Book Review — The Kingdom of Speech — Part III

The last half of Wolfe’s book is concerned with Chomsky and Linguistics. Neurologists still think they have something to say about how the brain produces language, something roundly ignored by the professional linguistics field. Almost at the beginning of the specialty, various types of loss of speech (aphasias) were catalogued and correlated with where in the brain the problem was. Some people could understand but not speak (motor aphasia). Most turned out to have lesions in the left frontal lobe. Others could speak but not understand what was said to them (receptive aphasia). They usually had lesions in the left temporal lobe (e.g. just behind the ear amazingly enough).

Back in the day this approach was justifiably criticized as follows — yes you can turn off a lightbulb by flicking a switch, but the switch isn’t producing the light, but is just something necessary for its production. Nowadays not so much, because we see these areas lighting up with increased blood  flow (by functional MRI) when speech is produced or listened to.

I first met Chomsky’s ideas, not about linguistics, but when I was trying to understand how a compiler of a high level computer language worked. This was so long ago that Basic and Pascal were considered high level languages. Compilers worked with formal rules, and Chomsky categorized them into a hierarchy which you can read about here — https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chomsky_hierarchy

The book describes the rise of Chomsky as the enfant terrible, the adult terrible, then the eminence grise of linguistics. Wolfe has great fun skewering him, particularly for his left wing posturing (something he did at length in “Radical Chic”). I think most of the description is accurate, but if you have the time and the interest, there’s a much better book — “The Linguistics Wars” by Randy Allen Harris — although it’s old (1993), Chomsky and linguistics had enough history even then that the book contains 356 pages (including index).

Chomsky actually did use the term language organ meaning a facility of the human brain responsible for our production of language of speech. Neuroscience never uses such a term, and Chomsky never tried to localize it in the brain, but work on the aphasias made this at least plausible. If you’ve never heard of ‘universal grammar, language acquisition device, deep structure of language, the book is a reasonably accurate (and very snarky) introduction.

As the years passed, for everything that Chomsky claimed was a universal of all languages, a language was found that didn’t have it. The last universal left standing was recursion (e.g. the ability the pack phrase within phrase — the example given “He assumed that now that her bulbs had burned out, he could shine and achieve the celebrity he had always longed for” — thought within thought within thought.

Then a missionary turned linguist (Daniel Everett) found a tribe in the Amazon (the Piraha) with a language which not only lacked recursion, but tenses as well. It makes fascinating reading, including the linguist W. Tecumseh Fitch (yes Tecumseh) who travelled up the Amazon to prove that they did have recursion (especially as he had collaborated with Chomsky and the (now disgraced) Marc Hauser on an article in 2002 saying that recursion was the true essence of human language — how’s this horrible sentence for recursion ?

The book ends with a discussion of the quote Wolfe began the book with — “Understanding the evolution of language requires evidence regarding origins and processes that led to change. In the last 40 years, there has been an explosion of research on this problem as well as a sense that considerable progress has been made. We argue instead that the richness of ideas is accompanied by a poverty of evidence, with essentially no explanation of how and why our linguistic computations and representations evolved. We show that, to date, (1) studies of nonhuman animals provide virtually no relevant parallels to human linguistic communication, and none to the underlying biological capacity; (2) the fossil and archaeological evidence does not inform our understanding of the computations and representations of our earliest ancestors, leaving details of origins and selective pressure unresolved; (3) our understanding of the genetics of language is so impoverished that there is little hope of connecting genes to linguistic processes any time soon; (4) all modeling attempts have made unfounded assumptions, and have provided no empirical tests, thus leaving any insights into language’s origins unverifiable. Based on the current state of evidence, we submit that the most fundamental questions about the origins and evolution of our linguistic capacity remain as mysterious as ever, with considerable uncertainty about the discovery of either relevant or conclusive evidence that can adjudicate among the many open hypotheses. We conclude by presenting some suggestions about possible paths forward.”

One of the authors is Chomsky himself.

You can read the whole article at http://journal.frontiersin.org/article/10.3389/fpsyg.2014.00401/full

I think, that Wolfe is right — language is just a tool (like the wheel or the axe) which humans developed to help them. That our brain size is at least 3 times the size of our nearest evolutionary cousin (the Chimpanzee) probably had something to do with it. If language is a tool, then, like the axe, it didn’t have to evolve from anything.

All in all a fascinating and enjoyable book. There’s much more in it than I’ve had time to cover.  The prose will pick you up and carry you along.

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