Click here to read a Brazilian Portuguese version of the Q&A.
We’d like to thank Antonio Codina for the translation.
Paulo Ângelo Araújo-Adriano & Williane Corôa
ForMA: What do you think of the current stage of Generative Grammar as an approach to the Galilean challenge? Is there any need for a qualitative leap forward such as those from Transformational Grammar to GB and then to the MP?
Chomsky: Contemporary work addresses only part of the challenge: the task of accounting for the uniquely human capacity to create an unbounded array of structured expressions interpreted as thoughts, and the means by which they are externalized (in actual fact, very rarely). But the other part of the challenge has to do with the use of this capacity: what’s been called “the creative aspect of language use” – repeat, “use.” That is, the ability to use language in a manner that we may be “incited and inclined” to do by circumstances, though we are not “compelled” and might do otherwise — the ability to use language in ways that are appropriate to circumstances, but not caused by them, a fundamental distinction. These were the among the primary concerns that led Descartes to postulate a second substance, res cogitans. Sometimes commentators now quote Humboldt’s aphorism about language involving “infinite use of finite means” – usually overlooking the fact that he was talking about use. This gap in understanding is of course not specific to the study of language. Virtually nothing is understood about voluntary action even in far simpler cases, like the decision to lift your finger, matters often not properly recognized.
For the specific and sufficiently awesome and significant task of accounting for the capacity to generate thoughts, the minimalist program seems to me to formulate the most far-reaching goals we can hope to attain, and in recent years, there has, I think, been substantial progress in establishing the plausibility of the “strong minimalist thesis,” an idea that seemed outlandish not long ago. About 20 years ago I gave talks on language in Brasilia, organized by Lucia Lobato, which I think were published in Brazil at the time. In them, I speculated that we might discover someday that language is like a snowflake, that is, assuming its form by what amount to laws of nature in the simplest possible way. To put it picturesquely, we may discover that language is “designed” to be beautiful but not usable – more prosaically, that it favors computational efficiency over communicative efficiency. I think that by now we can provide interesting support for such speculations. There are of course enormous challenges ahead, among them to show that the apparent variety and diversity of language is only superficial, having to do mostly with matters of externalization, that is, with the effort to interconnect two unrelated systems, true language (I-language) and the sensorimotor system (and of course arbitrary lexical choice).
ForMA: How did language get its phonetical counterpart if it evolved mainly as a cognitive tool?
Chomsky: There’s quite interesting work on this by Riny Huijbregts (“Click Phonemes, the emergence of language, and the mapping asymmetry”; https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/28161511). It is now known, from genomic studies, that the San people separated from other Homo Sapiens about 125,000 years ago, hence not long after the species appeared (roughly 200,000 years ago). There is no evidence for language, in fact symbolic behavior generally, before that time. They share the general human language capacity, but their externalization system is interestingly different. Huijbregts shows convincingly that their languages are the only ones to use clicks (with exceptions that he effectively dismisses). His plausible conclusion is that the language capacity – I-language generating thoughts – emerged pretty much along with Homo Sapiens, but that externalization only took place some time later, after the separation, and in somewhat different ways. These conclusions accord with independent arguments to the same effect that Robert Berwick and I had given. As to how externalization developed, we have no idea, but it’s not surprising that if a sufficient number of people in the small groups of humans that existed at the time shared the same internal language capacity, they would have hit upon means to relate it somehow to the sensorimotor systems that existed long before so that they could share their thoughts with others.
ForMA: What are your thoughts on describing the FLN/FLB in neurobiological terms? Is it fundamental for the Minimalist Program? Is it a challenge?
Chomsky: Discovering the neural basis for language poses enormous challenges. That’s true, in fact, even in vastly simpler cases: for example, finding the neural basis for the remarkable navigational capacities of insects (which far exceed our own). And the study of language poses unique problems because it is biologically isolated. We learn next to nothing about FLN from comparative work. A good deal has been learned about the neural basis for the visual system form invasive experiments with cats and monkeys, which have visual systems much like ours, but there are no other organisms with anything like the human language faculty, so comparative work of this kind is unavailable.
ForMA: If language is a system of thought, unrelated to communication, would communication be only a so-called bodily function of this particular system?
Chomsky: I think the phrase “unrelated to communication” is too strong. Certainly language is used for communication, in fact is by far the richest system that we have for communication. The significant conclusion that I think is becoming better and better established empirically is that externalization, relating internal (I-) language to some sensorimotor system is an ancillary process, and that exigencies of communication do not appear to enter into the evolution or basic nature of I-language, so that specific uses of externalized language, as for communication, would also be secondary features of language. I’m not sure what is intended by the phrase “bodily function.” I don’t see any reason to question John Locke’s thesis that mental processes are aspects of some form of organized matter, in particular the brain, hence “bodily” in the broad sense of the term.
ForMA: Should one take it literally that the linguistic device of the mind generates utterances unboundedly instead of being activated only when we want to say something?
Chomsky: Those should not be regarded as alternatives, if the term “generate” is properly understood. Consider the simpler case of arithmetic. Some finite component of our mind/brain – call it arithmetic competence AC — determines the properties of the natural numbers, say the triples (x,y,z) such that z is the product of x and y, for arbitrary integers x and y. In technical terms, AC generates this infinite set (and many others). But generation is different from the process of multiplying x and y (which might give the wrong answer, in practice). Same with language. I-language generates an unbounded array of internal expressions, interpreted as thoughts, and sometimes externalized as utterances. And when the I-language is activated it can produce utterances (and interpret what we perceive).