Language: Why and How?

A couple of recent think pieces sent me by kind correspondents:

1) Carl Zimmer’s “Do We Need Language to Think?” (NYT, June 19, 2024; archived) begins with the idea (held by Plato, Chimpsky, et al.) that language is for thinking and continues:

As an undergraduate, Evelina Fedorenko took Dr. Chomsky’s class and heard him describe his theory. “I really liked the idea,” she recalled. But she was puzzled by the lack of evidence. “A lot of things he was saying were just stated as if they were facts — the truth,” she said.

Dr. Fedorenko went on to become a cognitive neuroscientist at M.I.T., using brain scanning to investigate how the brain produces language. And after 15 years, her research has led her to a startling conclusion: We don’t need language to think.

Not startling at all to me; see link for details. Thanks, Eric!

2) Steven Mithen, “How Babies and Young Children Learn to Understand Language” (LitHub, June 20, 2024); an excerpt on “finding words”:

How can babies possibly discover where a word begins and ends within a continuous sound stream? A breakthrough in our understanding came in 1996 in a three-page article in the journal Science entitled “Statistical learning by 8-month-old infants,” authored by the psychologists Jenny Saffran, Richard Aslin and Elissa Newport. This explained that infants use “transitional probabilities” (TPs) between syllables to identify which syllable strings recurrently go together, and hence are likely to constitute words, and which syllables have low probabilities of following each other and hence are likely to mark the break between words. The phrase pretty baby, for instance, has four syllables (pre-ty-ba-by) and three transitional probabilities between syllable pairs. In English the probability that ty will be followed by ba is lower than pre will be followed by ty, and that ba will be followed by by. That eight-month-old-infants can calculate and use such transitional probabilities came as a surprise.

Jenny Saffran and her colleagues had exposed infants to no more than two minutes of continuous speech that contained four three-syllable nonsense words, such as tupiro and padoti. These ‘words’ were repeated in random order by a monotone speech synthesizer that created a continuous sound sequence, such as bidakupadotigolabubidakupadotigolabubidakutupiro… The sequence contained no pauses, variations in stress or any other acoustic cues between word boundaries. The only cue available to the infants were the transitional probabilities (TPs) between syllables. Those within words were 1.0, because the first syllable was always followed by the second, and the second by the third, while the TPs of syllables between words was always 0.33. After a mere two minutes of listening, the infants were tested as to whether they differentiated between words (syllable strings that had TPs of 1.0) and non-words (syllable strings that contained TPs of 0.33). For this the infants were presented with words and non-words and found to have longer listening time for the nonwords. This indicated they had already become familiar with the words by listening to the continuous sequence of syllables within which they had been embedded. The only way that could have happened was by monitoring the TPs between syllables—the infants were capable of statistical learning.

Again, not a surprise to me. Thanks, Bathrobe!


  1. Fedorenko et al.’s paper is publicly available here.

  2. Ann Folsom says

    Maybe “Chimpsky” was a typo?

  3. J.W. Brewer says

    Let me just mention for the benefit of any who may not have known this bit of genealogical trivia that Carl Zimmer is brother (four or five years older?) to the lexicographer Ben Zimmer, who is mentioned from time to time at the Hattery. Obviously, neither brother is responsible for the other’s acts or omissions …

  4. David Eddyshaw says

    Maybe “Chimpsky” was a typo?

    Not at all. It is a reference to the celebrated linguist and political activist Ahitophel Neander Chimpsky, creator of Generative Sudoku, T-Bar Theory, Dominance and Bondage, and Universal Punctuation.

    Professor Chimpsky has also been a tireless advocate for marginalised marsupials throughout the world.

  5. Maybe “Chimpsky” was a typo?

    No, it is a nom de mépris. (No offense to actual chimps; if any of them are reading this, they should be teaching at MIT.)

  6. her research has led her to a startling conclusion: We don’t need language to think.

    I find it – well, not startling any more, but certainly deeply weird that there apparently exist people who haven’t noticed this simply by introspection. Are they just oblivious to their own non-linguistic thoughts, or are they really somehow doing all their thinking in words? Obviously they must have aphantasia in the latter case, but it would have to go a lot further than just that.

    In support of the possibility that they’re just oblivious, I remember a classmate in high school suggesting that all thought is in language, but changing his mind once I asked to him to think about how you could put together a bicycle.

    (Edit): I guess there’s a third possibility: their personal definition of thinking excludes non-verbal thinking, in which case the proposition is tautological. Makes you wonder what they call non-verbal thinking, though – “intuition”? “visualization”?

  7. No offense to actual chimps; if any of them are reading this, they should be teaching at MIT.

    Nim Chimpsky could arguably sign, but not read. That’s why he only got to have tenure at Columbia.

  8. cuchuflete says

    […] the celebrated linguist and political activist Ahitophel Neander Chimpsky, creator of Generative Sudoku, T-Bar Theory, Dominance and Bondage, and Universal Punctuation.
    In fairness, he was a noted sarrusophone virtuoso and pasta chef. When, following years of incarceration at a facility for the mentally troubled, he was interviewed for possible release, the chief psychiatrist asked him what he would do with his new freedom.

    “Well, Doc, I’d invent a general theory of shoe polish, grow an organic Swede garden, paint portraits and play in a string quartet, and in my spare time I’d just be myself.”

    The psychiatrist speaks, “That is quite impressive, Dr. Chimsky. When you say ‘just be myself’, precisely what do you mean?”

    “Oh, Doc, I am disappointed in you. After all these years of treating me you surely must know. I’m an electric coffee percolator!”

  9. The Times article talked about aphasia and how people could still do algebra, hence could think without language.
    When I studied undergrad physics, we often spoke of using “the language of mathematics” to express our ideas, and quite frankly, to shape them.
    Am I excessively pedantic to suggest that the problem could be an overly restrictive definition of language?

  10. I don’t understand this statement (“do we need language for thinking”, “what do we need language for“).

    It is obvious that you can think without language (or well, Lameen says maybe it is not).
    It is also obvious that knowing a language somehow changes the way you think.

  11. bicycle” – this and also any mathematical problem. No one will say that solving math problem is “not thinking”.

  12. About “How Babies and Young Children Learn to Understand Language”: it is interesting, but the authors of the excerpt used way too many long words to say that babies can recognise those sequences of [sounds? phonemes? syllables?] that are repeated often.

    They also can consider a language where such sequences are more often than not are morphemes rahter than words, and then try Semitic (do babies first learn consonantal roots or specific forms? Note that babies in the experiment are dealing with raw sound flow, not necessarily a sequence of consonants and vowels and syllables – that is what this flow appears to the researcher)

    (also if you enjoy music then your brain can expand sounds in Fourier series….)

  13. T-Bar Theory

    Ah, how to verbalise your emotions as you get dragged backwards up a ski slope.

  14. David Eddyshaw says


    It is more practical than that X-Bar stuff invented by that other fellow.
    And it relates to human language in its real context of interpersonal interaction.

    Though there is anecdotal evidence that some of the verbalisations in question can occur even in contexts where the speaker is not currently attempting meaningful communication with an interlocutor. However, most of those who have investigated this alleged phenomenon seem to incline to the view that this is a secondary rather than primary function of the verbalisation. More research is needed, preferably always at either Gstaad or Klosters (to eliminate confounding factors.)

  15. i recall my highschool poetry workshop teacher being rather put out when i insisted that language wasn’t necessary for thought – i’m inclined to cut her some slack, though, since it was the early 90s and she was fresh out of UC Berkeley’s Comp Lit program. i assume she’s changed her mind since. (i’m eternally grateful to her for exposing us to a lot of amazing work – from li-young lee and michael ondaatje’s early poetry to chris marker’s Sans Soleil to kurosawa’s Dreams)

    also noting a very fast hat-trick: Recent Comments swept!

  16. The “Chimpsky” insult is disrespectful and unkind. Maybe you need to think about why you wrote it.

  17. David Eddyshaw says

    Chomsky’s whole approach is fundamentally incapable of properly accounting for the communicative functions of language: hence his insistence that these constitute a mere spandrel.

    If all you’ve got is a hammer, it’s tempting to deny the existence of glue.

  18. Chomsky’s whole approach is fundamentally incapable of properly accounting for the communicative functions of language

    I seem to remember our host agreeing with Chomsky that the point of language isn’t to communicate. Or am I misremembering?

  19. I’m not sure what you’re remembering, but “the point of language isn’t to communicate” is vague enough that one could come down on either side depending on context. My post is about the very different suggestion that “language is for thinking”; DE is pointing out that Chomsky can’t account for the communicative functions of language, which again doesn’t really have anything to do with the suggestion that the whole point of language is to communicate. Whatever the “point” or “reason” (choose your own abstraction) of language is, it cannot be denied that it is very often used to communicate, and that therefore a linguist should be able to account for that function.

  20. The “Chimpsky” insult is disrespectful and unkind. Maybe you need to think about why you wrote it.

    I wrote it because I have no respect for the Chomp. I suspect he’ll somehow manage to survive my disrespect. If he wants to be respected he shouldn’t be such a twit. Maybe you need to think about why you care what I say about Chimpsky — sorry, I mean Chompsky.

  21. “very different”

    “The point of language isn’t to communicate” and “language is for thinking” don’t seem too different to me in degree of rejection of the communicative function. The second even seems weaker.

    I see, you changed “the point of” to “for”, but as for me что в лоб что по лбу. And I can’t think of such a definition of “the point” that communication does not become a part of it.

    “very often used to communicate” – no! It is just mating ritual of Homo.

    Books, Hubble telescope and everything else are just a silly by-product.

  22. David Marjanović says

    I don’t understand this statement (“do we need language for thinking”, “what do we need language for“).

    They’re two quite different statements; the second actually asks for the advantage that the heritable capacity for language causes in natural selection.

  23. Yes, differerent, but I don’t understand “for”.

    Yes, one possible interpretation is evolutionary advantage. But that’s biology. You also can study evolution of language itself. Or its use by people.

  24. David Eddyshaw says

    I have no wish to live in a world in which one cannot disrespect Chomsky.To be scrupulously fair (in accordance with my invariable practice), I suspect that he has no wish to, either.

    (I suspect that Bugs is unaware of Nim Chimpsky, however, and leapt to the conclusion that this was Hat’s own invention..)

  25. “Thought” is a very broad and ill-defined term. Many thought processes (e.g. driving through a busy street) require no language. Others (composing a sonnet), do, but counting that as communication seems marginal to me. You’d have to argue, circularly, that all language is communication and all c. is l.

    Fedorenko et al. address Chomsky only on one argument:

    Chomsky, for instance, has long argued that the existence of ambiguity implies that language is used primarily for thought rather than communication, because ambiguous signals would impede communication. However, the existence of ambiguity in human language is actually not expected under the language-for-thought view, given that our thoughts do not seem ambiguous. By contrast, the existence of ambiguity in language is a natural prediction of communicative accounts of language. That is, ambiguity can be mathematically shown to be communicatively useful: not only does it allow speakers to leave out information that listeners already know (for example, from the context), but it enables the re-use of short, easy-to-produce linguistic forms. A system that allows no ambiguity would require a much bigger lexicon and grammar than those of human linguistic systems, and such a system would need to use long words and sentences to convey even simple meanings.

  26. “chimpsky” is simply the southeastern realization of protovowel 51; in the northeast (and YIVO standard) it would be “chumpsky”. “chompsky” is generally archaic and deprecated, though it may appear in speech communities influenced by netherlandic dialects.

  27. I don’t know why I never thought of Chumpsky but I like it and may start using it as a variant.

  28. The “Chimpsky” insult is disrespectful and unkind. Maybe you need to think about why you wrote it.

    That sounds like an invitation to a re-education camp. Comrade, you must examine carefully why you have uttered negative opinions about [Mao/Lenin/Pol Pot/the Beatles…].

    To assist you in this re-evaluation of your substandard thinking, here is a big hammer and a pile of rocks.

  29. David Eddyshaw says

    The Economist once discussed the “Beatles or the Rolling Stones” question.

    It came down definitely on the “Rolling Stones” side, as once could only have expected of a journal with such a well-earned reputation for objectivity and sound judgment.

  30. J.W. Brewer says

    One might add that viewing “Chimpsky” as disrespectful is itself suggestive of speciesism and anti-chimpanzee bigotry. I’m sure the Maoist edition of “Planet of the Apes” offers special struggle sessions for people like that.

    The purported Beatles-Stones dichotomy is, I have come to suspect, some sort of Masonic-conspiracy mind-trick aimed at distracting people from making arguments of the form “but X is better than either of them!” The Kinks are an obvious plausible value for X, in the original historical context, but there may be other worthy candidates.

  31. cuchuflete says

    The Economist once discussed…

    Back in the day, when the subscriber base was mostly in the U.K., that journal had some clever headline writers. The correspondents did their best to sneak snark past the editors. In the mid to late 1970s—my memory has dimmed—the World Cup was played in Argentina. Either the English or Scottish team performed below expectations. The Economist reported on the match by criticizing a heralded striker: “Mr So-and-so, usually quick to strike as British Leyland…”

    All of which proves that Doctor Chimpsky thought he could communicate using language or ideology.

  32. Well, I don’t like “Chimpsky”.
    Two things:
    1. I have no problem with insults in the form “Chomsky is [everything LH thinks of Chomsky]”, I even tolerant to alteration of names of groups in otherwise ironical comments, but inserting such an alteration in an otherwise neutral comment… it recembles what people from our political right often do, and I’m not sure it is respectful to readers.
    2. ape insults is something I usually hear in racist context. I’m fed up with everyone* in the Russian Internet referring to Obama as “the monkey”, for example.

    By this I don’t mean LH did something “wrong” – the above is why I don’t like this style (as a style)

    * well, not everyone, just politicised people.

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