Noam Chomsky on Language’s Great Mysteries
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
Noam Chomsky contemplates the basic, yet still unanswerable, questions of linguistics.
Swipe right to make the connections that could change your career.
Swipe right. Match. Meet over coffee or set up a call.
No, we aren't talking about Tinder. Introducing Shapr, a free app that helps people with synergistic professional goals and skill sets easily meet and collaborate.
Cosmologists propose a groundbreaking model of the universe using string theory.
- A new paper uses string theory to propose a new model of the universe.
- The researchers think our universe may be riding a bubble expanded by dark energy.
- All matter in the universe may exist in strings that reach into another dimension.
Evolution doesn't clean up after itself very well.
- An evolutionary biologist got people swapping ideas about our lingering vestigia.
- Basically, this is the stuff that served some evolutionary purpose at some point, but now is kind of, well, extra.
- Here are the six traits that inaugurated the fun.
Even some teachers suffer from anxiety about math.
I teach people how to teach math, and I've been working in this field for 30 years. Across those decades, I've met many people who suffer from varying degrees of math trauma – a form of debilitating mental shutdown when it comes to doing mathematics.
SMARTER FASTER trademarks owned by The Big Think, Inc. All rights reserved.