Language Is a Technology, Not an Instinct

Illustration by Matt Murphy

This is a fascinating story debunking the idea of “Universal Grammar,” a beloved theory of thinky language people who never did the requisite science. Noam Chomsky thought that humans are such incredible linguistic geniuses that we must be born with the cognitive structures for language already built in. Recent research says that’s a nope:

The general lesson … is that, without exposure to a normal human milieu, a child just won’t pick up a language at all. Spiders don’t need exposure to webs in order to spin them, but human infants need to hear a lot of language before they can speak. However you cut it, language is not an instinct in the way that spiderweb-spinning most definitely is.

That’s just the beginning. If there were a universal grammar behind human language, you’d expect human languages to share universal characteristics, would you not? Well, they don’t. There’s no essentially human message or grammar shared between languages. Human DNA can’t even encode something so rich in information. Language is so hard that our entire brain has to work on it; there’s no discrete language module finely honed by evolution. It’s just something we finally figured out how to do after muddling along for millennia. Language is ingenious, not innate.

This is not to say that we don’t have uniquely advanced physiology for handling language — the right kinds of larynxes and prefrontal cortices — but our physiology also gives us the capacity to fly airplanes, and you wouldn’t say that humans are born with an innate “aviation instinct.” Language is an advanced skill, not a trait of humankind. It’s just that we get more practice in language than maybe anything else.

My book is an effort to redefine technology as something more holistic than just computers for consumers. I think any application of our knowledge to change our environment should be considered a technology, and it’s important that the effort in our relationship with technology spans the whole category. Language is one of the most out-there examples I offer of technologies we don’t ordinarily consider as such, and I think this article bolsters the case for it.

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