January 18, 2018

The second gap in our basic knowledge about languages arises because the invisible mental rules (the grammar)—which have been almost the exclusive focus of study among linguists for decades—by themselves do not generate the whole linguistic system. When Chomsky proclaimed language “a window on the mind,” an entire research program for the discipline of linguistics was launched. In the 50 years since, this research has already yielded many important insights into human cognition. With his famous sentence “Colorless green ideas sleep furiously,” Chomsky demonstrated how linguists can explore complex structures (sounds, phrases, sentences, etc.) even when there is no meaningful content at all. The lack of meaning does not hinder us in our investigation of pristine mental structures, and we ought to distinguish between the two. This has been the conventional wisdom in linguistics for decades.

But although languages certainly contain abstract structures, they evolve and exist to convey information, and that function permeates and influences every level of language. To its critics, including this author, the Chomskyan program has been unduly narrow, overly focused on large global languages, and preoccupied with structure at the expense of content. Linguists’ preoccupation with these abstract structures (collectively termed “grammar”) has led to a microscopic approach that treats languages like laboratory specimens, utterly divorced from their natural environments, the people who speak them, and the content of those people’s thoughts. Like the Tuvan ways of saying “go,” the internal grammar requires explicit reference to the external world, and dynamically adapts to it. These words arise in the context of rich feedback loops and interactions among themselves, with other brains, and with the external environment.

What’s missing in the Chomskyan view of language as a mechanism in the individual brain is the distributed, social nature of language. If only one speaker of a language remains, that language essentially does not exist, because it is missing the fundamental condition: conversation. Grammar is a distributed system of knowledge. Nobody’s brain can hold all of English, or Chamacoco, or any other tongue. Language spills out into the world, residing in multiple brains, embedding itself in the local environment, shaped by cultural values and beliefs. It takes on its own mysterious trajectory of change with no one leading it. Such complexities can be thought of as products of emergence, like insect swarming patterns, fireflies flashing in unison, or geese flying in a V-formation, where no rule or leader coordinates the activity, yet a distinct pattern emerges, unplanned. When looking at migrating geese, we may immediately notice the V-formation, since the geese are few in number. But languages are made up of many thousands (in fact an infinite number) of possible forms. Ideally what we would need to collect is every utterance out of the mouth of every speaker, in order to appreciate the full range of possibilities. Of course, that is not possible, but as responsible scientists, we must at least make an effort to encounter as many speakers as possible and to hear as much as they will tell us. That sense of constant discovery is what makes the task of mapping the world’s linguistic diversity so exciting. Never knowing what I might hear next keeps pulling me to some of the most remote places on Earth.

K. David Harrison, The Last Speakers: The Quest To Save The World’s Most Endangered Languages