We are language



What is language and how might it be described? One answer could be that language is a communication tool, used to speak, listen, read, and write or simply gesture. However, that view seems rather limited. Other species obviously communicate. Taking the question as a purely human concern, language might then be described as what, who and how we are as humans. That is, we sense and imagine our world through language. We also create and express thoughts with language. Indeed, language could be equated to consciousness.


To speculate that language is a human precondition means to also accept the suggestion by Chomsky that we are predisposed for acquisition (Brown, 2000; Maher & Groves, 1996). Predisposition or innateness, while just a hypothesis, does not seem completely implausible, in light of the fact that under normal circumstances all children acquire native language proficiency in a remarkably short period of time (Brown, 2000; Maher & Groves, 1996). Even more astounding is that hearing-impaired (i.e. deaf) children exposed to sign language from birth are equally successful with acquisition (Fromkin & Rodman, 1998).


Still, innateness would only begin to describe language. Surely a broad description of language would also include how it might be used. Therefore this essay starts with innateness in describing language, first discussing Chomsky’s theoretical construct known as a “language acquisition device” (Brown, 2000; Maher & Groves, 1996). Next, the notion of ‘universal grammar’ is discussed along with absolute and statistical universals. The creative use of language at the individual level will conclude the essay.


Language is human


Acquiring our first language is an incredible and seemingly inexplicable phenomenon. As far as we know humans are the only species to demonstrate structurally dependent language (Scaruffi, 2006, Maher & Groves, 1996). Researchers believe we alone rely on “grammar”, the combination of phonology, morphology, semantics, syntax and a lexicon, in our communication (Fromkin & Rodman, 1998, p 18).


As children, under normal conditions, we all accomplish the colossal feat of first language acquisition quickly and efficiently (Brown, 2000). Moreover, evidence shows that hearing-impaired (i.e. deaf) children can acquire sign language “in stages parallel to language acquisition by hearing children learning oral language” (Fromkin & Rodman, 1998, p. 20).


Noam Chomsky is well-known for hypothesizing that the human mind is structured to acquire its first language (Maher & Groves, 1996). Chomsky’s notion of innateness adopts the theoretical construct “language acquisition device” or LAD (Brown, 2000, p. 24) or language faculty (Chomsky, 2005). McNeill (1966, in Brown, 2000, p. 24) outlines what are thought to be the universal principles of the LAD:


1.      The ability to distinguish speech sounds from other sounds in the environment,

2.      The ability to organize linguistic data into various classes that can later be refined,

3.      Knowledge that only a certain kind of linguistic system is possible and that other kinds are not, and

4.      The ability to engage in constant evaluation of the developing linguistic system so as to construct the simplest possible system out of the available linguistic input.


The LAD corresponds to three “states”: an initial state, a series of intermediate states and a steady state (Maher & Groves, 1996, p. 48; Szabo, 2004, p. 2).


The initial state has been the focus of Chomsky’s linguistic studies (Maher & Groves, 1996; Brown, 2000). Chomsky (1957, in Lyons, 1981) has declared that “From now on I will consider a language to be a set (finite or infinite) of sentences, each finite in length and constructed out of a finite set of elements.” Interestingly, what might be ‘constructed out of a finite set of elements’ has been of little interest to Chomsky (Maher & Groves, 1996).


Szabo (2004, ¶ 5) explains that “Chomsky denies that communication is an inherent function of our language and in general rejects the contention that language should be studied in the context of human interactions.” By contrast, other language acquisition theories such as behaviorism or social-interaction suggest children acquire language through some form of human interaction (Brown, 2000).


Chomsky (1959) has disputed the behaviorists’ explanation that stimulus, response, and reinforcement leads to language acquisition by questioning how such a result could be possible given the freedom we have to create infinite thus varied responses or choose not to respond at all. Social interaction has been challenged with “the poverty of the stimulus,” an idea which suggests children can demonstrate some language behavior without any exposure to an apparent stimulus, such as instruction, imitation or social interaction (Fromkin & Rodman, 1998, p. 340; Szabo, ¶ 7).


An apparent weakness in the innateness theory is that it is not falsifiable; it cannot be disproved, and thus is a limited scientific explanation. On the other hand, apparently universal language features strengthen the argument; not the least of which is the universal capacity for acquisition, including those born hearing-impaired. Nonetheless, while there is no definitive answer for how we acquire our first language, innateness remains a compelling hypothesis.


The following section discusses the initial state as universal grammar and how a shared language faculty does not necessarily mean shared language.


Language is people


The suspicion that all languages adhere to a universal law is centuries old. Bacon, in the 13th century, claimed “in essence all grammar was one and the same, but the contingent variation in the forms of speech rendered one tongue unintelligible to another” (Robins, 1952). During the 18th century Humboldt envisioned a “prototypal” language that all languages stemmed from and recommended that any studies of individual languages be in support of the prototypal notion (Stanford, 2007, section 7).


The interest in how languages might stem from common principles diminished with increased comparative linguistic studies during the 19th century (Robins, 1952). Chomsky (1966, p. 589) nonetheless felt the earlier “universal grammarians” had much to offer. In particular, Chomsky (1966, p. 589) saw that “they make a fairly clear distinction between deep and surface structure.”


Chomsky (Crystal, 1997, p. 84), echoing Humboldt’s “prototypal” idea (Stanford, 2007, section 7), has asserted, “the aim of linguistics is to go beyond the study of individual languages to determine what the universal properties of language are and to establish a universal grammar that would account for the range of linguistic variation that is humanly possible.” In other words ‘go beyond’ what may be known of the intermediate and steady states of the LAD to further develop hypotheses about the initial state, also known as universal grammar or UG (Szabo, 2004).


Accounting for ‘the range of linguistic variation that is humanly possible’ raises the issue of language “universals”, linguistic features that all languages share (Brown, 2000, p. 35; Fromkin & Rodman, 1998, p. 18). Language universals ironically are not always absolute. For instance, all languages may employ a subject and object; however, not all languages have the subject preceding the object (Hoops, Haverkort & van den Noort, 2003; Keenan, 2007). Malagasy and Fijian are rare examples of languages with the subject following the object (Keenan, 2007). Thus some universals could be considered statistical universals, not absolute.


 In any case, the variation has been viewed by Chomsky as a “parameter” change (Szabo, 2004, ¶ 9; Maher & Groves, 1996, p. 101; Brown, 2000, p. 36). Chomsky (in Maher & Groves, 1996, p. 103) explains that “We view the problem of language acquisition as one of fixing parameters in a largely determined system;” i.e. UG. The “head parameter,” serves as an example (Maher & Groves, 1996, p.103; Brown, 2000, p. 36).


In this case, some languages, such as English, have the head (e.g. on) before the complement (e.g. the table) and others, like Korean, use the reverse (Szabo, 2004; Brown, 2000). Parameters could be viewed as absolute universals since, according to Brown (2000, p. 36) “they determine ways in which language can vary.” The variation, one way or another, would thereby describe statistical universals.


Another universal that varies is “pivot grammar” (Brown, 2000, p. 26). Brown (2000) has reported that all children adhere to the syntactic rules of pivot grammar, where pivot words (e.g. my, that) are classed separately from open words (e.g. mommy, chair). Therefore, pivot grammar itself could be considered absolute and, again, its subject/object variation would represent statistical universals.


Variation in language represents more than language groups (e.g. Korean or Fijian); it also represents individual identity. The final section of this essay looks at another language universal that can vary, “creativity” (Fromkin & Rodman, 1998, p. 9), and how people may present themselves as individuals through language.  


Language is individual


The creative use of language shapes us as individuals. According to Chomsky (1982, p. 423) “A person who knows a language has mastered a system of rules that assigns sound and meaning in a definite way for an infinite class of possible sentences.” For example, a child speaking a simple though unique sentence or a politician giving a complex but concise address, both demonstrate degrees of mastery and creative language use. As a system of rules with infinite possibilities, language offers us all opportunities to be funny, poetic, scholarly, or somehow creative or not.


We vary. On one hand, we all demonstrate “idiolects,” our nuanced, unique, individual ways of using a shared language (Fromkin & Rodman, 1998, p. 399). On the other hand, some people, such as politicians (or their speech writers), can be especially creative language users. For instance, US President Reagan, in a logical attempt to relate with the common citizen, once explained that one trillion dollars would look like a “67-mile high stack of $1000 bills” (Bellamy, 1981). US President Kennedy once tried to identify with a German audience in Berlin by stating “Ich bin ein Berliner!” but at the time ‘Berliner’ was a brand of donut; thus ‘I am a donut!’ garnered more chuckles than partisans (Emery, 2007).


More recently, a US presidential candidate was ridiculed in the media for a blatant and unfortunately failed attempt to assume an ethnic dialect in a speech (Christian, 2007).

One might think that mass media had begun to level out dialects thus, as in the latter example, dissuading a politician from faking one. However, leveling out, according to Fromkin & Rodman (1998, p. 254), is not occurring and “studies even suggest that dialect variation is increasing, particularly in urban areas”. That begs the question: Increasing to what?


The futuristic film ‘Idiocracy’ (Judge, 2006) parodied an answer as, “The English language had deteriorated into a hybrid of hillbilly, Valley girl, inner-city slang and various grunts.” The film’s lead character, from the present day, could understand the future population, but they found his normal manner of speaking condescending and offensive. The filmmaker predicts a dire future for the English language due to popular culture amplified through mass media (e.g. countless TV channels and the Internet).


While the film is silly, it may not be that absurd. For example, the Merriam-Webster dictionary recently announced “w00t” as its word of the year (Merriam-Webster, 2007, ¶ 1). The word ‘w00t’ is spelled with the number zero for ‘o’ and described as an interjection or exclamation for joy and excitement (Merriam-Webster, 2007). The word has only received recognition as ‘word of the year’, it has not been entered into the dictionary, yet.

A new word like ‘w00t’ demonstrates that language is always changing because, as Chomsky (1982, p. 423) suggests, there is “an infinite class of possible sentences”. The word ‘w00t’ also shows that one or a few people online can influence such a change.




This essay has shown that language can be described in many ways. For instance if, as Chomsky has suggested, we are endowed with an innate faculty to master human language, including sign language, language can be described as that which makes us human.


Rival hypotheses for language acquisition, such as behaviorism and its stimulus, response, reinforcement model, have been challenged by the infinite possibilities and freedom we have with language to create and respond as we wish. Another rival hypothesis, social-interaction, appears weakened by the ‘poverty of the stimulus’ notion, which claims that children acquire some aspects of language in absence of a known stimulus.


While an innate faculty cannot be proven, the speed and ease of first language acquisition, along with the universal occurrence of grammar, has made the notion a centuries-old fascination. Chomsky has reiterated Humboldt’s call to reinvest what is known of various languages in order to develop the universal grammar hypothesis.


 The distinction between absolute and statistical universals seems to be one course of action to better understand linguistic variation. Variation across languages allows language to be described as something that makes us people.


At the individual level language can be intentionally and creatively crafted to express one’s real or desired identity.  Politicians, as one example, appear well-versed at that skill although their efforts are not always successful. Finally, language, however it may be defined, is always changing, neither for the better or worse, but simply because by its nature there are infinite possibilities for change.   




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