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Well-known Linguist and Social Critic Noam Chomsky Lectures

For The Heights

Published: Sunday, November 13, 2011

Updated: Wednesday, January 9, 2013 19:01

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Sang Lee / Heights Staff


On Friday night, the well-known linguist, philosopher, and social critic Noam Chomsky came to speak to a packed crowd in Devlin Hall.

Noam Chomsky attended the University of Pennsylvania, where he earned his degree in linguistics, and is currently a professor at Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Because of his extensive studies in the area, he is considered the father of modern linguistics and is known for his belief that all humans possess an innate capacity for language.

Chomsky began his speech by expressing that the brain is a modular center with many different subcomponents that have their own particular properties. One controversial presupposition, he said, is that language is sometimes regarded as a system separate from cognitive processes—it's an accidental connection of other systems. He emphasized that language is an independent subject, which on the surface seems simple but is actually a complex and difficult concept to study.

Only until after the 17th century did scientists contemplate very simple things, like the mystery behind free-falling objects. The beginning of modern science eventually spurred an interest in language. The approach towards the cognitive sciences that deal with higher mental processes, such as language, must be different than the approaches towards biology, physics, or chemistry. The approaches towards language are procedural: "You take data and organize it," Chomsky said.

Language, he said, is composed of internal and external systems. "When you study a language, you study the external parts of it: sound, arbitrary word meanings, you learn irregular verbs, and the order of the verbs," Chomsky said. However, the internal system is harder to study because it is non-computational.

Chomsky continued by noting the lack of evidence for the evolution of language. "There has been no evidence for its existence until 100,000 years ago … the evolutionary record and archeological evidence of language indicates that it is very modern."

There are two different views of the evolution of this higher cognitive function. Gradualists believe that language evolved gradually over time, while saltationists believe that it happened suddenly. Chomsky stated that this gradual theory does not make sense. Upon the discovery of cells and genes, scientists saw that small changes in gene expression can completely change what an organism will be like. Therefore, Chomsky pointed out that around 75,000 years ago in a narrow window of time, there was a great leap forward—a sudden explosion of a complex social structure. "In some small group, in a hunter-gatherer group, some individual had a slight mutation which led to a small rewiring of the brain, which provided for a generative procedure," Chomsky said. This mutation may have yielded some selectional advantage that transferred to offspring.

"From what we do know about the evolution of language suggests that all humans have the same capacity for language," Chomsky said.

A newborn infant from New Guinea, if brought to Boston without having much contact with other humans, has the same cognitive capacities to learn the local language.

"If you consider a newborn infant, the infant is full of buzzing confusion and somehow establishes this complex collection of memories out of this unorganized environment … and continues to learn pretty much reflexively," Chomsky said. On the other hand, "Animals can't pick out the environment language-related data, but humans can pick out distinctive sound features that play a role in language."

One critical property of language is that each language consists of some regenerative process, which constructs an infinite array of expressions, in two systems – motor and thought. For this reason, language is infinite and there are many different expressions to communicate the same meaning.

"How are words related to the external world?" Chomsky said. "When a child first sees an object, such as a cow, he or she learns the word because it sees an ‘it' and makes an association with the word ‘cow.'"

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