Is Language Inherent?

inherentlanguage

Do we have a built-in linguistic instruction manual?

For decades, linguists have been debating, well, a lot of things.  But one major issue is whether humans’ ability to construct and understand a language is inherent, or whether languages have evolved based on observation, imitation, and trial and error.  In other words, are we born with an innate knowledge of grammar and other linguistic elements, or do we acquire this knowledge by observation, imitation, and need?

The inherent language theory includes linguistic giants like Noam Chomsky and Steven Pinker in its camp. But frankly, I have a bit of trouble with it.  For one thing, fans of this theory seem to consider language a uniquely human quality.  As someone who loves animals and watches way too many documentaries about them, it’s very hard to take that seriously: while all animals communicate in some way, shape or form, several have actual elaborate spoken communication systems.  Some, like dolphins, even use what may very well be a sort of grammatical structure.

Still, you could argue that whether we’re talking about humans or dolphins or prairie dogs, the ability to communicate using vocabulary and grammar is something we are born with.  Not so, argue linguists in the other camp – including Vyvyan Evans.  A linguistics professor at a UK University, he’s spent years studying communication and the evolution of language, as have his colleagues on both sides of the debate.  But like only a comparative few, Evans has written a mainstream book about his findings.

In The Language Myth: Why Language is Not an Instinct, Evans attacks the other side of the language origin question.  The arguments highlighted in this review are compelling.  For example, Evans cites languages that don’t have the same “ingredients” as others do, like two indigenous Australian languages that don’t give a particular order to words in sentences.  And he also points out that, with sign language, over only about two centuries we’ve been able to observe a language’s birth and evolution – and that the development of this language doesn’t seem to be something that just “made sense” to users; rather, usage evolved as people began to find certain gestures and signs easier or more logical.

As if Evans’ book wasn’t enough, a recent study conducted by the Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics is approaching the argument from another angle.  Using genetic research and theories as a model, the project’s linguists and scientists believe they’ve determined that not all languages evolved in the same way or at the same time, which would prove that humans cannot simply come up with a working language system from the start.  There is, they say, no universal language system inherent in all of us.

The results are compelling enough that even inherent language advocate Steven Pinker admitted to BBC News that it’s an “important and welcome study”.  Bur he also pointed out – and not unfairly – that more research and explanations are needed to fully prove the theory that it’s culture, and not exclusively instinct, that has allowed us to create the languages we speak.

What do you think? Is language something we’re born with, sort of like a built-in instruction manual? Or are other elements, like culture and necessity, the driving forces behind human communication?

by Alysa Salzberg

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