The Origin of Language
Two of the great mysteries of human development are
(I) How did spoken language originate?The first of these two questions is rarely discussed by contemporary linguists for the simple reason that we don't have a clue how language came into being. We know from an evolutionary standpoint that the difference between primate and human vocal apparati was critical to language development but as was noted by Carl Zimmer, who is quoted at a religious "Origin of Language" site as saying in his book Evolution:
(II) How do children learn language so quickly?
No one knows the exact chronology of this evolution, because language leaves precious few traces on the human skeleton. The voice box is a flimsy piece of cartilage that rots away. It is suspended from a slender C-shaped bone called a hyoid, but the ravages of time usually destroy the hyoid too.Typically, when scientists don't have an answer to a question they keep their yaps shut. And we do that with one exception and that consists of comparing such things as the human "voice box" Zimmer refers to and the primate vocal apparati and comparing parts of the human brain known to be involved in language processing with corresponding parts of primate brains. That is, we can hope to say what it was that evolved that allowed languages to come into being, but we cannot say how and when it did so.
So, what linguists do is focus on the second question. It is a great mystery how it is that children learn language in a relatively brief period -- from something like the age of 2 to the age of 12 or so -- and they do this without being taught. Parents and others provide models and parents and others also provide corrections though frequently the latter are totally lost on young children for they are seen not as corrections of linguistic form, a notion that is quite abstract, but as a denial of the truth of what they say. Some very good advice is given at a Kid Source site where it is said:
How can I help a child pronounce words correctly?The keys are confirming the truth of what they child has said while providing a correct model. And what is said about pronunciation holds for corrections of grammar. We had a picture of a pig in our linguistic offices for years which said, "Teaching a pig to speak annoys the pig and wastes your time." The same is sometimes true of correcting a young child's speech.
* By setting a good example. Don't interrupt or constantly correct the child. Don't let anyone tease or mock (including friends or relatives). Instead, present a good model. Use the misarticulated word correctly with emphasis. If the child says, "That's a big wabbit," you say "Yes, that is a big rabbit. A big white rabbit. Would you like to have a rabbit?"
One of the truly unfortunately developments in linguistics in my opinion has been Chomsky's focus on what he has sometimes called "the language organ." In an Q and A with a BBC interviewer in 1996, Chomsky says, speaking of the problem linguists face:
So, the main goal was: find the actual rules of language. Then the next goal would be: explain how they got there. Well, to explain how they got there you have to go back and ask: what's the initial state of the language faculty? What's its initial design, presumably common to the species, because we're not adapted to learn one language or another? So, what is the initial design of the common language faculty that enables it to take these highly intricate, closely articulated, delicately structured forms very rapidly on the basis of minimal interaction with the environment? It's a typical problem of growth -- you know, of growth of organs -- in this case the growth of the language organ.I shudder every time I think of Chomsky's "language organ."
As I said in my last blog, when I showed up at M.I.T. I was disposed not to take very seriously Chomsky's talk about our innate language faculty. Why did/do I feel this way?
In my opinion, the approach of Chomsky to the second question asked at the beginning of this blog about how children learn language is little different from the sort of answer that Christian and Jewish religious fundamentalists give to the first question I asked above. At the religious Origin of Language site I cited earlier one reads:
When God created the first human beings—Adam and Eve—He created them in His own image (Genesis 1:26-27). This likeness unquestionably included the ability to engage in intelligible speech via human language. In fact, God spoke to them from the very beginning of their existence as humans (Genesis 1:28-30). Hence, they possessed the ability to understand verbal communication—and to speak themselves!
God gave very specific instructions to the man before the woman was even created (Genesis 2:15-17). Adam gave names to the animals before the creation of Eve (Genesis 2:19-20). Since both the man and the woman were created on the sixth day, the creation of the man preceded the creation of the woman by only hours. So, Adam had the ability to speak on the very day that he was brought into existence!
Notice how easy it is for the people responsible for the Origin of Language site to answer this amazingly difficult question. All they have to do is quote the Bible.
If science were this easy, anyone who can read could do it. It is hard to figure out what the human vocal and auditory apparati consist of and how they might have evolved and how the brain evolved to provide the capacity for humans to learn the languages we speak today, as well as learn how to use them. When God created Adam he is said to have been given the capacity to speak instantly. That is, he was not only provided with what Chomsky calls "the language organ," he was given a specific, full blown language, with its sounds, its morphemes, its words, and the grammatical rules that allowed Adam to speak to Eve (also outfitted with this stuff) the moment she was created. This is a point of view that is staggeringly simplistic.
Notice Well: I am not making fun of religion. There are numerous religious points of view that do not involve providing simplistic answers to difficult questions. I learned years ago that I am not an atheist per se. I was raised as a Southern Baptist and it is those teachings I reject. That makes me a fundamentalist atheist I suppose. As for other religious points of view and there are very many including religious views of very smart, sophisticated people I have nothing to say. They don't interest me. As I suggested, when a scientist knows he can't answer a question, his best option is to stay silent.