Genetic Linguistics


Osiatynski: What, then, in the field of linguistics, are the greatest achievements?

Chomsky: I think the most important work that is going on has to do with the search for very general and abstract features of what is sometimes called universal grammar: general properties of language that reflect a kind of biological necessity rather than logical necessity; that is, properties of language that are not logically necessary for such a system but which are essential invariant properties of human language and are known without learning. We know these properties but we don’t learn them. We simply use our knowledge of these properties as the basis for learning.

Osiatynski: Do we genetically inherit this knowledge?

Chomsky: Yes, we must. In fact, by universal grammar I mean just that system of principles and structures that are the prerequisites for acquisition of language, and to which every language necessarily conforms.

Osiatynski: Does it mean that this genetic basis of language is universal?

Chomsky: Yes, that’s right. But we are only one species. You can imagine a different world in which a number of species developed with different genetically determined linguistic systems. It hasn’t happened in evolution. What has happened is that one species has developed, and the genetic structure of this species happens to involve a variety of intricate abstract principles of linguistic organization that, therefore, necessarily constrain every language, and, in fact, create the basis for learning language as a way of organizing experience rather than constituting something learned from experience.

Osiatynski: Would such knowledge also be helpful in understanding human nature?

Chomsky: It would, in two respects. For one thing, it is by itself a part of a study of human intelligence that is, perhaps, the central aspect of human nature. And second, I think, it is a good model for studying other human properties, which ought to be studied by psychologists in the same way.

– Wiktor Osiatynski (ed.), Contrasts: Soviet and American Thinkers Discuss the Future (MacMillan, 1984), pp. 95-101

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