of linguistics at MIT in 1956, Chomsky lost no time in throwing yet another cat among the pigeons.

When Chomsky entered the field of linguistics it was widely assumed that the human mind began life as a blank slate, upon which later experience was written. Accordingly, language was seen as a learned behavior, imposed from the outside upon the infants who acquire it. This was certainly the view of the renowned behavioral psychologist B.F. Skinner, and the young Chomsky gained instant notoriety by definitively trashing Skinner’s 1957 book Verbal Behavior in a review published in the journal Language in 1959. In place of Skinner’s behaviorist ideas, Chomsky substituted a core set of beliefs about language that he had already begun to articulate in his own 1957 book, Syntactic Structures.

In stark contrast to the behaviorist view, Chomsky saw human language as entirely unique, rather than as an extension of other forms of animal communication. And for all that humans were notoriously linguistically diverse, he also insisted that all languages were variants on one single basic theme. What is more, because all developmentally normal children rapidly and spontaneously acquire their first language without being specifically taught to do so (indeed, often despite parental inattention), he saw the ability to acquire language as innate, part of the specifically human biological heritage.

Delving deeper, he also viewed most basic aspects of syntax as innate, leaving only the peripheral details that vary among different languages to be learned by each developing infant. Accordingly, as Chomsky then saw it, the differences among languages are no more than differences in “externalization.” Whatever the biological element might have been that underwrote the propensity for language (and it was not necessary to know exactly what that was to recognize that it exists), the “Language Acquisition Device,” the basic human facility that allows humans and nothing else in the living world to possess language, imposed a set of constraints on language learning that provided the backbone of a hard-wired “Universal Grammar.”

Early formulations of Chomsky’s theory further saw language as consisting both of the “surface structures” represented by the spoken word and of the “deep structures” that reflect the underlying concepts formed in the…

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