One of the most peculiar aspects of the modern linguistic discourse, is that the issue of whether one’s ability to speak a particular language should be considered innately (biologically) or environmentally (socially) predetermined, continues to remain highly debatable. Nevertheless, there is a good rationale to think that it is specifically the ‘innate’ theory of syntax, proposed by Noam Chomsky, which should be considered the most plausible of all.
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After all, the validity of this theory is being supported by the latest discoveries in the field of biology, neurology and linguistics. As Fromkin, Rodman and Hyams noted: “The more linguists explore the intricacies of human language, the more evidence accumulates to support Chomsky’s view” (13). The same discoveries, however, simultaneously undermine the legitimacy of Chomsky’s belief in the existence of what he used to refer to as a ‘Universal Grammar’ (UG).
In my paper, I will explore the validity of this suggestion at length, while outlining what can be considered the main strength and weakness of Chomsky’s outlook on the subject matter in question. I will also promote the idea that, despite some of its shortcomings, the ‘innate’ theory of syntax is indeed enlightening, in the linguistic sense of this word.
The main provision of Chomsky’s theory is that, contrary to what many people believe, there is a qualitative difference between the notion of ‘verbal behavior’, on one hand, and the notion of ‘linguistic knowledge’, on the other. Whereas, the former refers to one’s ability to communicate with others, within the grammatical framework of a particular language, the latter has to do with the concerned person’s varying degree of psychological compatibility with what appear to be this language’s ‘archetypal’ (innate) subtleties.
While defining the conceptual essence of Chomsky’s linguistic philosophy, Higginbotham stated: “Grammar is used to the extent that its rules and the descriptions of sentences that it provides correspond in some experimentally determinate ways to properties of mental activity” (148). This, of course, accentuates the phenomenological overtones of the notion of syntax, as such that cannot be discussed outside of what happened to be the particulars of the affiliated person’s ‘mental wiring’. In other words, syntax is reflective of the quality of the affiliated individuals’ cognitive predispositions.
As one of the main proofs that this is indeed being the case, Chomsky mentions the fact that the native carriers of a particular language seem to be capable of distinguishing properly constructed sentences from the incorrect ones – even though there can be no rationale-driven reason to consider the latter illegitimate, as the conveyers of logically formulated ideas. What it means is that the actual process of people resorting to the verbal/written forms of communication cannot be discussed outside of what account for the workings of their unconscious psyche: “Our intuitive knowledge about what is or is not an allowable sentence in English convinces us to (choose in favor of properly constructed sentences)” (Fromkin, Rodman and Hyams 7).
It is understood, of course, that Chomsky’s suggestion, in this respect, is inconsistent with the behaviorist perspective on syntax, as something that is being brought into being by the externally applied stimuli alone. As such, this suggestion contributes towards helping linguists to come closer to identifying the essence of language, as an informational medium.
Nevertheless, even though Chomsky’s ‘innate’ theory does appear to be thoroughly sound, in the conceptual sense of this, the same can be hardly suggested about the author’s concept of ‘Universal Grammar’, reflective of the idea that language should be discussed as one of many biologically predetermined characteristics of one’s existential mode.
The reason for this is that, even though Chomsky did succeed in accumulating a plenty of evidence that syntax is in fact ‘innate’, it never occurred to him that this simultaneously undermines the validity of the idea that it is possible to create such a grammar. After all, there is also a plenty of evidence that the particulars of people’s ethno-cultural affiliation do have a strong effect on how they perceive the surrounding reality and their place within it and on how they define the relationship between causes and effects – the activities that represent the actual foundation of syntax.
To illustrate the validity of this suggestion, we can refer to the fact that, as practice indicates; many instances of misunderstanding between two persons, who speak different languages, are not being solely concerned with these individuals’ lack of linguistic proficiency in either of the languages at stake. Rather, the mentioned misunderstanding takes place, because while indulging in the verbal exchange with each other, and while believing that, during the course of the process, they refer to essentially the same subject matter, people have in mind different things.
The world famous anthropologist Lucien Levy-Bruhl was the first person to note that the very essence of cognitive processes in the mind of a primeval savage differs rather substantially from that of an average Westerner. As he showed in his works, upon being presented with the task to exclude the unrelated word out of the wordily sequence: banana, meat, fish and knife, the former would usually experience much difficulty, while addressing it. The fact that the words meat, fish and banana could be classified as ‘food’, on one hand, and the word knife is best referred to as an ‘instrument’, would never even occur to the person in question.
In its turn, this can be explained by the specifics of how the brain of this person actually functions. Whereas, due to being able to operate with the highly abstract categories, Westerners indeed have what it takes to be able to give correct answer to the mentioned question, this is not being quite the case with people, whom Levy-Bruhl considered to be endowed with the ‘primitive’ mentality. The reason for this is that, in the eyes of a savage, every of the mentioned words evokes the notion of usefulness, as its main semiotic referral, which in turn causes him or her to think that these words convey essentially the same message.
Consequentially, this implies that there is indeed no strongly defined qualitative difference between them. As the anthropologist noted: “Nature appears in their (savages’) collective representations not as a system of objects and phenomena governed by fixed laws… but as a moving assemblage or totality of mystic actions and reactions, within which individual does not subjectualize but objectualize itself” (120).
It is understood, of course, that this observation does not quite relate to the realities of the 21st century’s living, associated with the factual absence of ‘primitive savages’. Yet, it does explain why Chomsky’s idea of ‘Universal Grammar’ can hardly be considered discursively legitimate – the fact that every person in this world belongs to the Homo-Sapiens species, does not necessarily mean that there is much ‘cognitive unity’ between people, especially if they represent different ethno-cultural traditions.
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This creates a certain paradox – even though Chomsky’s belief in the ‘innateness’ of syntax is indeed thoroughly viable, it nevertheless did not prevent the author from coming up with a rather erroneous suggestion that the notion syntax in fact connotes the notion of grammatical universality.
Nevertheless, there can be only a few doubts that Chomsky’s theory does contain a number of valuable of insights, into what account for the deep-seated subtleties of how people go about constructing sentences in their minds, prior to putting them into speech. As such, it legitimizes the validity of the psychological outlook on the formation of language – hence, implying the discursive relevance of the idea that syntax is reflective of the affiliated people’s existential identity.
Thus, it will be fully appropriate, on our part, to conclude this paper by reinstating once again that there is the quality of ambivalence to the ‘innate’ theory of syntax by Chomsky. Despite being based on the thoroughly sound conceptual premises, it does not seem to take into account what can be identified as the actual significance of many of these premises. This, however, has only a minor negative effect of the extent of this theory’s overall validity. In the future, Chomsky’s theory is likely to become increasingly popular with linguists – this eventual development is being predetermined by the ongoing progress in the field of psychology, as well as by the overall logic of history. I believe that this conclusion, on our part, is fully consistent with the paper’s initially provided thesis.
Fromkin, Victoria, Robert Rodman and Nina Hyams. An Introduction to Language. Boston: Wadsworth Publishing, 2013. Print.
Higginbotham, James. “Noam Chomsky’s Linguistic Theory.” Social Research 49.1 (1982): 143-157. Print.
Levy-Bruhl, Lucien. The ‘Soul’ of the Primitive. Washington: H. Regnery Co., 1971. Print.