Down to Earth

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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