Noam Chomsky on Language’s Great Mysteries

Noam Chomsky contemplates the basic, yet still unanswerable, questions of linguistics.
  • Transcript


Question: What are the major debates in linguistics?

Noam Chomsky:  Well, as in most sciences, especially the human sciences, almost every major question is open.  So, for example, take two obvious questions.  One is, how come there are any languages at all?  The second question is, why are there apparently so many?  These are pretty elementary questions, but they're sensible questions.  Roughly, say one hundred thousand years ago, which is almost nothing in evolutionary time, the questions couldn't be raised, because there weren't any languages—maybe two hundred thousand, but roughly that area.

So it's a sensible question.  One is the question, how did languages suddenly emerge in the evolutionary record, and it's pretty sudden by an evolutionary framework, the amount of time involved.  And then, how come they proliferated?  How come there isn't just one?  Well, there's steps towards answering that.  There's progress, I think, my own view, I should say is pretty idiosyncratic, it's not widely held.  But I think we understand enough about the fundamental computational basis of language to see that—to develop kind of a plausible scenario for how there might have been a reasonably sudden emergence of the fundamental nature of language.

And also, of why the apparent diversity, is pretty superficial.  So that if, say a Martian was looking at humans the way we look at, say frogs, the Martian might conclude that there's fundamentally one language with minor deviations.  And I think we're moving towards an understanding of how that might be the case and it is pretty clear that it has to be the case.  The time of development is much too shallow for fundamental changes to have taken place and we know of no fundamental changes.

So a child from a hunter-gatherer tribe, a Stone Age tribe, in, say the Amazon, brought to Cambridge and raised here, will go on and be a quantum physicist at MIT.  There's no known differences in relevant cognitive capacities.  So there's something fundamentally the same about all of us, and it's whatever emerged pretty recently and we have to work out the—to show that the enormous apparent variety, is a kind of superficial variation and also to explain how it might have suddenly appeared in the evolutionary record.

Recorded on: Aug 18, 2009