So Language Did Not Originate for Communication?

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by Neil Godfrey

This video clip of part of a Chomsky talk on language and its origins has to be one of the most fascinating discussions that I have heard. Warning: one must be alert to keep up with the argument; it’s not for drowsy late-time listening.

He is saying that latest research indicates language did not originate as a tool for communication but communication was a by-product of a problem-solving ability. That makes me feel a bit better when I find myself unable to articulate something I think I understand; but then I’m reminded that Chomsky once said (relying upon my faulty memory here) we don’t know what we are really thinking until we express it.

Does anyone know when and where the talk was originally given? The upload date is August 17 but I doubt that’s the date of the talk itself. I was alerted to it because it supposedly had something shocking to say about blacks, but found out there was much, much more to the half-hour segment.

You’ll need to rewind the video back to start….


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Neil Godfrey

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6 thoughts on “So Language Did Not Originate for Communication?”

  1. MIT was established in 1861, and this was a talk given within ‘MIT AT 150’, positioning it ca. 2011. I should note that Noam Chomsky made NO racist comments, but was citing what early explorers were explicating.
    STEPHAN PICKERING / חפץ ח”ם בן אברהם
    Torah אלילה Yehu’di Apikores / Philologia Kabbalistica Speculativa Researcher
    לחיות זמן רב ולשגשג


  2. The key portion is about 15 minutes in, where he points out that the internal organization isn’t the same as the linear order that we use when we talk and listen. The rest has to do with his theory of syntax, which has always had problems. As he says, there are a lot of very hard problems, which can be a symptom that there’s something fundamental wrong with the theory.

    This is basically correct: semantics (meaning) is primary, syntax is secondary.

    The thing I’ve run across that puts a major spin on the whole enterprise is something called the Natural Semantic Metalanguage. https://www.griffith.edu.au/humanities-languages/school-humanities-languages-social-science/research/natural-semantic-metalanguage-homepage . It basically posits that there are something like 65 “semantic primes,” that is, elementary concepts that can’t be defined in simpler terms: everyone over the age of about 5 who’s at all typical simply knows what they mean. They are essentially built-ins of the internal representation we use.

    What’s amazing about this is that about 50 of these seem to be shared with chimpanzees. (I don’t have access to the papers that describe this work, even assuming that they’ve been published yet. I know about it because one of the primary researchers has referenced it.)

    One major reason why Chomsky doesn’t seem to know about a lot of what has been going on in linguistics is that, for Chomsky, if it isn’t following his program, it might as well not exist. Sad.

    1. But one question. I may misunderstand but is not the information you point to (fascinating as it is, and I appreciated it very much) actually directed at a tangent from the question Chomsky himself is addressing in the youtube clip? Is he not addressing the question of something akin to “what makes language work” while the information you point to is descriptive of something very fundamental about the nature of language itself. Are these not two distinct questions being addressed?

      I ask because I was a bit puzzled by your lament that Chomsky appears not to be aware of the information you point to in the youtube clip; yet that info is addressing a different question from what Chomsky is discussing, yes?

      On the point you alert me to…. Are the “semantic primes” comparable to Kant’s concept of basic cognitive structures in the way our brain seems to be wired from birth?

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