Over the years I find that I have slowly become a bit of an armchair amateur linguist, in that I have studied a couple languages in my day, and have dealt with some computer languages. One of the less apparent results of these little adventures is that I actually came to a place where I found grammar to be very interesting. This, in turn, led me deeper into the forest of modern linguistics.
This led me to Noam Chomsky, who is easily the most influential linguist in the last 65 years. His central ideas revolved around there being some sort of hardwired structure in the human mind which allowed for the development of language.
I am not very interested in writing up some sort of a synopsis of his contributions to the study of linguistics (or any of the other areas where he has made a name for himself) but rather to suggest that he may be on the cusp of becoming a 21st century analog to the quite similar legacy which Sigmund Freud left…
Freud has been almost totally debunked, but because he was so influential in the sciences, and even in the popular mind, many of his ideas are still current…that is, if you believe them, there is a sort of value and ‘truth’ to them. There are similar arguments about other completely debunked ideas and philosophies (astrology works on a psychological level, if you believe it, and there are still so many ways in which it is reinforced in our society).
On the other hand, I suspect that when all of these new presentations about mathematical analysis of language settle out…it may be that Chomsky will be relegated to a position comparable to Isaac Newton, in that he was right within the bounds of what he understood, and that his work will still be seen as a monumental work of human creativity (as with Newton…).
Evolutionary analysis shows languages obey few ordering rules
Human languages are far more complex than any animal communication system we’re aware of, and yet young children can easily learn to master more than one language in an astonishingly short period of time. This has led a number of linguists, most notably Noam Chomsky, to suggest that there might be language universals, common features of all languages that the human brain is attuned to, making learning easier; others have looked for statistical correlations between languages. Now, a team of cognitive scientists has teamed up with an evolutionary biologist to perform a phylogenetic analysis of language families, and the results suggest that when it comes to the way languages order key sentence components, there are no rules.
Evolution of Language Takes Unexpected Turn
One school of thought, pioneered by linguist Noam Chomsky, holds that language is a product of dedicated mechanisms in the human brain. These can be imagined as a series of switches, each corresponding to particular forms of grammar and syntax and structure.
Such a system would account for why, of the nearly infinite number of languages that are possible — imagine, for instance, a language in which verb conjugation changes randomly; it is possible — relatively few actually exist. Our brains have adapted to contain a limited, universal set of switches.
A limited set of linguistic universals is exactly what was described by the late, great comparative linguist Joseph Greenberg, who empirically tabulated features common to language. He made no claims as to neurological origin, but the essential claim overlapped with Chomsky’s: Language has universals.
If you speak a subject-verb-object language, one in which “I kick the ball,” then you likely use prepositions — “over the fence.” If you speak a subject-object-verb language, one in which “I the ball kicked,” then you almost certainly use postpositions — “the fence over.” And so on.
Language universality idea tested with biology method
A study reported in Nature has borrowed methods from evolutionary biology to trace the development of grammar in several language families.
The results suggest that features shared across language families evolved independently in each lineage.
The authors say cultural evolution, not the brain, drives language development. At the heart of both studies is a method based on what are known as phylogenetic studies.
Lead author Michael Dunn, an evolutionary linguist at the Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics in the Netherlands, said the approach is akin to the study of pea plants by Gregor Mendel, which ultimately led to the idea of heritability of traits.
The Chomsky School of Language