Piero Scaruffi(Copyright © 2013 Piero Scaruffi | Legal restrictions )
These are excerpts and elaborations from my book "The Nature of Consciousness"
Many people speak English. So we know that the English language exists and there must be a way to learn it and speak it. However, there is no definition of what the English language is, or of any other natural language. If you want to find out whether a word is English or not, you have to check a dictionary and hope that the author of that dictionary did not miss any word (in fact, almost all of them do miss some words, as new words are created all the time). If you want to find out whether a sentence is English, the individual words are not enough. A foreign word can actually show up in an English sentence. For example, "Mangiare is not an English word" is a perfectly valid English sentence that everybody understands. Even words that are not words in any language can figure in an English sentence: "Xgewut is not a meaningful word" is an English sentence. What makes a sentence English?
At the beginning of the 20th century, the Swiss linguist Ferdinand de Saussure was asking precisely this kind of a question. He distinguished the "parole" (an actual utterance in a language) from the "langue" (the entire body of the language).
Building on those foundations, the US linguist Noam Chomsky started a conceptual revolution. He was reacting to “structural” linguists, who were content with describing and classifying languages, and to behaviorists, who thought that language was learned by conditioning.
At the time, all scientific disciplines were being influenced by a new propensity towards formal thinking that had its roots as much in Computer Science as in David Hilbert's program of “formal systems” in Logic. Chomsky, basically, extended the idea of formal systems to Linguistics: he realized that the logical formalism could be employed to express the grammar of a language; and that the grammar of a language "was" the specification for the entire language. Chomsky's idea was therefore to concentrate on the study of grammar, and specifically syntax, i.e. on the rules that account for all valid sentences of a language.
His assumption was that the number of sentences in a language is potentially infinite, but there is a finite system of rules that defines which sentences can potentially be built and determines their meaning, and that system of rules is what identifies a language and differentiates it from other languages. That system of rules is the grammar of the language.
One of Chomsky's goals was to explain the difference between "performance" (all sentences that an individual will ever use) and "competence" (all sentences that an individual can utter, but will not necessarily utter). We are capable of saying far more than we will ever say in our entire lifetime. And we understand sentences that we have never heard before. You have probably never seen any of the sentences contained in this book but, hopefully, you understand them all. We can tell right away whether a sentence is correct or not, even when we do not understand its meaning. We do not learn a language by memorizing all possible sentences of it. We learn, and subsequently use, an abstraction that allows us to deal with any sentence in that language. That abstraction is the grammar of the language.
Behaviorists thought that language is learned via a process of conditioning: one learns the meaning of a sentence by being exposed to it and to its meaning. But Chomsky pointed out that virtually no sentence is similar to other sentences we’ve heard before. You have never read a sentence with these exact words before but, hopefully, you understand the meaning of what I just wrote.
Chomsky therefore argued for a “deductive” approach to language: how to derive all possible sentences of a language (whether they have been used or not) from an abstract structure (its “generative” grammar).
Chomsky also argued for the independence of syntax from semantics: the notion of a “well-formed” sentence in the language is distinct from the notion of a “meaningful” sentence. A sentence can make perfect sense from a grammatical point of view, while being absolutely meaningless (such as "the table eats cloudy books").
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