Noam Chomsky on Language’s Great Mysteries
Noam Avram Chomsky was born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania on December 7, 1928. He attended the University of Pennsylvania where he studied linguistics, mathematics, and philosophy. In 1955, he received his Ph. D. from the University of Pennsylvania, however, most of the research leading to this degree was done at Harvard between 1951 and 1955. Since receiving his Ph. D., Chomsky has taught at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where he now holds the Ferrari P. Ward Chair of Modern Language and Linguistics.
Among his many accomplishments, he is most famous for his work on generative grammar, which developed from his interest in modern logic and mathematical foundations. As a result, he applied it to the description of natural languages.
His political tendencies toward socialism and anarchism are a result of what he calls "the radical Jewish community in New York." Since 1965 he has become one of the leading critics of U.S. foreign policy. He published a book of essays called American Power and the New Mandarins which is considered to be one of the most substantial arguments ever against American involvement in Vietnam.
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.
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Can dirt help us fight off stress? Groundbreaking new research shows how.
- New research identifies a bacterium that helps block anxiety.
- Scientists say this can lead to drugs for first responders and soldiers, preventing PTSD and other mental issues.
- The finding builds on the hygiene hypothesis, first proposed in 1989.
Are modern societies trying too hard to be clean, at the detriment to public health? Scientists discovered that a microorganism living in dirt can actually be good for us, potentially helping the body to fight off stress. Harnessing its powers can lead to a "stress vaccine".
Researchers at the University of Colorado Boulder found that the fatty 10(Z)-hexadecenoic acid from the soil-residing bacterium Mycobacterium vaccae aids immune cells in blocking pathways that increase inflammation and the ability to combat stress.
The study's senior author and Integrative Physiology Professor Christopher Lowry described this fat as "one of the main ingredients" in the "special sauce" that causes the beneficial effects of the bacterium.
The finding goes hand in hand with the "hygiene hypothesis," initially proposed in 1989 by the British scientist David Strachan. He maintained that our generally sterile modern world prevents children from being exposed to certain microorganisms, resulting in compromised immune systems and greater incidences of asthma and allergies.
Contemporary research fine-tuned the hypothesis, finding that not interacting with so-called "old friends" or helpful microbes in the soil and the environment, rather than the ones that cause illnesses, is what's detrimental. In particular, our mental health could be at stake.
"The idea is that as humans have moved away from farms and an agricultural or hunter-gatherer existence into cities, we have lost contact with organisms that served to regulate our immune system and suppress inappropriate inflammation," explained Lowry. "That has put us at higher risk for inflammatory disease and stress-related psychiatric disorders."
University of Colorado Boulder
This is not the first study on the subject from Lowry, who published previous work showing the connection between being exposed to healthy bacteria and mental health. He found that being raised with animals and dust in a rural environment helps children develop more stress-proof immune systems. Such kids were also likely to be less at risk for mental illnesses than people living in the city without pets.
Lowry's other work also pointed out that the soil-based bacterium Mycobacterium vaccae acts like an antidepressant when injected into rodents. It alters their behavior and has lasting anti-inflammatory effects on the brain, according to the press release from the University of Colorado Boulder. Prolonged inflammation can lead to such stress-related disorders as PTSD.
The new study from Lowry and his team identified why that worked by pinpointing the specific fatty acid responsible. They showed that when the 10(Z)-hexadecenoic acid gets into cells, it works like a lock, attaching itself to the peroxisome proliferator-activated receptor (PPAR). This allows it to block a number of key pathways responsible for inflammation. Pre-treating the cells with the acid (or lipid) made them withstand inflammation better.
Lowry thinks this understanding can lead to creating a "stress vaccine" that can be given to people in high-stress jobs, like first responders or soldiers. The vaccine can prevent the psychological effects of stress.
What's more, this friendly bacterium is not the only potentially helpful organism we can find in soil.
"This is just one strain of one species of one type of bacterium that is found in the soil but there are millions of other strains in soils," said Lowry. "We are just beginning to see the tip of the iceberg in terms of identifying the mechanisms through which they have evolved to keep us healthy. It should inspire awe in all of us."
Check out the study published in the journal Psychopharmacology.
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