Be­hind Ba­bel

Tom Wolfe's lat­est book re­news the de­bate over whether lan­guage is in­her­ited or ac­quired


Is lan­guage in­her­ited or ac­quired? A new book reignites the de­bate

LIT­ER­ARY IN­TEL­LEC­TU­ALS may have a philo­soph­i­cal or moral quar­rel with science, but they are usu­ally shy of get­ting into a pub­lic skir­mish with its heroes or their iconic the­o­ries. So last month, when Tom Wolfe, a pi­o­neer of the avant-garde New Jour­nal­ism, launched a per­sonal as well an in­tel­lec­tual at­tack on Charles Dar­win and Noam Chom­sky in his lat­est book The King­dom of Speech, it quickly flared up into a bon­fire of ideas and van­i­ties. In his book Wolfe not only ridicules Dar­win’s the­ory of evo­lu­tion as “a messy guess—baggy, boggy, soggy and leak­ing all over the place”, but also ac­cuses him of steal­ing the ideas of his con­tem­po­rary Al­fred Rus­sel Wallace. In a sim­i­lar vit­ri­olic vein, he car­i­ca­tures Chom­sky’s ideas about the ori­gin of lan­guage as mere fab­ri­ca­tions of some­one too lazy to stir out of his ivory tower.

Wolfe’s taunts against Dar­win and Chom­sky aside, it is his ve­he­ment de­nial of the ge­netic ori­gins of lan­guage, a view Chom­sky has cham­pi­oned for over half a cen­tury now, that’s piqued the in­ter­est of most read­ers.

The key co­nun­drum is this: how do chil­dren pick up lan­guage with such ap­par­ent ease? Take a hu­man baby from any­where on the planet, say Green­land, and place it any­where else, say Mi­zo­ram. Lo and be­hold, it would start speak­ing flu­ent Mizo within a few years.

Chom­sky and other lin­guists have ar­gued that chil­dren pick up lan­guage even though they are not taught how to speak it. Stranger still, the rules of gram­mar are not given them, nor is their lan­guage checked for er­rors, and yet they man­age to speak a more or less gram­mat­i­cally cor­rect lan­guage. Chom­sky reasoned that since chil­dren couldn’t have pos­si­bly gleaned all the rules from what he termed the “poverty of stim­u­lus”, there­fore the only pos­si­ble ex­pla­na­tion is that some uni­ver­sal rules of gram­mar are hard­wired in their brain.

Wolfe lam­poons the idea of a “lan­guage or­gan” or “deep struc­ture” pro­posed by Chomksy, as there is no ev- idence for it yet. How­ever, for Chom­skyans, this “or­gan” is not a phys­i­cal struc­ture, but a set of in­struc­tions that evo­lu­tion en­graved in the brain for mak­ing speech pos­si­ble. It is pre­cisely this “king­dom of speech” that Wolfe wants to top­ple. He lib­er­ally cites the work of an­thro­pol­o­gist Daniel Everett, who, based on his field work on the Pi­raha tribe in the Ama­zon Basin, con­cluded in 2005 that Chom­sky’s uni­ver­sal gram­mar was an il­lu­sion, and that lan­guage was more likely a tool that hu­mans in­vented for solv­ing prob­lems.

Es­sen­tially, Everett ar­gued that the Pi­raha lacked a fun­da­men­tal ele­ment of Chom­sky’s uni­ver­sal gram­mar called re­cur­sion, which refers to the abil­ity to stack phrases within phrases, such as “I know that Jitu knows that Jai is ab­sent-minded”. Ac­cord­ing to Chom­sky, re­cur­sion is hard­wired in the brain and is uni­ver­sal. Even though Everett’s Pi­raha data didn’t stand up to scru­tiny by other lin­guists, his open chal­lenge rekin­dled the na­ture-nur­ture de­bate. To be sure, de­spite the ap­par­ent pop­u­lar­ity of Chomksy’s ideas, there are quite a few voices of dis­sent.

A re­cent ar­ti­cle in the Sci­en­tific Amer­i­can claims that new re­search ex­am­in­ing many dif­fer­ent lan­guages sug­gests that chil­dren’s nat­u­ral flair for guess­ing what oth­ers think, cou­pled with some mar­vel­lous tal­ents of a de­vel­op­ing brain, such as mak­ing analo­gies, ren­ders the need for a uni­ver­sal gram­mar su­per­flu­ous.

Every­one agrees that the hu­man brain is en­dowed with some­thing unique that helps us make lan­guage in the way even our clos­est cousins can­not. How­ever, de­spite the lat­est ad­vances in neu­ro­science, no one can re­ally say how some­thing as ab­stract as a rule of gram­mar might be ci­phered in the brain, ei­ther as hard­ware (a given) or as soft­ware (what is ac­quired). Till neu­ro­sci­en­tists suc­ceed in bridg­ing the two un­knowns, which by many lin­guists’ reck­on­ing is not any­time soon, lan­guage parsers of ei­ther per­sua­sion seem con­demned to bab­ble at cross pur­poses in the mod­ern-day Tower of Ba­bel.


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