Sunday, November 9, 2008

Universal Grammar

The term is correct, but universal grammar has been given a meaning that does not match what those two words actually say.

Noam Chomsky’s early work in linguistics deserves the highest praise. Before such efforts as Syntactic Structures and Aspects of the Theory of Syntax, linguistics was stuck in a quagmire of piecemeal analysis—an irrelevant quicksand of phonemes, morphemes and dead-end semantics. Chomsky unearthed language’s structural essence and gave it prominence and value, and his clever introduction of the tools of logic and recursive mathematics furnished linguistics with a language of its own, one that remains useful to the present day.

But Chomsky badly misguessed the source of language’s structural underpinning, and in fact it is a bit of a puzzle he had to make a guess at all. Having spent countless obsessive hours working out the many transformational rules of verbal syntax (his complete Logical Structure of Linguistic Theory is so massive I believe it has yet to be published in its entirety), Chomsky had ample opportunity to recognize that his linguistic schemas had much in common with the formal rules of physics, mathematics, logic, chemistry, digital electronics and so many other non-biological disciplines. Space, time, proof, natural law, formal syntax—these concepts are in many ways so structurally similar they border on being isomorphic; so how could Chomsky have failed to recognize that as he was sketching out the structure of human language, he was also sketching out the basic structure of the perceived world? But such was the allure of brain science dogma even some forty odd years ago—Chomsky turned to biology instead and posited an instinct for human language.

To be fair, Chomsky was handicapped by two critical pieces of evidence: one piece of evidence, in plain sight, proved to be an over-enticing red herring, and the other piece of evidence, far more useful and productive, was alas not available to Chomsky at all.

The red herring of course was the speed and seeming ease with which most children acquire a spoken language. That an instinct was at the heart of this process was undeniable, but first to be determined was whether an already known instinct could adequately account for the phenomenon. The young of many species pass through a relatively brief period of rapid assimilation of the species’ behaviors—learning to hunt, to find shelter, meld to the group social dynamics, etc.—all leading very quickly to adult-level skills in the areas of survival and procreation. What these maturational activities make clear is that it is not so much the activities themselves that are instinctual as is the pedigree of being intensely species aware and species assimilative. Acute species recognition, to the degree of nearly complete perceptual exclusion of all other sensory input, is the common evolutionary thread explaining how the young of so many species rapidly transform into nearly exact behavioral copies of all the other members of the population. And of course humans have been no different. When humans were once silent hunter-gatherers, their children rapidly matured into being exactly the same, taking on many fully developed roles by the age of puberty. And when humans swiftly transformed into being verbal and more civilized, the children did not skip a maturational beat, just as rapidly assuming the new set of common behaviors, and at a very early age. What most children have an instinct for is to do what other humans do; it has been that way for a very long time, and it still is.

But Chomsky was convinced language had to be something different. With page after page of formulas and recursions laid out before him, aware more than anyone of the complexity running throughout the entirety of semantics and syntax, Chomsky found it inconceivable so much surface variation and core structural similarity could be acquired quickly by species assimilation alone. In this, he was being hurt by his failure to see that it was not just language that was being acquired, but also all the behaviors, conventions and perceptions mirrored inside of language, along with their corresponding degrees of structure and complexity. For Chomsky, language seemed to be monolithic, independent of the other new aspects of human behavior—independent of the changing human environment. Furthermore, language seemed to be something that had to be inherently unique to this one species alone. Hunting behaviors, sheltering behaviors, hierarchal behaviors—these too are extraordinarily complex and their quick absorption is no less amazing than the absorption of language; but with thousands of other species serving as example, and with the long reach of evolutionary time helping to soothe any concerns over how such behavioral complexity might be taken on, a scientist is less apt to doubt the species assimilative forces when applied to such time-honored and widely distributed skills. Not so language, the late-arriving exemplar nonpareil. And even supposing Chomsky could have brought himself to accept that language might be absorbed by the usual species assimilative means, this would only have raised a much larger question in his head: where did language come from in the first place? Having appeared quite suddenly on this planet, and having arrived nearly full blown as it were, like Athena from Zeus’s head, language could not chalk up its origin, at the very least, to some typical hand-me-down inter-generational event.

Faced with language’s seemingly unique standing in the biological world, and hampered by the unanswered question regarding its origin, Chomsky resorted finally to some scientific magic and proposed an entirely separate instinct for human language. Thus in one fell swoop Chomsky turned language into something biological, genetic, neural, evolutionary, and above all else, restrictively human. The term universal grammar debuted as an ironic phrase, for now there was nothing universal in the concept at all.

The more productive piece of evidence Chomsky did not have access to was an accurate description of the condition known as autism. Autism of course was known in the 1960s and 1970s, but at that time was regarded as little more than a medical catastrophe, its gravity compensated for only by its extreme rarity. Those few autistic individuals who were recognized in Chomsky’s day, both from the acuteness of their condition and from the cruelties likely being perpetrated upon them, would not have been able to provide many useful clues in a study of general linguistics. It would take at least another twenty years before the medical community would begin to realize autism was a condition not necessarily so devastating—and uncoincidentally, not all that uncommon—and of course even to the present day the medical community continues to struggle under the delusions from that misguided past.

Autism, when more accurately described, tells a much broader story than has been heretofore considered—a story touching directly upon, among many other things, the history and construction of human language.

Fundamentally, autistic individuals possess a significantly less degree of species recognition and species assimilative capacity than do most other humans (and indeed, than do most organisms). For yet unknown reasons, autistic humans do not readily perceive the human-specific features of their sensory environment, and in consequence they do not easily assimilate to the species itself. Therefore, initial autistic sensory perception goes forth mostly ungrounded, and early autistic cognitive development must run a gauntlet of a nearly overwhelming sensory chaos. In compensation and in varying measure, most autistic individuals form their cognitive grounding instead out of the non-biological features that inherently stand out from the surrounding environment—perceptions based upon symmetry, pattern, structure, detail, repetition, and the like. The unusual early behaviors of autistic children are chock-full of the consequences from these unique forms of perception and cognition, and the ongoing behaviors of nearly all autistic individuals—from childhood through maturity—show marked preference for the more orderly, non-biological aspects of the objective world than for the social, biologically-based features preferred by the human population at large.

Space, time, logic, mathematics—these concepts, representing the structural framework of the objective world, were first introduced into the human species through the medium of autistic perception, and they are the by-product of a compensatory form of autistic cognition that finds its essential grounding in the symmetries and patterns to be found in the surrounding environment.

Autistic individuals, however, despite their non-biological cognitive grounding, are biological creatures themselves and are therefore subject to the same experiential restrictions as any other organism. Space, time, logic, mathematics—these concepts cannot be directly grasped by immediate perception alone, they are not inherently part of immediate biological experience. To bring non-biologically based perception into the realm of immediate biological experience requires the aid of an intermediary; it requires the use of an artifact that can be immediately perceived but which also serves the purpose of representing something not biologically present. This intermediary is precisely that object we call language, and if autistic individuals have been responsible for introducing the realm of non-biological pattern and structure into the human species, they have also been responsible for bringing along its essential companion—they have been responsible for the introduction of language.

If Chomsky had been able to surmise this autism-inspired origin of human language, then perhaps he would have been less mystified by language’s ubiquitous structure.

As the early artifacts of human language—abstract gestures to some degree, but primarily spoken sounds—as these began to circulate around the globe, they quickly diverged in both vocabulary and surface form. But as Chomsky has rightly noted, the underlying structure of human language changed hardly at all, never varied in any appreciable degree from tribe to tribe, place to place, generation to generation. This split between language’s surface presentation and its underlying structural form captures exactly that distinction between the arbitrary nature of the object doing the representing, and the far more determinant nature of the object being represented. Only the artifacts of language can be indeterminate, only they can take on a nearly unlimited variety of form: hundreds of spoken languages, thousands of individual dialects, written and encoded extensions (shuffling language across the expanses of space and time), signs and symbols, charts and schematics. As humans have so amply demonstrated, almost any sense-perceptible item can serve the purpose of conveying a language—all that is required is some degree of convention—but if the artifacts of language can come from almost any perceivable source, what language represents is something entirely different. What language represents, by necessity and original intent, is something already perceptually determined.

Space, time, logic, mathematics, pattern, symmetry—these concepts, representing the form of the objective world, are precisely those concepts that must be reflected inside language’s foundational structure. Object and concept, noun and verb, temporal tenses, spatial adjectives, all manner of nuanced prepositional form—as autistics brought to humanity the patterned structures from the surrounding world, they also brought to humanity the conveying mechanism that by necessity had to assume that world’s inherent organizational form. There is no need to posit a genetic, biological or neural instinct to explain language’s ubiquitous structure: one need only look to the pattern and symmetry of the perceived world and realize that language has no choice but to be its mirror. And one need not confine language to the human species alone: any life-form open to the non-biological patterns of the surrounding environment will by necessity find itself relying upon the mechanisms of a deeply foundational language, because biologically speaking, there are no alternative means.

And so indeed, human language has been framed by a universal grammar—far more universal than Chomsky ever managed to conceive.

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