Language Design

Linguist Noam Chomsky on the syntactic principle of language, the linguistic capacity of humans, and the laws of physics behind snowflakes

videos | February 17, 2014

What does an optimal communicational system have in common with a computational system? What are the core syntactic principles of language? Institute Professor & Professor of Linguistics at Massachusetts Institute of Technology Noam Chomsky on the core of human cognitive nature, which in its properties is similar to a snowflake.

To look into the question of language design it’s useful to think of how human beings evolved. We don’t know a great deal about it, we know some things. For example, it’s fairly clear from the archeological record, that modern humans, cognitively modern Homo sapiens developed quite recently in evolutionary time, and maybe within the last roughly hundred thousand years, that’s when you get the enormous increase, explosion of indications of the creative activity, complex family structures, symbolism and so on, all of these develops roughly in that period.

Harvard Prof. Maria Polinsky on receptive bilingualism, the "First In Last Out" hypothesis, and what people forget first – verbs or nouns

On the surface languages look very different from one another. If somebody walks into the room and starts speaking Swahili, I’m not going to understand a word. Though I will recognize it’s a language. I won’t understand it, but it’s not noise. Large parts of what we hear is just the sound. But that’s a very superficial part of language. The core of language is principles that determine an infinite array of possible expressions, structured expressions which have definite meanings. All of that is well beyond what we can observe just by looking at texts. When a child is learning a language, the child doesn’t learn those things, there is no evidence for them.

And there has been, I think, notable progress in that process, there’s a long way to go to try to demonstrate it, but then of course one wants to go beyond that, to try to discover the neural basis for whatever this unique capacity is; that’s a very hard problem to study for humans. We know a lot about the human visual system, because of direct experimentation with cats and monkeys. We allow ourselves to do direct experimentation sticking electrons into the brain and so on. And humans have about the same visual system as cats and monkeys, but you can’t do that for language, there are no analogous systems.

Institute Professor & Professor of Linguistics, Department of Linguistics, Massachusetts Institute of Technology
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