Tools > Grammar

A few days ago I came across an article about language acquisition which reminded me of an interesting idea I had come across earlier.

In his 2006 book “The Bridge To Humanity,” Walter Goldschmidt points out about evolution that “the adaptations that take place are always built on what is already there.” (11)

Language is tremendously powerful today, but it is not obvious what the adaptive benefit of early proto-human languages would have been, especially given the enormous trade-offs which enabled their development. So what was the first step down the road to modern language?

On page 21 Goldschmidt writes:

Since the fundamental strategy for making a living among humans is based on the use of the mind rather than on strength, these capabilities had to have such direct, pragmatic results. That is why I believe that the emergence of the logic of making things had to take place together with the logic of language. This belief seems so self-evident that I find it unimaginable that it is seen as heretical in the 21st century.

Grammar doesn’t save you from a tiger, tools do. If I understand Goldschmidt’s model, the brain first expands a bit because more sophisticated tool use has a direct benefit. This expanded brain then enables richer language, which enables even more sophisticated tools, and so on.

A significant feature of this theory is the implication that capacities for language and tool creation are built on similar architecture: “An examination of the mental processes involved in making things and in talking displays a correspondence in the gross mental activity involved, that is, a case of identical form; of being isorphormic.” (22)

Perhaps linguists are coming around to this point of view. In a September 7th article in Scientific American Paul Ibbotson and Michael Tomasello write about the decline of Noam Chomsky’s “universal grammar” theory which posited that humans are born with an innate capacity specific to learning the grammar of human languages.

The idea that we have brains hardwired with a mental template for learning grammar—famously espoused by Noam Chomsky of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology—has dominated linguistics for almost half a century. Recently, though, cognitive scientists and linguists have abandoned Chomsky’s “universal grammar” theory in droves because of new research examining many different languages—and the way young children learn to understand and speak the tongues of their communities. That work fails to support Chomsky’s assertions.

The apparent successor which Ibbotson and Tomasello describe seems to dovetail nicely with Goldschmidt’s model of the evolution of linguistic capacity:

In the new usage-based approach (which includes ideas from functional linguistics, cognitive linguistics and construction grammar), children are not born with a universal, dedicated tool for learning grammar. Instead they inherit the mental equivalent of a Swiss Army knife: a set of general-purpose tools—such as categorization, the reading of communicative intentions, and analogy making, with which children build grammatical categories and rules from the language they hear around them.

For instance, English-speaking children understand “The cat ate the rabbit,” and by analogy they also understand “The goat tickled the fairy.”

The concept of the Swiss Army knife also explains language learning without any need to invoke two phenomena required by the universal grammar theory. One is a series of algebraic rules for combining symbols—a so-called core grammar hardwired in the brain. The second is a lexicon—a list of exceptions that cover all of the other idioms and idiosyncrasies of natural languages that must be learned. The problem with this dual-route approach is that some grammatical constructions are partially rule-based and also partially not—for example, “Him a presidential candidate?!” in which the subject “him” retains the form of a direct object but with the elements of the sentence not in the proper order. A native English speaker can generate an infinite variety of sentences using the same approach: “Her go to ballet?!” or “That guy a doctor?!” So the question becomes, are these utterances part of the core grammar or the list of exceptions? If they are not part of a core grammar, then they must be learned individually as separate items. But if children can learn these part-rule, part-exception utterances, then why can they not learn the rest of language the same way? In other words, why do they need universal grammar at all?

The obvious answer, of course, is that they don’t need universal grammar, they need spears and fire.

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