Noam Chomsky – Language and the Rest of the World – lecture transcript part one


I ended yesterday by describing the principle and parameter approach, which gave the first serious conception of how the tension between descriptive and explanatory adequacy might be resolved. In this sense its fair I think, to regard it as the first genuin proposal as to what a theory of language might be. Weather this step turned out to have been right or wrong it offered a liberating perspective which led to an explosion of highly productive inquirey and it opened new problems to investigation. It also revitalized the study of language aquisition along new lines and other language related areas of the cognitive sciences. To the extend that outstanding problems can be solved, we will have a conception of the initial conditions that map experience to the state thats attained by the faculty of language. That is the internal language, the i-language that determines the infinite array of sound-meaning combinations that the speaker of a language has available for use = The potential expression of a language. These initial conditions conclude but are not exhausted by the genetically determined state of the language organ. In addition, there is the third factor; general principles that are not coded in the initial state. Just as properties of protein folding are not coded in the gnome but are available to be exploited in the growth of the organism. There is some reason to believe that understanding of language has at last reached the level that make it feasible to address these questions. That is to pursue the Galilean intuition that nature is somehow perfect and in this case not only ask what the properties of language are, but why language has these properties and not others. That inquiry in recent years had been called the Minimalist program. Notice that the program is theory independent. Whatever you think is the right theory of language you may or may not decide to pursue this question. The initial state can be desegregated into elements that have a princibled explanations and others that remain unexplained at this level of analysis. They have to be attributed to something independend – perhaps evolutionary accident. Or properties of the brain that remain unknown and would have to be investigated along similar line.

The principled elements of the initial state are the conditions that are imposed on the faculty of language by the systems with which it interacts. These are interface conditions. If language is to be usable at all, its design must satisfy these conditions. That is the information that is in the internal expression that are generated by the language have to be accessable to other internal systems. That includes language external but person internal systems. Including sensory motor systems and conceptual systems that enter into thought and action.

We can therefor restate the deeper problem of determining why language has the peculiar properties that it does, insofar as the properties of an I-language can be accounted for in terms of interface conditions and general princibles of computational efficiency and the like. They have a princible explanation. And we have to verify the Galilean intuition of perfection of nature in this domain.

Well one proceeds this far you face a challenging task. The task is to examine every device, principle, idea, technique that is employed in characterizing languages and try to determin to what extend it can be eliminated in favour of a principled account in terms of general conditions of computational efficiencies and the interface conditions that the organ must satisfy to function at all. Thats been a focus of a good deal of work in the recent years. There are rather plausable accounts. In these terms, some basic processes of the computational system of language, systems that previously had been stipulated as descriptive technology but can now be reduced to princibles of computational efficiency. And also more complex properties of individual languages have to an interesting extend derived from close examination of the way principled mechanisms function.

Furthermore what appeared to be radical differences among languages have in a number of interesting cases been reduced to something close to the optimal conclusion. That would mean that the internal computational processes are identical, the phenomenal differences result not from how the mind computes but rather how the internal objects constructs are related to external events by sensory motor systems. The interesting cases involve, category of properties, features with no independend meaning that have not been realy noticed before. Differences in how the apparent diversity of languages seem to be traceable to very significant effect to slight differences in the way these uninterpretable features are externalized, or used by the sensory motor system. It is as if the mind computes in a fixed way but with varying effects of the mouth and the ear.

The general observation was a very natural consequence of the principle and parameters approach. It was recognized from the moment that it came to be formulated with at least some clearity. I discussed it near her, in 1979 at the Kant lectures in Standford. I refered to classic work on regulatory mechanisms by Jakob and Manow – two nobel laureate. Quoting their observations about how slight changes in regulatory mechanisms utilizing differently the same structural information might yield enourmous phenomenal differences. Differences between a butterfly and a lion or a worm and a whale. Basically identical organisms but with minor changes in how regulatory mechanisms function. Similarly slight changes in parameters left open in the fixed scematism of language migh lead to what appear to be very different systems.

Apology is here for quoting myself in 1979. It was actually in the years that followed that such ideas really did begin to bear fruit in the study of language. Similar in the biological sciences. There have been quiet dramatic progress along similar lines. Such conclusions would have greatly pleased Alan Turing I think. He is known to Philosophers, linguists, mechisms, computer scientists mainly for his work in other areas. But some of his best known work was on Morphogenesis and the effects of chemical and physical law and the possible course of evolution. These are matters on which he took a rather strong stand and have become a central topic in contemporary biology.

One fundamental problem that remains is why there is parametric variation at all in the computational system. Why isn’t there just one language? There are some possible answers that have been suggested but the general problem is still mysterious. It is a problem which eludes our grasp that you can think of possible answers. One might also hope to approach the question of evolution of language in these terms. It is rather curious to compare the enormous number of pages devoted to the evolution of human language with work on evolution of much simpler systems. Lets say bee communication. A couple of years ago I asked a biologist friend to do a database search on that topic and he could come up with very little. Appearently the subject is considered to difficult to pursue. Although bees are just wonderful subject. They only have 800.000 neurons, a brain the size of a grass seed, many different species that yield rich comparative data, very brief gestation period, life span, no need to obtain consent form for experiments and so on. Every conceivable advantage, but nevertheless the problem is considered far to hard to study.

The question of how the human language faculty might have evolved is vastly more obscure and hard to study. One can imagine various scenarios, a number have been proposed, some are maybe suggestive. But some leading evolutionary biologist, Richard Lewontin is the most prominent, have argued strongly that the problem is entirely beyond reach in terms of anything remotly like present to understanding. And he extends that to evolution of mental faculties generaly.

If we want to pose the problem of evolution of language we have to begin with the recognition shared by everyone that the faculty of language is not a distinct entity. Its not a box in the human brain with a single location or a single function whatever that term is supposed to imply. The faculty of language surely recruits processes, capacities, physiological mechanism that have evolved quiet independently. And it could turn out in princible that ther is nothing in the faculty of language thats specific to language. That the faculty is just a specific form of organisation of elements that are recruited to constitute this organ of the body. To borrow Randy Galisons’ term.

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