There Is No Language Instinct.

Linguist Vyvyan Evans has a piece in Aeon that gives a good rundown of the arguments against Chomsky’s irritatingly influential theory of the language instinct; here’s the conclusion:

From this perspective, we don’t have to assume a special language instinct; we just need to look at the sorts of changes that made us who we are, the changes that paved the way for speech. This allows us to picture the emergence of language as a gradual process from many overlapping tendencies. It might have begun as a sophisticated gestural system, for example, only later progressing to its vocal manifestations. But surely the most profound spur on the road to speech would have been the development of our instinct for co‑operation. By this, I don’t mean to say that we always get on. But we do almost always recognise other humans as minded creatures, like us, who have thoughts and feelings that we can attempt to influence.

We see this instinct at work in human infants as they attempt to acquire their mother tongue. Children have far more sophisticated learning capacities than Chomsky foresaw. They are able to deploy sophisticated intention-recognition abilities from a young age, perhaps as early as nine months old, in order to begin to figure out the communicative purposes of the adults around them. And this is, ultimately, an outcome of our co‑operative minds. Which is not to belittle language: once it came into being, it allowed us to shape the world to our will – for better or for worse. It unleashed humanity’s tremendous powers of invention and transformation. But it didn’t come out of nowhere, and it doesn’t stand apart from the rest of life. At last, in the 21st century, we are in a position to jettison the myth of Universal Grammar, and to start seeing this unique aspect of our humanity as it really is.

For the details, click the link. (Thanks, Paul!)


  1. This is of course a propos of Evans recent book “The Language Myth”. Generativists are all up in arms, their most recent attack on Evans took place on reddit which, considering the recent events (celebgate, gamergate) is deliciously ironic. Now to be fair, some of the criticism seems fair, so I wish there were someone who could untangle this mess. I sure as hell ain’t going in there.

  2. Well, there’s fair criticism to be made of anything, but whatever gets generativists up in arms has carte blanche as far as I’m concerned.

  3. David Eddyshaw says

    “On the contrary, children appear to pick up their grammar in quite a piecemeal way. For instance, focusing on the use of the English article system, for a long time they will apply a particular article (eg, the) only to those nouns to which they have heard it applied before. It is only later that children expand upon what they’ve heard, gradually applying articles to a wider set of nouns.”

    Don’t you know what “ther” means?

    Apart from the light shed on Winnie the Pooh, not all of the arguments in the article seem particularly convincing. The idea that any language instinct cannot be genetically determined because language is too complex to be determined by our (surprisingly few) genes reflects a fairly radical if very common folk misunderstanding of what genes actually do – they are not anything like “blueprints” for complete creatures and if all you had was DNA and no access to the extraordinarily complex and poorly understood processes that use DNA to control protein manufacture you could not conceivably reconstruct the complex finished living thing from it.

    A Chomskyan would doubtless also point out that the actual content of his universal grammar is now so minimal that the difficulty doesn’t really arise anyway.

    I’m all for Chomsky-bashing. But there are enough good arguments against his views that it’s a pity to resort to bad ones.

  4. I do love a good Chomsky-debunk, but this one just seems sadly misinformed — a real shame, since it will presumably turn into ammunition against anyone who doesn’t love Big C. The biology in particular is really sloppy; actually, of all the arguments against the godawful language instinct, genetics is one of the least convincing, given how many incredibly complex and dynamic biological systems they do control (what’s one more?).

    I also think there’s a pretty big difference between typological universals/tendencies and Chomsky’s “universals” that’s getting elided here, unfortunately. Yeah, Universal Grammar is at this point abstracted out of existence — but even so, I don’t think any conceivable interpretation of generativism suggests that ‘language diversity’, in the form of “the number of distinct sounds they use, ranging from 11 to an impressive 144 in some Khoisan languages” or “the ideophone, a grammatical category that some languages employ to spice up a narrative” might not arise.

    It’s a shame, because it would really be most lovely and convenient to have a really solid argument to throw around. This doesn’t seem to be one.

  5. Slight addendum/revision: as far as I can tell, Evans is arguing that if ‘grammar’ were to be somehow inheritable, it would need to be controlled by a “grammar gene”, which would by necessity produce a discrete structure/”special organ” (like, there, that’s the Grammar Nodule) — and since there’s no evidence of a dedicated grammar organ, language isn’t biologically mediated. This doesn’t make terribly much sense, not least because that’s not what genes do.

    Evans himself notes that specific functions are much more widely distributed in the brain than we thought, but a necessary corollary to that is that genetic control/’blueprints’ don’t have a one-to-one relationship with anatomy; in fact, cognition itself is pretty widely understood to be, er, difficult to understand and rather complex/mediated by a lot of confusing stuff. This does also mean that UG itself is pretty hard to discuss usefully in concrete biological terms; the best I could do offhand is “some sort of specifically language-related functions are encoded within the general cognitive capacity that human beings have, via a mechanism to be determined”.

  6. J.W. Brewer says

    I’m slightly baffled at what’s at stake in the fight. It seems clear that virtually all animals of the species H. sapiens have the “biological” capacity to master natural language (how much is in the “biology” in a way that can be measured with existing lab instruments versus in that mysterious consciousness thing that seems to arise therefrom or at least be coincident therewith is I suppose itself mysterious) and essentially no animals of any other species have the same capacity. So arguing about whether there’s a single “language instinct” in humans versus a built-in capability that comes out of the complex interaction of three or four or five different “instincts” that likewise either do not exist or do not interact in the same way in animals of other species seems much ado about . . . well if not nothing, than about a pretty non-obvious something.

  7. I didn’t realize there were real people named Vyvyan. I thought that was only a “Young Ones” spelling.

  8. J. W. Brewer says

    “Vyvian” is apparently also an attested variant, which seems a bit less jarring to my eye. “Vivian” in the standard spelling is sufficiently unusual as a male given name in the U.S. that the “market forces” that give rise to variant spellings may not be in force. By way of parallel, “Martyn” as a substitute for “Martin” seems not uncommon in the UK (and also in NZ and perhaps other Commonwealthish places), but I don’t think I’ve ever come across a U.S. example. That may be because “Martin” is, while not as exotic as Vivian, not nearly as common a name for U.S.-born boys. But we do have i/y switching for more locally-common names, e.g. “Bryan” as a variant for “Brian,” “Krystin” (and even “Krystyn”) as a variant of “Kristin,” etc. For me, having two y’s in succession creates a very non-Anglophonic-looking orthographic result, perhaps because it evokes “Kyrghyzstan.”

    I had forgotten, but the “Vyvyan” character on the Young Ones was the punk-rock-slash-heavy-metal dude, and the variant spelling does have a certain quality not unlike that of the Metal Umlaut. Think of how Bill and Ted named their (fictitious) metal band Wyld Stallynz. (Maybe the fons et origo is Lynyrd Skynyrd, in a somewhat different genre?)

    Not sure if having a somewhat exotic personal name is a bonus for a professor of linguistics, or just a cross to bear (because you’re obligated to politely pretend it’s an interesting scholarly datapoint when you would rather just not have people commenting on your name or wondering what your parents might have been thinking etc.).

  9. The Rolling Stone Record Guide reviewed a ’70s band named Pyrymyd, after the fashion of the time. The entire review read, “Y’s guys”. A review after mine own heart, obviously.

  10. J. W. Brewer says

    On a less cheery onomastic note, the unusual variant given-name spelling that is now much in the news is “Ismaaiyl,” the first name of the now-deceased shooter from Saturday’s double homicide of New York City policemen. It fairly obviously seems to be a transliteration of the Arabic version of the name usually Englished as “Ishmael” (although in the U.S. for cultural reasons I suspect the Spanish variant Ismael is more common as a given name in actual use), but the four-vowel “aaiy” sequence seems rare to the point of perhaps being previously unattested in this context. Romanization of Arabic names is notoriously various, and in addition to the not-very-exotic “Ismail,” Google books has variant spellings including “Ismaiyl,” “Ismaayl,” and “Ismaail” (with probably in each case some hits with an apostrophe stuck in somewhere), but not this particular combination.

  11. In this instance, he might be Vyvyan on account of being Welsh (in Welsh orthography, of course, y is often [ɪ] or [i]).

  12. the unusual variant given-name spelling that is now much in the news is “Ismaaiyl,”

    Call me ffytche.

  13. D, if it’s Welsh, shouldn’t it be Fyfyan?

  14. J.W. Brewer says

    It’s hard to track precisely, of course, but I’m struck by the notion that a vogue for “Martyn” as an alternative given-name spelling may be comparatively recent (most examples in wikipedia were born after 1950) whereas the “Martyn” variant spelling as a surname is much older, if perhaps historically regionally concentrated (Galway, Devon, Cornwall, wikipedia says – the great early 19th C. missionary linguist the Rev’d Henry Martyn, who e.g. translated the New Testament into Urdu, was from Truro). “Vyvyan” has supposedly been used with that spelling as a surname by a Cornish gentry family (which has generated various Baronets and whatnot) since the Middle Ages. Perhaps lots of names existed in multiple spellings in the olden days, but the pressure to standardize (once standardized orthography became a thing) was more intense for first names than surnames, until quite recent generations when variety and exoticism became viewed more positively for given names?

  15. Just ran across this glorious Chomsky quote and thought I’d add it here:

    The primary [task at hand for the Minimalist Program] is to show that the apparent richness and diversity of linguistic phenomena is illusory and epiphenomenal, the result of interaction of fixed principles under slightly varying conditions.

      N. Chomsky, 1995, The Minimalist Program, p.8.

    So much for the “he never said that!” defense.

  16. I should add that I found it at the late lamented Uncle Jazzbeau’s Gallimaufrey, in a 2004 post quoting the late lamented Emmon Bach (nice memorial post on Language Log).


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