Noam Chomsky – The biolinguistic turn lecture notes – part nine


The long term goal of investigating the third sector – that is the role of general properties of organisms in determining the faculty of language and the states it can attain (internal languages) – was actually formulated in the early days of the biolinguistic term but put aside as unfeasible. Attention focused on the first two factors, experience and the initial state in technical terminology = the problems of descriptive and explanetory adequacy.

The latter is how the initial state enters into determining the transition to the final state – the state attained. The earliest attempts, 50 years ago, where to replace traditional or structualist accounts of language by generative rule systems revealed very quickly that very little was known about the sound, meaning and structure of language and that huge problems had been unwittingly swept under the rug. Rather as in the days when it was assumed that bodies fall to their natural place, as has often been the case, one of hardest steps in development of the scientist is the first one. Namely to be puzzled by what seems so natural and obvious and to gain some realistic sense of what had been overlooked was an enourmous taks in itself.

Even more so in the light of the recognition that the apparent complexity and diversity of languages that was very soon discovered just had to be an illusion. The reason for that conclusion is a standard one in biology. Namely as in the case of other organs of the body, experience can play only a very limited role in determing the state thats attained. In this case the attained I – language even a young child has mastered a rich and highly articulary system of sound and meaning and structural properties that goes far beyond any evidence available and its shared with others who have different but also highly restricted experience. So it has to be the case that the initial state plays an overwhelming role in determining the language that the child attains in all of its aspects. Experience surly has a role in triggering and shaping role as in the case of other organs. But it has to be limited one.

So there is no reason to suppose that language and other higher mental faculties depart radically known in the biological world. The task was to show the apparent richness and complexity and diversity is in fact an illusion. That all languages are cast to the same mold and that experience serves only to set options within a fixed system of princibles all determend by the initial state. Which is the case of other biological systems.

Well. Great deal of research of the past 40 years in this areas has been driven by a kind of tension between descriptive and explanatory adequacy. That is the tension between the search for true theories of i-languages, the attained state on one hand, and the true theorie of the invariant initial state of the language organ on the other. The invariant initial state is the topic of whats come to be called “universal grammar”. It is adapting an traditional notion to a quiet a new context. The search for descriptive adequacy, like a true theory of Hungarian, that leads to complex intricate of particular construction and particular languages different from one another. In contrast the search for explanatory adequacy seeks to find the common ground from which the existing languages arise given the data that are structured as experience by the operations of the initial states. Again in some unknown manner.

The first proposals from the 1950s suggested that the initial state – the topic of universal gramma – provides a kind of a format for rule systems and organisations and a proceedure for selecting one instantiation of the format over another in terms of its succsess in capturing authentic linguistic generalizations and empirical notion that incorporates also a kind of a theory internal version of standard best theory considerations. The rules themselves, at the beginning, where adaptations of informal traditional notions which had proven to be utterly inadequate when they where subjected to close examination. So that meant, rules for forming relative clauses in Hungarian, or passives in japanese, or causatives in the romans languages.

The general approach did offer a kind of solution to the core problem of the study of language. Sometimes called in the literature the logical problem of language acquisition. That is how does the initial state map constructive experience to the final state. But as was emphasized, that solution holds only in princible. Because in practice the conception was unfeasible because of the astronomical compuational demands. Well, from about 40 years ago attempts where made to reduce the scale of the problem by seeking valid general prinicbles that can be abstracted from particular grammas and attributed to universal gramma, meaning to the initial state of the language faculty. Leaving a residue that might be more manageable.

Actually some of those proposals where kind of proposals that where then beeing explored and I reviewed in lectures here 35 years ago. After that time the considerable process took off but it still left the tension unresolved. That is the general picture was somehow fundamentally defective. There was no true solution, no feasible solution to the logical problem of language acquisition. A possible resolution of that tension was reached after a good deal of effort about 20 years ago with the crystallization of a picture of language. It marked a very sharp break from a long and rich tradition, tracing back to classical india and greece. Sometimes called the Prinicbles and Parameters approach that dispenses entirely with the core notions of traditional gramma, notions like gramatical construction, or grammatical rule. From this point of view, categories such as a relative clause or passive construction are understood to be real enough but only as taxonomic artifact. So, f.e aquatic organisms – which would include say dolphins, trouts, eels, and some bacteria. Its a category but not a biological category.

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