Why can everyone learn Portuguese? Are some aspects of our nature unknowable? Can you imagine Richard Nixon as a radical? Is Twitter a trivializer? New Scientist takes a whistle-stop tour of our modern intellectual landscape in the company of Noam Chomsky.
Let’s start with the idea that everyone connects you with from the 1950s and ’60s—a “universal grammar” underlying all languages. How is that idea holding up in 2012?
It’s virtually a truism. There are people who misunderstand the term but I can’t deal with that. It’s perfectly obvious that there is some genetic factor that distinguishes humans from other animals and that it is language-specific. The theory of that genetic component, whatever it turns out to be, is what is called universal grammar.
But there are critics such as Daniel Everett, who says the language of the Amazonian people he worked with seems to challenge important aspects of universal grammar.
It can’t be true. These people are genetically identical to all other humans with regard to language. They can learn Portuguese perfectly easily, just as Portuguese children do. So they have the same universal grammar the rest of us have. What Everett claims is that the resources of the language do not permit the use of the principles of universal grammar.
That’s conceivable. You could imagine a language exactly like English except it doesn’t have connectives like “and” that allow you to make longer expressions. An infant learning truncated English would have no idea about this: They would just pick it up as they would standard English. At some point, the child would discover the resources are so limited you can’t say very much, but that doesn’t say anything about universal grammar, or about language acquisition. Actually, I doubt very much that a language like that could exist.
Excerpt of the interview with Graham Lawton for SLATE. Continue HERE
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