The following is an excerpt of a book review by David Roemer on the work, The First Word: The Search for the Origins of Language by Christine Kenneally. I haven’t read the book itself, but the subject is of some interest to me as I have been required to study related material in my studies of the liberal arts. The whole review can be found at the website, OrthodoxyToday.org.
The First Word: The Search for the Origins of Language
By Christine Kenneally
The Penguin Group, 357 pages, $26.95
Review by David Roemer
The study of the evolution of language began in earnest in the 1990s when Paul Bloom and Steven Pinker, linguists at MIT, took issue with Noam Chomsky’s views on the subject. In an interview, Bloom said:
And then, at the same time, Massimo Piatelli-Palmarini, a colleague and friend of mine in the Department of Linguistics and Philosophy, published an article in Cognition on the evolution of cognition and language. His article presented in this very sharp, cogent fashion the Chomskyan view on evolution—basically he said that there was very little interesting to make of the connection between natural selection and cognition and that language has features that simply cannot be explained in terms of adaption. I strongly disagreed with it. (p. 52)
Christine Kenneally provides us with the following Chomskyan quotes:
Chomsky’s signature claim is that all humans share a “universal grammar,” otherwise known as UG, a set of rules that can generate the syntax of every human language. This means that apart from the difference in a few mental settings, English and Mohawk, for example, are essentially the same language. Traditionally researchers committed to Chomskyan linguistics believed that universal grammar exists in some part of our brain in a language organ that all humans possess but no other animals have. (p. 25)
As he wrote in 1975: “A human language is a system of remarkable complexity. To come to know a human language would be an extraordinary achievement for a creature not specifically designed to accomplish this task. A normal child acquires this knowledge on relatively slight exposure and without specific training. He can then quite effortlessly make use of an intricate structure of specific rules and guiding principles to convey his thoughts and feelings to others, arousing in them novel ideas and subtle perceptions and judgments.” (p. 36 )
In his book Language and Mind he wrote, “It is perfectly safe to attribute this development [of innate mental structure] to ‘natural selection,’ so long as we realize that there is no substance to this assertion, that it amounts to nothing more than a belief that there is some naturalistic explanation for these phenomena.” (p. 38)
Humans have the observable and definable property of being able to converse with one another. This property is closely related to the unobservable and indefinable properties of free will and conscious knowledge. We can comprehend the unobservable properties because we have the ability to transcend ourselves and make ourselves the subject of our own knowledge. Existentialism is a philosophy that arises from this self-knowledge and addresses our need to decide what to do with our lives. Kenneally acknowledges that the uniqueness of human beings is based on both existential and observable properties:
But asking what makes humans unique is almost always qualitatively different from asking what makes the antelope unique, or the sloth, or the dung beetle. These questions don’t have to be, but have historically been so, the former is never purely scientific, but is inevitably shaded by our self-regard and is always, to some degree, existential. (p. 85)
READ THE REST OF THE BOOK REVIEW HERE.