Post by Peter T. Daniels
(The copyright date is 2016 but I haven't seen it or a notice of it before)
"[T]he Basic Property: each language provides an unbounded array of hierarchically structured
expressions that receive interpretations at two interfaces, sensorimotor for externalization and
conceptual-intentional for mental processes. ,,, [invoking Darwin and Aristotle]
"At the very least, THEN, each language incorporates a computational procedure satisfying the Basic Property."
--Noam Chomsky, *What Kind of Creatures Are We?* Columbia UP, 2016
("Language," of course, refers only to "I-language"; he isn't interested in what is actually said,
but only in UG, or Universal Grammar.)
The small book, or extended essay, will then go on in four chapters to integrate his views
into an overarching view of human nature (I assume). The first pages are a curious melange of
passives and gnomic statements, with as usual no acknowledgment that some of his assertions have
been controversial -- at least this time he cites an evolutionary anthropologist, Ian Tattersall,
to support the very late date for the development of language but seems still to insist on a "language
organ" in the brain that no neuroscientist has ever found a trace of.
But what gets me is the "then" in the quotation above. Is that not a complete begging of the question?
You say it, no 'language organ' has been found in the brain. The forming of
sentences in speaking and writing is now understood as "recursive sequencing"
that may be compared to the way we move an arm: a first muscle makes a
beginning, a second muscles adds a correction, a third one a further
contribution, and so on. We have then a similar situation as in vision.
Eyes are not just cameras. Our vision is being constructed by at least
thirty areas of the brain that work together in a wonderfully economical
way - for example we see only a tiny spot of our vision field clearly,
not larger than the moon or sun in the sky, everything else unclearly,
blurred, and yet we have the impression that we see a clear and brillant
picture of the entire space or landscape we have before our eyes (Leonardo
da Vinci knew that, he understood the roles of attention and knowledge
and emotion in perception which he encoded in his Mona Lisa painting,
an allegory of seeing). Speaking is equally complex as vision. Single
grammars fail. Each one might grasp an aspect of language, but none can
cover everything. We should develop each grammar in its own right, and
then study how they co-operate in the process of "recursive sequencing."
Chomsky ruled for too long a time, blocking other views on language.