Source: Economist    2019-09-11  我要投稿   论坛   Favorite  

The second claim is that language is innate, not merely an extension of general human intelligence. Fascinating evidence comes from children who are deprived of it. Deaf pupils at a school in Nicaragua, having never shared a language with anyone before, created a grammatically ornate sign language on their own. A few deaf children in a Mexican family devised a rich sign system with complex grammatical features found in spoken tongues: in their “homesign”, nouns are preceded by a “classifier”, a sign indicating their type, just as they sometimes are in Chinese. It seems the human mind simply cannot help but deal in grammar.

A more controversial claim is that all human languages share what Mr Chomsky calls “universal grammar”. This proposition has taken some hard knocks. Whether recursion is universal, for example, is contested. In 2009 two linguists published a widely cited paper called “The myth of language universals”, which seemed to find exceptions to other putatively universal rules. The paper said it was not even clear that all the world’s languages observed a noun-verb distinction; Mr Adger counters with evidence that even the supposed outliers pay some attention to this split.

Many of the universals that hold up best are negative. There are many sensible things languages could do, but don’t. Notably, their grammars do not make use of “continuous” features, such as the length of vowels. For instance, a past-tense verb could be pronounced for a longer time to indicate how long ago the action occurred—perfectly logical, but no language does this. Syntax uses discrete units, not continuous ones. Whether this is proof of universality is a matter of opinion.

Lastly, Mr Adger embraces the latest of Mr Chomsky’s theories, “Merge”, a mental function in which two units may be joined to a larger one that can then be operated on by the mind’s grammar processor. The two-year-old who beat Kanzi could Merge “water and lighter” and apply the verb to both; Kanzi seemed to treat words like beads on a string, rather than mentally grouping them into bigger units in a structure.

Mr Chom sky thinks a single human developed the ability to perform Merge tens of thousands of years ago, and that this is the only feature unique to human language. Mr Adger does not explicitly defend either of these claims. But his tour of Chomskyan linguistics is entertaining and accessible—in contrast to Mr Chomsky’s own notoriously baffling prose. His book is a handy introduction to a vexed debate on the infinite power of the finite mortal mind.


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