Mark Baker:

Home | The whole bibliography | My book on Consciousness

(Copyright © 2000 Piero Scaruffi | Legal restrictions - Termini d'uso )

This is a book for the specialists, regardless of what it claims to be. The debate on the "universal grammar" was started in 1981 by Noam Chomsky to defend his thesis that language is innate: we are born with a brain that is prewired to learn language; which language we learn depends on what sentences we are exposed to. This view presumes that our brain is born with a "universal grammar" (a set of universal rules), i.e. with the ability to deal with language (as an abstract skill). Chomsky's point was that languages are impossibly difficult to learn but children routinely learn their home language in a few months. Therefore their brain must be "ready" to acquire language in a way that no computer is. In other words, what the brain has to learn is not the whole concept of "language", but something smaller and simpler. If the brain contrains a "universal grammar", then what we have to learn is not the whole concept of "language" but only the specifics of our home language. Where is the universe grammar in the brain? and how does the brain construct a specific grammar (say, English) out of the universal grammar?
A consequence of this hypothesis is that all human languages (or at least their grammars) must be relatively similar, if they all sprung up from the same universal grammar that is genetically transmitted from brain to brain. This is where the American linguist Mark Baker focused his research.
Baker tried to identify the similarities among languages and what "parameters" determine if you speak English or French. Imagine a car that you could personalize so much that eventually could look completely different from the car of your neighbor, while still being manufactured at the same plant. The "personalization" would consist in selecting "options" such as paint color, body shape, number of doors, etc. At each step of the assembly line, machines would obey one of the options and add a different touch to your car. Something similar occurs in the brain with language, according to Baker. Baker imagines a "tree" (a hierarchy) of such linguistic parameters. The parameters are arranged according to their power to affect one another. At each junction in the hierarchy, a parameter (or more) determines a way to structure sentences. Below that junction, that parameter is fixed and other parameters are taken into account. Baker's hierarchy of linguistic parameters looks like the periodic table of elements or Linnaeus's classification of animals and plants, but it is different in that it specifies how to "generate" the classification.
Alas, Baker does not account for the evolution of languages. We do know that Italian evolved from Latin. Italian has wildly different grammatical rules from Latin. How did it happen that children born with a pre-wired brain and later brainwashed to acquire the parameters of the Italian language ended up changing those parameters? In fact, the one thing that seems to change a lot is the grammar itself. Words are relatively similar among languages of the same geographic area, but the grammar can be quite different (as any Italian who studied Latin in high school painfully remembers). Those changes occurred gradually over many generations.
The book surveys several languages around the world, but the choice of phrases seems to reflect a writer's desire to amuse the readers rather than a scientific desire to analyze the common structures of a language. In fact, one could argue that Baker focused on rare and extreme forms of language to construct his theory. Which does not amount to a proof of his theory.
It is still possible, after all, that all languages descend from the same original language, therefore they all have somewhat compatible grammars. And that children learn a language in the amount of time that it takes to learn a language, not any faster. The ultimate proof will come from neurophysiology, when we manage to map the linguistic areas of the brain. Then, and only then, will we know if and how (and to what extent) the brain is "pre-wire" for language. No question the brain is born with a structure that facilitates survival on this planet. It is even too easy to claim that so many skills must be "innate". We wouldn't be alive if that were not the case. However, claiming that our brains are "pre-wired" to discover General Relativity would be an exaggeration. It took Einstein to discover General Relativity. Decades from now every human on the planet will master General Relativity. That does not mean that General Relativity was inevitable for all human brains. Maybe there was an Einstein of communicating, who invented language. And we are all simply re-learning, generation after generation, that marvelous invention.

Permission is granted to download/print out/redistribute this file provided it is unaltered, including credits.