planters, and administrators clung to its coastal lowlands, convinced that no one could live in the treacherous mountain range that ran in a solid line down the middle of the island. But the mountains visible


By the 1920s it was thought that no corner of the earth fit for human habitation had remained unexplored. New Guinea, the world’s sec- ond largest island, was no exception. The European missionaries,

planters, and administrators clung to its coastal lowlands, convinced that no one could live in the treacherous mountain range that ran in a solid line down the middle of the island. But the mountains visible

from each coast in fact belonged to two ranges, not one, and between them was a temperate plateau crossed by many fertile valleys. A million Stone Age people lived in those highlands, isolated from the rest of the world for forty thousand years. The veil would not be lifted until

gold was discovered in a tributary of one of the main rivers . The ensu- ing gold rush attracted Michael Leahy, a footloose Australian prospec- tor, who on May 26, 1930, set out to explore the mountains with a fellow prospector and a group of indigenous lowland people hired as carriers. After scaling the heights, Leahy was amazed to see grassy open country on the other side. By nightfall his amazement turned to alarm, because there were points oflight in the distance, obvious signs that the valley was populated. After a sleepless night in which Leahy

and his party loaded their weapons and assembled a crude bomb, they

Chatterboxes 13

made their first contact with the highlanders. The astonishment was

mutual. Leahy wrote in his diary:

It was a relief when the [natives] came in sight, the men .. . in front, armed with bows and arrows, the women behin’d bring-

ing stalks of sugarcane. When he saw the women, Ewunga told me at once that there would be no fight. We waved to them to come on, which they did cautiou~ly, stopping every few yards to look us over. When a few of them finally got up courage to approach, we could see that they were utterly thunderstuck by our appearance. When I took off my hat, those nearest to me backed away in terror. One old chap came forward gingerly with open mouth, and touched me to seeifI was real. Then he knelt down, and rubbed his hands over my bare legs, possibly to find if they were painted, and grabbed me around the knees and hugged them, rubbing his bushy head against me …. The

women and children gradually got up courage to approach also, and presently the camp was swarming with the lot of

them, aU running about and jabbering at once, pointing to … everything that was new to them.

That “jabbering” was language-an unfamiliar language, one of eight hundred different ones that would be discovered among the isolated highlanders right up through the 1960s. Leahy’s first contact repeated a scene that must have taken place hundreds of times in human history, whenever one people first encountered another. All of them, as far as we know, already had language. Every Hottentot, every Eskimo, every Yanomamo. No mute tribe has ever been discovered and there is no record that a region has served as a “cradle” of lan~ guage from which it spread to previously languageless groups.

As in every other case, the language spoken by Leahy’s hosts turned out to be no mere jabber but a medium that could express abstract concepts, invisible entities, and complex trains of reasoning. The highlanders conferred intensiyely, trying to agree upon the nature of the pallid apparitions . The leading conjecture was that they were

14 “‘*” The Language In s tinct

reincarnated ancestors or other spirits in human form, perhaps ones that turned back into skeletons at night. They agreed upon an empiri- cal test that would settle the matter. “One of the people hid,” recalls the highlander Kirupano Eza’e, “and watched them going to excrete . He came back and said, ‘Those men from heaven went to excrete over

there .’ Once they had left many men went to take a look. When they sa~ that it smelt bad, they said, ‘Their skin might be different, but their shit smells bad like ours.’ ”

The universality of complex language is a discovery that fills lin-

guists with awe, and is the first reason to suspect that langua~e is. not just any cultural invention but the product of a special human m.sunct. Cultural inventions vary widely in their sophistication from society to society; within a society, the inventions are generally at the same level

of sophistication. Some groups count by carving notches on bones and cook on fires ignited by spinning sticks in logs; others use com-

puters and microwave ovens. Language, howev~r, ruins this .correla- tion. There are Stone Age societies, but there IS no such thmg as a Stone Age language . Earlier in this century the anthropological lin-

guist Edward Sapir wrote, “When it comes to linguistic form, Plato walks with the Macedonian swineherd, Confucius with the head-

hunting savage of Assam.” To pick an example at random of a sophisticated linguistic form

in a nonindustrialized people, the linguist Joan Bresnan recently wrote a technical article comparing a construction in Kivunjo, a Bantu lan- guage spoken in several villages on the slopes of Mou~t Ki1i~anjaro in Tanzania, with its counterpart construction in EnglIsh, which she

describes as “a West Germanic language sroken in England and its former colonies.” The English construction is called the dative* and is found in sentences like She baked me a brQwnie and He promised her Arpege) where ;n indirect object like me or her is placed after the verb to indicate the beneficiary of an act. The corresponding Kivunjo con- struction is called the applicative, whose resemblance to the English

* All the technical terms from linguistics, biology, and cognitive science that

I use in this book are defined in the Glossary on pages 503-516.

Chatterboxes + 15

dative, Bresnan notes, “can be likened to that of the game of chess to checkers.” The Kivunjo construction fits entirely inside the b ver , which has seven prefixes and suffixes, two moods, and fourteen tenses; the verb agrees with its subject, its object, and its benefactive nouns each of which comes in sixteen genders. (In case you are wondering’ these “genders” do not pertain to things like cross-dressers, transsex~ uals, hermaphrodites, androgynous people, and so on, as one reader

~f this cha~ter su~:n~sed;,To ~ linguist, the term gender retains its orig- mal meanmg of kind, as 10 the related words generic) genus) and genre. The Bantu “genders” refer to kinds like humans animals exte~ded objects, clusters of objects, and body parts. It jus~ happen~ that 10 many European languages the genders correspond to the sexes at least in pronouns . For this reason the linguistic term gender ha~ been pressed into service by nonlinguists as a convenient label for sex- ual dimorphism; the more accurate term sex seems now to be reserved as the polite way to refer to copulation.) Among the other clever <rad- gets I have glimpsed in the grammars of so-called primitive gro:ps,

~e c~mplex Cherokee pronoun system seems especially handy. It dis- tmgUlshes among "you and I," "another person and I," "several other people and I," and "you, one or more other persons and I " which English crudely collapses into the all-purpose pronou~ we. '

Act~ally, the p:ople whose linguistic abilities are most badly undere.sumated are rIght here in our society. Linguists repeatedly run up agamst the myth that working-class people and the less educated

~ember~ ~fth~ middle class speak a simpler or coarser language . This IS a ~ermclOus Illusion arising from the effortlessness of conversation. Or~nary speech, Wee color vision or walking, is a paradigm of engi- neerIng excellence- a technology that works so well that the user t k . ~ es Its outcome for granted, unaware of the complicated machinery hl.dden behind the panels. Behind such " simple" sentences as Where dzd he go? and or The guy I met killed himself, used automatically by any English spealeer, are dozens of subroutines that arrange the words to express the meaning. Despite decades of effort, no artificially engi- neered langu l' . . age system comes c ose to duplicaung the person in the street, HAL and C3PO notwithstanding.

16 The Language Instinct

But though the language engine is invisible to the human user,

the trim packages and color schemes are attended to obsessively. Tri-

fling differences between the dialect of the mainstream and the dialect of other groupS, like isn)t any versus ain)t no, those books versus them

books) and dragged him away versus drug him away, are dignified as

badges of “proper grammar.” But they have no more to do with grammatical sophistication than the fact that people in some regions of the United States refer to a certain insect as a dragonfly and people in other regions refer to it as a darning needle) or that English speakers

call canines dogs whereas French speakers call them chiens. It is even a bit misleading to call Standard English a “language” and these varia-

tions “dialects,” as if there were some meaningful difference between them. The best definition comes from the linguist Max Weinreich: a

language is a dialect with an army and a navy. The myth that nonstandard dialects of English are grammatically

deficient is widespread . In the 1960s some well-meaning educational psychologists announced that American black children had been so culturally deprived that they lacked true language and were confined instead to a “non-logical mode of expressive behavior.” The conclu-

sions were based on the students’ shy or sullen reactions to batteries

of standardized tests. If the psychologists had listened to spontaneous conversations, they would have rediscovered the commonplace fact

that American black culture is everywhere highly verbal; the subcul-

ture of street youths in particular is famous in the annals of anthropol- ogy for the value placed on linguistic virtuosity. Here is an example, from an interview conducted by the linguist William Labov on a stoop in Harlem. The interviewee is Larry, the roughest member of a teen- .

age gang called the Jets. (Labov observes in his scholarly article that

“for most readers of this paper, first contact with Larry would produce

some fairly negative reactions on both sides .”)

You know, like some people say if you’re good an’ shit, your

spirit gain’ t’heaven . .. ‘n’ if you bad, your spirit goin’ to hell. Well, bullshit! Your spirit goin’ to hell anyway, good or bad.


Chatterboxes 17

Why? I’ll tell you why. ‘Cause, you see, doesn’ nobody really know that it’s a God, y’know, ’cause I mean I have seen black

gods, white gods, all color gods, and don’t nobody know it’s really a God. An’ when they be s’lyin’ if you good, you goin’

t’heaven, tha’s bullshit, ’cause you ain’t goin’ to no heaven, ’cause it ain’t no heaven for you to go to.

[ .. . jus’ suppose that there is a God, would he be white or black? ]

He’d be white, man.


Why? I’ll tell you why. ‘Cause the average whitey out here got everything, you dig? And the nigger ain’t got shit, y’know? Y’understan’? So-um-for-in order for that to happen, you

know it ain’t no black God that’s doin’ that bullshit .

First contact with Larry’s grammar may produce negative reactions as well, but to a ‘ linguist it punctiliously conforms to the rules of the

dialect called Black English Vernacular (BEV). The most linguistically interesting thing about the dialect is how linguistically uninteresting

it is: if Labov did not have to call attention to it to debunk the claim

that ghetto children lack true linguistic competence, it would have

been filed away as just another language. Where Standard American

English (SAE) uses there as a meaningless dummy subject for the cop-

ula, BEV uses it as a meaningless dummy subject for the copula (com- pare SAE’s There)s really a God with Larry’s It)s really a God) . Larry’s

negative concord (You ain )t goin) to no heaven) is seen in many lan-

guages, such as French (ne … pas). Like speakers of SAE, Larry

IOverts subjects and auxiliaries in nondeclarative sentences, but the

exact set of the sentence types allowing inversion differs slightly. Larry

and other BEV speakers invert subjects and auxiliaries in negative

~ain clauses like Don)t nobody know; SAE speakers invert them only 10 . I’k D ) questIOns I e oesn t anybody know? and a few other sentence types. BEV allows its speakers the option of deleting copulas (If you bad); this is not random laziness but a systematic rule that is virtually

18 The Language In stinct

identical to the contraction rule in SAE that reduces He is to He\ You are to YouJre, and I am to I’m. In both dialects, be can erode only in certain kinds of sentences. No SAE speaker would try the following


Yes he is! –+ Yes he’s! I don’t care what you are. –+ I don’t care what you’re .

Who is it? –+ Who’s it?

For the same reasons, no BEV speaker would try the following dele-


Yes he is! –+ Yes he! I don’t care what you are. –+ I don’t care what you.

Who is it? –+ Who it?

Note, too, that BEV speakers are not just more prone to eroding words. BEV speakers use the full forms of certain auxiliaries (I have seen), whereas SAE speakers usually contract them (I’ve seen) .. And as we would expect from comparisons between languages, there are areas in which BEV is more precise than standard English. He be working means that he generally works, perhaps that he has a regular job; He working means only that he is working at the moment that the sen- tence is uttered. In SAE, He is working fails to malce that distinction . Moreover, sentences like In order for that to happen, you know it ainJt no black God thatJs doin J that bullshit show that Larry’s speech uses the full inventory of grammatical paraphernalia that computer scientists struggle unsuccessfully to duplicate (relative clauses, complement structures, clause subordination, and so on), not to mention some

fairly sophisticated theological argumentation . Another project of Labov’s involved tabulating the percentage of

grammatical sentences in tape recordings of speech in a variety of social classes and social settings. “Grammatical,” for these purposes, means “well-formed according to consistent rules in the dialect of the speakers.” For example, if a speaker asked the question Where are you going?, the respondent would not be penalized for answering To the store, even though it is in some sense not a complete sentence. Such

Chatterboxes 19

ellipses are obviously part of the grammar of conversational English; the alternative, I am going to the storeJ sounds stilted and is almost never used. “Ungrammatical” sentences, by this definition, include randomly broken-off sentence fragments, tongue-tied hemming and hawing, slips of the tongue, and other forms of word salad. The results of Labov’s tabulation are enlightening. The great majority of sen- tences were grammatical, especially in casual speech, with higher per- centages of grammatical sentences in working-class speech than in middle-class speech. The highest percentage of ungrammatical sen- tences was found in the proceedings oflearned academic conferences.

The ubiquity of complex language among human beings is a gripping discovery and, for many observers, compelling proof that language is innate. But to tough-minded skeptics like the philosopher Hilary Putnam, it is no proof at all . Not everything that is universal is innate. Just as travelers in previous decades never encountered a tribe without a language, nowadays anthropologists have trouble finding a people beyond the reach of VCR’s, Coca-Cola, and Bart Simpson T-shirts. Language was universal before Coca-Cola was, but then, language is more useful than Coca-Cola. It is more like eating with one’s hands rather than one’s feet, which is also universal, but we need not invoke a special hand-to-mouth instinct to explain why. Language is invalu- able for all the activities of daily living in a community of people: preparing food and shelter, loving, arguing, negotiating, teaching. Necessity being the mother of invention, language could have been invented by resourceful people a number of times long ago. (Perhaps, as Lily Tomlin said, man invented language to satisfY his deep need to complain.) Universal grammar would simply reflect the universal exigencies of human experience and the universal limitations on human information processing. All languages have words for “water” and “foot” because all people need to refer to water and feet; no language has a word a million syllables long because no person would have time to say it. Once invented, language would entrench itself within a culture as parents taught their children and children imitated their parents. From cultures that had language, it would spread like

20 ~ The Language Instinct

wildfire to other, quieter cultures . At the heart of this process is won- drously flexible human intelligence, with its general multipurpose learning strategies .

So the universality of language does not lead to an innate lan- guage instinct as night follows day. To convince you that there is a language instinct, I will have to fill in an argument that leads from the jabbering of modern peoples to the putative genes for grammar. The crucial intervening steps come from my own professional specialty, the study oflanguage development in children. The crux of the argu- ment is that complex language is universal because children actually reinvent it) generation after generation-not because they are taught, not because they are generally smart, not because it is useful to them, but because they just can’t help it. Let me now take you down this trail of evidence.

The trail begins with the study of how the particular languages we find in the world today arose. Here, one would think, linguistics runs into the problem of any historical science: no one recorded the crucial events at the time they happened. Although historical linguists can trace modern complex languages back to earlier ones, this just pushes the problem back a step; we need to see how people create a complex language from scratch. Amazingly, we can.

The first cases were wrung from two of the more sorrowful epi- sodes of world history, the Atlantic slave trade and indentured servi- tude in the South Pacific. Perhaps mindful of the Tower of Babel, some of the masters of tobacco, cotton, coffee, and sugar plantations deliberately mixed slaves and laborers from different language back- grounds; others preferred specific ethnicities but had to accept mix- tures because that was all that was available. When speakers of different languages have to communicate to carry out practical tasks but do not have the opportunity to learn one another’s languages, they develop a makeshift jargon called a pidgin . Pidgins are choppy strings of words borrowed from the language of the colonizers or plantation owners, highly variable in order and with little in tl1e way of grammar. Sometimes a pidgin can become a lingua franca and grad-

Chatterboxes ~ 21

ually increase in complexity over decades, as in the “Pidgin English” of the modern South Pacific. (Prince Philip was delighted to learn on a visit to New Guinea that he is referred to in that language as fella belong Mrs. Queen .)

But the linguist Derek Bickerton has presented evidence that in many cases a pidgin can be transmuted into a full complex language in one fell swoop: all it takes is for a group of children to be exposed to the pidgin at the age when they acquire their mother tongue. That happened, Bickerton has argued, when children were isolated from their parents and were tended collectively by a worker who spoke to them in the pidgin. Not content to reproduce the fragmentary word strings, the children injected grammatical complexity where none existed before, resulting in a brand-new, richly expressive language. The language that results when children make a pidgin their native tongue is called a creole. .

Bickerton’s main evidence comes from a unique historical cir- cumstance. Though the slave plantations that spawned most creoles are, fortunately, a thing of the remote past, one episode of creolization occurred recep.tly enough for us to study its principal players. Just before the turn of the century there was a boom in Hawaiian sugar plantations, whose demands for labor quickJy outstripped the native pool. Workers were brought in from China, Japan, Korea, Portugal, the Philippines, and Puerto Rico, and a pidgin quickJy developed . Many of the immigrant laborers who first developed that pidgin were alive when Bickerton interviewed them in the 1970s. Here are some typical examples of their speech :

Me cape buy, me check make.

Builcling-high place-wall pat-time-nowtime-an’ den-a new tempecha eri time show you.

Good, clis one. Kaukau any-kin’ dis one. Pilipine islan’ no good . No mo money.

From the individual words and the context, it was possible for the listener to infer that the first speaker, a ninety-two-year-old Japa- nese immigrant talking about his earlier days as a coffee farmer, was

22 + The Language Instinct

trying to say “He bought my coffe.e; he made me,~ut a check.” B~t the utterance itself could just as easily have meant I bought coffee, I made him out a check,” which would have been appropriate ifhe had

been referring to his current situation as a store owne~. The second speaker, another elderly Japanese immigrant, had be~n mtrodu~ed to the wonders of civilization in Los Angeles by one of his many children, and was saying that there was an electric sign high up on the ~all of the building which displayed the time and temperature. The third speaker a sixty-nine-year-old Filipino, was saying “It’s better here than in’ the Philippines; here you can get all kinds of food, b~t over there there isn’t any money to buy food with.” (One of the kinds of

food was “pfrawg,” which he caught for himself in the ;a:s~es by the method of “kank da head. “) In all these cases, the spea er s mten- tions had to be filled in by the listener. The pidgin did not offer the speakers the ordinary grammatical resources to convey these mes- sages-no consistent word order, no prefixes or suffixes, no tense or other temporal and logical markers, no structure more co~plex than a simple clause, and no consistent way to indicate who did what to

whom. . . th But the children who had grown up in Hawaii beginnmg ill e

1890s and were exposed to the pidgin ended up speaking quite differ- ently. Here are some sentences from the language they invented, Hawaiian Creole. The first twO are from a Japanese papaya gro~er born in Maui’ the next two, from a Japanese/ Hawaiian ex-plantatlon laborer born ~n the big island; the last, from a Hawaiian motel man- ager, formerly a farmer, born in Kauai:

Da firs japani came ran away from japan come. “The first Japanese who arrived ran away from Japan to here.”

Some filipino wok o’he-ah dey wen’ couple ye-ahs in filipin

islan’. “Some Filipinos who worked over here went back to the Phil-

ippines for a couple of years.”

People no like t’come fo’ go wok. “People don ‘t want to have him go to work [for them].”

Chatterboxes + 23

One time when we go home inna night dis ting stay fly up. “Once when we went home at night this thing was flying about.”

One day had pleny of dis mountain fish come down. “One day there were a lot of these fish from the mountains that came down [the river].”

Do not be misled by what look like crudely placed English verbs, such as go, stay, and came, or phrases like one time. They are not hap- hazard uses of English words but systematic uses of Hawaiian Creole grammar: the words have been converted by the creole speakers into auxiliaries, prepositions, case markers, and relative pronouns. In fact, this is probably how many of the grammatical prefixes and suffixes in established languages arose. For example, the English past-tense end- ing -ed may have evolved from the verb do: He hammered was origi- nally something like He hammer-did. Indeed, creoles are bona fide languages, ‘with standardized word orders and grammatical markers that were lacking in the pidgin of the immigrants and, aside from the sounds of words, not taken from the language of the colonizers.

Bickerton notes that if the grammar of a creole is largely the product of the m.inds of children, unadulterated by complex language input from their parents, it should provide a particularly clear window on the ilU1ate grammatical machinery of the brain. He argues that creoles from unrelated language mixtures exhibit uncanny resem- blances-perhaps even the same basic grammar. This basic grammar also shows up, he suggests, in the errors children make when acquir- ing more established and embellished languages, like some underlying design bleeding through a veneer of whitewash. When English- speaking children say

Why he is leaving? Nobody don’t likes me. I’m gonna full Angela’s bucket. Let Daddy hold it hit it,

they are unwittingly producing sentences that are grammatical in many of the world’s creoles.

24 ~ The Language Instinct

Bickerton’s particular claims are controversial, depending as they do on his reconstruction of events that occurred decades or centuries in the past. But his basic idea has been stunningly corroborated by two recent natural experiments in which creolization by children can be observed in real time. These fascinating discoveries are among many that have come from the study of the sign languages of the deaf. Contrary to popular misconceptions, sign languages are not panto- mimes and gestures, inventions of educators, or ciphers of the spoken language of the surrounding community. They are found wherever there is a community of deaf people, and each one is a distinct, full language, using the same kinds of grammatical machinery found worldwide in spoken languages. For example, American Sign Lan- guage, used by the deaf community in the United States, does not resemble English, or British Sign Language, but relies on agreement and gender systems in a way that is reminiscent of Navajo and Bantu .

Until recently there were no sign languages at all in Nicaragua, because its deaf people remained isolated from one another. When the Sandinista government took over in 1979 and reformed the educa- tional system, the first schools for the deaf were created . The schools focused on drilling the children in lip reading and speech, and as in every case where that is tried, the results were dismal. But it did not matter. On the playgrounds and school buses the children were inventing their own sign system, pooling the makeshift gestures that they used with their families at home . Before long the system con- gealed into what is now called the Lenguaje de Signos Nicaragiiense (LSN). Today LSN is used, with varying degrees of fluency, by young deaf adults, aged seventeen to twenty-five, who developed it when they were ten or older. Basically, it is a pidgin. Everyone uses it differ- ently, and the signers depend on suggestive, elaborate circumlocu- tions rather than on a consistent grammar.

But children like Mayela, who joined the school around the age of four, when LSN was already around, and all the pupils younger than her, are quite different . Their signing is more fluid and compact, and the gestures are more stylized and less like a pantomime. In fact, when their signing is examined close up, it is so different from LSN

Chatterboxes ~ 25

that it is referred to by a different name, Idioma de Signos Nicara- giiense (ISN). LSN and ISN are currently being studied by the psy- cholinguists Judy Kegl, Miriam Hebe Lopez, and Annie Senghas. ISN appears to be a creole, created in one leap when the younger children ,vere exposed to the pidgin signing of the older children-just as Bick- erton would have predicted. ISN has spontaneously standardized itself; all the young children sign it in the same way. The children have introduced many grammatical devices that were absent in LSN, and hence they rely far less on circumlocutions. For example, an LSN (pid- gin) signer might make the sign for “talk to” and then point from the position of the talker to the position of the hearer. But an ISN (creole) signer modifies the sign itself, sweeping it in one motion from a point representing tl1e talker to a point representing the hearer. This is a common device in sign languages, formally identical to inflecting a verb for agreement in spoken languages. Thanks to such consistent grammar, ISN is very expressive . A child can watch a surrealistic car- toon and describe its plot to another child. The children use it in jokes, poems, narratives, and life histories, and it is coming to serve as the glue that holds the community together. A language has been born before our eyes.

But ISN was the collective product of many children communi- cating with one another. If we are to attribute the richness of language to the mind of the child, we really want to see a single child adding some increment of grammatical complexity to the input the child has received. Once again the study of the deaf grants our wish.

When deaf infants are raised by signing parents, they learn sign language in the same way that hearing infants learn spoken language. But deaf children who are not born to deaf parents-the majority of deaf children-often have no access to sign language users as they grow up, and indeed are sometimes deliberately kept from them by educators in the “oralist” tradition who want to force them to master lip reading and speech. (Most deaf people deplore these authoritarian measures.) When deaf children become adults, they tend to seek out deaf com- munities and begin to acquire the sign language that takes proper advantage of the communicative media available to them. But by then

26 + The Language Instinct

it is usually too late; they must then struggle with sign language as a difficult intellectual puzzle, much as a hearing adult does in foreign language classes. Their proficiency is notably below that of deaf people who acquired sign language as infants, just as adult immigrants are often permanently burdened with accents and conspicuous grammati- cal errors. Indeed, because the deaf are virtually the only neurologi- cally normal people who make it to adulthood without having acquired a language, their difficulties offer particularly good evidence that successful language acquisition must take place during a critical window of opportunity in childhood.

The psycholinguists Jenny Singleton and Elissa Newport have studied a nine-year-old profoundly deaf boy, to whom they gave the pseudonym Simon, and his parents, who are also deaf. Simon’s par- ents did not acquire sign language until the late ages of fifteen and sixteen, and as a result they acquired it badly. In ASL, as in many languages, one can move a phrase to the front of a sentence and mark it with a prefix or suffix (in ASL, raised eyebrows and a lifted chin) to indica te that it is the topic of the sentence . The English sentence Elvis I really like is a rough equivalent. But Simon’s parents rarely used this construction and mangled it when they did. For example, Simon’s father once tried to sign the thought My friend, he thought my second child was deaf It came out as My friend thought, my second child, he thought he was deaf-a bit of sign salad that violates not only ASL grammar but, according to Chomsky’s theory, the Universal Gram- mar that governs all naturally acquired human languages (later in this chapter we will see why). Simon’s parents had also failed to grasp the verb inflection system of ASL. In ASL, the verb to blow is signed by opening a fist held horizontally in front of the mouth (like a puff of air) . Any verb in ASL can be modified to indicate that the action is being done continuously: the signer superimposes an arclike motion on the sign and repeats it quickly. A verb can also be modified to indicate that the action is being done to more tl1an one object (for example, several candles): the signer terminates the sign in one loca- tion in space, then repeats it but terminates it at another location. These inflections can be combined in either of two orders: blow

Chatterboxes + 27

toward the left and then toward the right and repeat, or blow toward

the left twice and then blow toward the right twice. The first order

means “to blowout the candles on one cake, then another calee, then

the first calee again, then the second calee again”; the second means “to blowout the candles on one calee continuously, and then blow

out the candles on another cake continuously.” This elegant set of

rules was lost on Simon’s parents. They used the inflections inconsis-

tently and never combined them onto a verb two at a time, though they would occasionally use the inflections separately, crudely linked

with signs like then. In many ways Simon’s parents were like pidgin

speakers. Astoundingly, though Simon saw no ASL but his parents’ defec-

tive version, his own signing was far better ASL than theirs . He under-

stood sentences with moved topic phrases without difficulty, and

when he had to describe complex videotaped events, he used the ASL

verb inflections almost perfectly, even in sentences requiring two of them in particular orders. Simon must somehow have shut out his

parents’ ungrammatical “noise.” He must have latched on to the

inflections that his parents used inconsistently, and reinterpreted them

as mandatory. And he must have seen the logic that was implicit,

though never realized, in his parents’ use of two kinds of verb inflec- tion, and reinvented the ASL system of superimposing both of them

onto a single verb in a specific order. Simon’s superiOlity to his parents is an example of creolization by a single living child.

Actually, Simon’s achievements are remarkable only because he

is the first one who showed them to a psycholinguist. There must be

thousands of Simons: ninety to ninety-five percent of deaf children are

born to hearing parents. Children fortunate enough to be exposed to ASL at all often get it from hearing parents who themselves learned

it, incompletely, to communicate with their children. Indeed, as the

transition from LSN to ISN shows, sign languages themselves are

surely products of creolization. Educators at various points in history

have tried to invent sign systems, sometimes based on the surrounding

spoken language. But these crude codes are always unlearnable, and

28 The Language Instinct

when deaf children learn from them at all, they do so by converting

them into much richer natural languages.

Extraordinary acts of creation by children do not require the extraor- dinary circumstances of deafness or plantation Babels. The same kind

of linguistic genius is involved every time a child learns his or her

mother tongue. First, let us do away with the folklore that parents teach their

children language. No one supposes that parents provide explicit grammar lessons, of course, but many parents (and some child psy- chologists who should know better) think that mothers provide chil- drenwith implicit lessons. These lessons take the form of a special speech variety called Motherese (or, as the French call it, Mamanaise): intensive sessions of conversational give-and-tal(e, with repetitive drills and simplified grammar. (“Look at the doggie! See the doggie? There’s a doggie!”) In contemporary middle-class American culture, parenting is seen as an awesome responsibility, an unforgiving vigil to keep the helpless infant from falling behind in the great race of life . The belief that Motherese is essential to language development is part of the same mentality that sends yuppies to “learning centers” to buy little mittens with buWs-eyes to help their babies find their hands sooner.

One gets some perspective by examining the folk theories about parenting in other cultures. The !Kung San of the Kalahari Desert in southern Mrica believe that children must be drilled to sit, stand, and walk. They carefully pile sand around their infants to prop them upright, and sure enough, every one of these infants soon sits up on its own. We find this amusing because we have observed the results of the experiment that the San are unwilling to chance: we don’t teach our children to sit, stand, and walk, and they do it anyway, on their own schedule. But other groups enjoy the same condescension toward us. In many communities of the world, parents do not indulge their children in Motherese. In fact, they do not speak to their prelinguistic children at all, except for occasional demands and rebukes. This is not unreasonable. After all, young children plainly can’t understand a word you say. So why waste your breath in soliloquies? Any sensible

Chatterboxes 29

person would surely wait until a child has developed speech and more gratifying two-way conversations become possible. AB Aunt Mae, a woman living in the South Carolina Piedmont, explained to the anthropologist Shirley Brice Heath: “Now just how crazy is dat? White folks uh hear dey kids say sump’n, dey say it back to ’em, dey aks ’em ‘gain and ‘gain ’bout things, like they ‘posed to be born knowin’.” Needless to say, the children in these communities, over- hearing adults and other children, learn to talk, as we see in Aunt Mae’s fully grammatical BEV.

Children deserve most of the credit for the language they acquire. In fact, we can show that they know things they could not have been taught. One of Chomsky’s classic illustrations of the logic of language involves the process of moving words around to form questions. Consider how you might turn the declarative sentence A unicorn is in the garden into the corresponding question, Is a unicorn in thegarden?You could scan the declarative sentence, take the auxil- iary is, and move it to the front of the sentence:

a unicorn is in the garden . -> is a unicorn the garden?

Now take the sentence A unicorn that is eating a flower is in the gar- den. There are two is’s. Which gets moved? Obviously, not the first one hit by the scan; that would give you a very odd sentence:

a unicorn tbat is eating a flower is in the garden . -> is a unicorn tbat eating a flower is in the garden?

But why can’t you move that is? Where did the simple procedure go wrong? The answer, Chomsky noted, comes from the basic design of language. Though sentences are strings of words, our mental algo- rithms for grammar do not pick out words by their linear positions, such as “first word,” “second word,” and so on . Rather, the algo- rithms group words into phrases, and phrases into even bigger phrases, and give each one a mental label, like “subject noun phrase” or “verb phrase.” The real rule for forming questions does not look for the first occurrence of the auxiliary word as one goes from left to

30 is [a unicorn that is eating a flower] in the garden?

Chomsky reasoned that if the logic of language is wired into chil- dren, then the first time they are confronted with a sentence with two

auxiliaries they should be capable of turning it into a question with the proper wording. This should be true even though the wrong rule, the one that scans the sentence as a linear string of words, is simpler

and presumably easier to learn. And it should be true even though the sentences that would teach children that the linear rule is wrong and the structure-sensitive rule is right-questions with a second auxiliary embedded inside the subject phrase-are so rare as to be nonexistent in Motherese. Surely not every child learning English has heard Mother say Is the doggie that is eating the flower in the garden? For Chomsky, this kind of reasoning, which he calls “the argument from the poverty of the input,” is the primary justification for saying that

the basic design of language is innate. Chomsky’s claim was tested in an experiment with three-, four-,

and five-year-olds at a daycare center by the psycholinguists Stephen Crain and Mineharu Nakayama. One of the experimenters controlled a doll of Jabba the Hutt, of Star Wars fame. The other coaxed the child to ask a set of questions, by saying, for example, “Ask Jabba if the boy who is unhappy is watching Mickey Mouse.” Jabba would inspect a picUlre and answer yes or no, but it was really the child who was being tested, not Jabba. The children cheerfully provided the appropriate questions, and, as Chomsky would have predicted, not a single one of them came up with an ungrammatical string Wee Is the boy who unhappy is watching Mickey Mouse?, which the simple linear

rule would have produced.

Chatterboxes <+ 31

Now, you may object that this does not show that children's brains register the subject of a sentence. Perhaps the children were just going by the meanings of the words. The man who is running refers to a single actor playing a distinct role in the picture, and chil- dren could have been keeping track of which words are about particu- lar actors, not which words belong to the subject noun phrase. But Crain and Nakayama anticipated the objection. Mixed into their list were commands Wee "Ask Jabba if it is raining in this picture." The it of the sentence, of course, does not refer to anything; it is a dummy element that is there only to satisfY the rules of syntax, which demand a subject. But the English question rule treats it just like any other subject: Is it raining? Now, how do children cope with this meaning- less placeholder? Perhaps they are as literal-minded as the Duck in Alice's Adventures in Wonderland:

"I proceed [said the Mouse] . 'Edwin and Morcar, the earls of Mercia and Northumbria, declared for him; and even Stigand, the patriotic archbishop of Canterbury, found it advisable-' "

"Found what?" said the Duck. "Found it," the Mouse replied rather crossly: "of course

you know what 'it' means." "I know what 'it' means well enough, when 1 find a

thing," said the Duck: "it's generally a frog, or a worm. The question is, what did the archbishop find?"

But children are not ducks. Crain and Nakayama's children replied, Is it raining in this picture? Similarly, they had no trouble forming ques- tion with other dummy subjects, as in "Ask Jabba if there is a snake in this picture," or with subjects that are not things, as in "Ask Jabba if running is fun" and "Ask Jabba iflove is good or bad."

The universal constraints on grammatical rules also show that the basic form of language cannot be explained away as the inevitable outcome of a drive for usefulness. Many languages, widely scattered over the globe, have auxiliaries, and like English, many languages move the auxiliary to the front of the sentence to form questions and other constructions, always in a structure-dependent way. But this is

32 The Language Instinct

not the only way one could design a question rule. One could just as effectively move the leftmost auxiliary in the string to the front, or flip the first and last words, or utter the entire sentence in mirror-reversed order (a trick that the human mind is capable of; some people learn to talk backwards to amuse themselves and amaze their friends) . The particular ways that languages do form questions are arbitrary, species- wide conventions; we don’t find them in artificial systems like com- puter programming languages or the notation of mathematics. The universal plan underlying languages, with auxiliaries and inversion rules, nouns and verbs, subjects and objects, phrases and clauses, case and agreement, and so on, seems to suggest a commonality in the brains of speakers, because many other plans would have been just as useful. It is as if isolated inventors miraculously came up with identical standards for typewriter keyboards or Morse code or traffic signals.

Evidence corroborating the claim that the mind contains blue- prints for grammatical rules comes, once again, out of the mouths of babes and sucldings. Take the English agreement suffix -s as in He walks. Agreement is an important process in many languages, but in modern English it is superfluous, a remnant of a richer system that flourished in Old English. If it were to disappear entirely, we would not miss it, any more than we miss the similar -est suffix in Thou sayest. But psychologically speaking, this frill does not come cheap . Any speaker commited to using it has to keep track of four details in every sentence uttered:

• whether the subject is in the third person or not: He walks versus I walk.

• whether the subject is singular or plural: He walks versus They walk.

• whether the action is present tense or not: He walks versus He walked.

• whether the action is habitual or going on at the moment of speaking (its “aspect”): He walks to school versus He is walk- ing to school.

And all this work is needed just to use the suffix once one has learned it. To learn it in the first place, a child must (1) notice that verbs end

Chatterboxes 33

in -s in some sentences but appear bare-ended in others, (2) begin a search for the grammatical causes of this variation (as opposed to just accepting it as part of the spice of life), and (3) not rest until those crucial factors-tense, aspect, and the number and person of the sub- ject of the sentence-have been sifted out of the ocean of conceivable but irrelevant factors (like the number of syllables of the final word in the sentence, whether the object of a preposition is natural or man- made, and how warm it is when the sentence is uttered). Why would anyone bother?

But little children do bother. By the age of three and a half or earlier, they use the -s agreement suffix in more than ninety percent of the sentences that require it, and virtually never use it in the sentences that forbid it . This mastery is part of their grammar explosion, a period of several months in the third year of life during which children sud- denly begin to speak in fluent sentences, respecting most of the fine points of their community’S spoken language. For example, a pre- schooler with the pseudonym Sarah, whose parents had

Do you need a similar assignment done for you from scratch? We have qualified writers to help you. We assure you an A+ quality paper that is free from plagiarism. Order now for an Amazing Discount!
Use Discount Code "Newclient" for a 15% Discount!

NB: We do not resell papers. Upon ordering, we do an original paper exclusively for you.

Buy Custom Nursing Papers