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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Biology, Sociology and Language


Osiatynski: As I understand, language has an innate biological basis. Its use, however, is social. What do you think of the social functions of language? Is it primarily an instrument of communication?

Chomsky: I think a very important aspect of language has to do with the establishment of social relations and interactions. Often, this is described as communication. But that is very misleading, I think. There is a narrow class of uses of language where you intend to communicate. Communication refers to an effort to get people to understand what one means. And that, certainly, is one use of language and a social use of it. But I don’t think it is the only social use of language. Nor are social uses the only uses of language. For example, language can be used to express or clarify one’s thoughts with little regard for the social context, if any.

I think the use of language is a very important means by which this species, because of its biological nature, creates a kind of social space, to place itself in interactions with other people. It doesn’t have much to do with communication in a narrow sense; that is, it doesn’t involve transmission of information. There is much information transmitted but it is not the content of what is said that is transmitted. There is undoubtedly much to learn about the social uses of language, for communication or for other purposes. But at present there is not much in the way of a theory of sociolinguistics, of social uses of languages, as far as I am aware.

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

Taarof


There is a social principle in Iran called taarof, it is the concept that describes the practice of politeness through linguistic indirectness and insincerity.

In Iran, people deal with the concept of honesty in a different way than most Western cultures in which directness and bluntness are, to a large extent, accepted and even encouraged communicative principles.

In the context of taarof, Iranians are expected to give false praises and insincere promises. Not out of deviousness, but out of the sociocultural expectation to tell people what they want to hear out of politeness, to avoid conflict, or to offer hope when there is none.

Examples of common taarof situations include: people imploring others to go through a door first; hosts insisting that they do not want customers to pay for dinner; dinner partners refusing to let others share in the cost of a meal; hostesses serving food even though their guests claim they are full; and people being invited to dinner when the host does not really want their company.

“Symbolism and vagueness are inherent in our language. […] Taarof is a sign of respect, even if we don’t mean it.” – Nasser Hadian

Dysphemism [Noun.]


The use of a derogatory, offensive or vulgar word or phrase to replace a (more) neutral original. As opposed to its antonym euphemism.

E.g. Consider two German words for ‘suicide’: the dysphemistic term Selbstmord, literally: “self murder”, and the euphemistic term Freitod, literally: “free death”.

A Gene For Language


Ever more chat
500,000 years ago

A few people have mutations in a gene called FOXP2. As a result they struggle to grasp grammar and pronounce words. That suggests FOXP2 is crucial for learning and using language. The modern FOXP2 evolved in the common ancestor of humans and Neanderthals: Neanderthal FOXP2 looks just like ours.

See other: What Makes Humans Human?

Protasis and Apodosis


In grammar, conditional sentences are “If …, then …” statements. They make a statement that if something happens, then something else will happen.

The ‘if’ clause is referred to as the protasis by grammarians. It comes from the Greek words ‘pro’ (meaning before) and ‘stasis’ (meaning ‘stand’). So, the protasis means ‘what stands before’ or ‘comes first’ as far as these two clauses are concerned. The ‘then’ clause is termed the apodosis; it is what ‘comes after’ the protasis.

Dichotomies of the Rational and the Linguistic


Osiatynski: I’ve read several times that we think in language but “feel” in nonlinguistic ways.

Chomsky: I know that it’s false of me, at least if “language” refers (in my case) to English, and I assume that it’s false of everyone else. I don’t think you would have any trouble at all in deciding that you are thinking of some event and then visualizing it happening with its consequences, and constructing a rational analysis of it without being able to verbalize it adequately in anything like its full complexity.

Osiatynski: You used the expression “rational analysis.” Do you believe that all our thinking is rational and linear?

Chomsky: I don’t think all thinking is a kind of rational structure. But I don’t think it is correct to identify the rational-nonrational dichotomy with the linguistic-nonlinguistic dichotomy.

Osiatynski: Can language be nonrational?

Chomsky: Yes; so those are two dimensions that do not correlate. It’s true that language is in a sense linear but that is as obvious as perceptual space is three-dimensional.

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

Talk Talk Talk


Gift of the gab
1.6 million – 600,000 years ago

All great apes have air sacs on their vocal tracts, which let them make loud bellows. But humans don’t, because the air sacs make it impossible to produce different vowel sounds. Our ancestors apparently lost them before we diverged from our Neanderthal cousins, suggesting the Neanderthals could also speak.

See other: What Makes Humans Human?