Re: Natural Language and Natural Selection

From: Alexandra Bilak (
Date: Fri Apr 19 1996 - 12:45:33 BST


The study of the nature and origins of language seems to be the
object of a lot of speculation and inquiry. Indeed, the origins of
man's ability to use and comprehend language are slightly ambiguous,
and people's views on it have often differed. Language can be seen as
a basis, a universal, biological capacity common to every individual,
but can also be considered as a cultural element that would have
evolved in relation to different external, environmental factors.

First of all, it is interesting to examine the aspect of language
that links it to a biological predisposition of man to use and
understand it. There are some clear genetic factors essential to the
understanding of the origins of language. Although a little
simplistic, a first element to consider would be a human
morphological predisposition to language. Indeed, the sounds of
language seem closely related to the morphology of the vocal tract:
certain characteristics of a human face seem to have a decisive
influence upon speech sounds. Simple elements such as the shape of
the mouth and lips can be related to the development of language in
man, or at least seem to be prerequisite for speech articulation,
and oral motivity in man. However, anatomical descriptions do not
seem to provide an accurate explanation for the nature, or the
ORIGIN of language itself, and does not lead to insight into man's
capacity for language, ie the underlying complexities of the matter.
Some much more interesting aspects of study exist and must be
considered. It seems indeed more interesting to examine the genetic,
or biological account for the emergence of language. The "nativist"
view, therefore, strongly insists on a human specific capacity for
language peculiar to each individual. One of the most influencial
nativist theorists is the linguist Noam Chomsky, who insists on the
fact that man has mental structural capacities including an innate
concept of human language. This concept appears to be genetically
determined, and present in every human individual. He explains that
a "normal" human child is thus predisposed to learn any language
fairly easily, by combining a set of innate rules with " language
data", that she or he hears. Language would therefore appear in man
as an abstract system of rules that cannot be acquired by
traditional learning principles. An interesting example illustrating
this predisposition to language is the creation of the "Creole
language" among children of a mixed community of Japanese, Chinese,
Korean, Portuguese, and Puerto Rican parents at the turn of the
century. Immigrants of these various communities were "forced" to
live together and thus communicate by some sort of hybrid (pidgin)
language. A generation later, their children had invente (or come up
with) a new language ("Creole"), being a highly developed linguistic
system whose structure appeared to be similar among all the children
of the community. This amazing fact seems to prove that, according
to Bickerton (1983), "first-language acquisition is mediated by an
innate device (...) the device provides the child with a single and
fairly specific grammatical model". A iological basis of language
would indeed seem to be more than just a possibility. Another
important aspect of the nativist view emphasises on the fact that
environmental (external) stimuli alone, such as learning, cannot
account for language possession. This idea is summarised in the
theory of the "Poverty of the Stimulus", that explains the ways in
which language is born into an individual. Lightfoot (1982) explains
that "there are no data available to the child that will suffice to
establish some rule or principle". This implies the idea of an
"innately-primed learning", that is, of an innate set of rules and
information, of internal mechanisms suitable for the acquisition of
language. The "poverty of the stimulus" phrase refers to the
insufficient information obtained from OUTSIDE the individual, thus
implying the idea of some sort of "compensating" internal,
biological mechanism. This is where it becomes interesting to examine
S. Pinker's view on the origins of language being determined by
"natural selection". Darwin's theory of natural selection explains
the existence of human organs in terms of "adaptive complexity";
this means that every organ of the system has a specific function,
and is adapted, arranged to perform a certain function, some sort of
task. For example the eye (ie the visual organ) is adapted
specifically for visual imagery (Function/task). For Darwin,
therefore, it is through a process of natural selection that these
organs have developed this specific function. It is this theory that
Pinker relates to language. Indeed, he attempts to explain the
origins of language as a natural process: for him, natural selection
is a plausible explanation for the complex cognitive mechanisms
underlying language. Language being a " complex design system",
Pinker explains, it can only have occured through a process of
natural selection. An interesting analogy is made in Pinker's article
Natural language and natural selection, extract of Behavioural and
Brain Sciences (1990). He uses the image of a spandrel to describe
the process of language acquisition : the centerpiece is an innate,
biological capacity for language and is necessary for the holding up
of what lies around it, ie language acquisition. Finally, the most
important argument in favour of a biological foundation of language
is probably the universality of its structures, ie it definitely
seems to be common to every individual. The linguist Chomsky for
example insisted on the fact that there are similar linguistic
traits all over the world.In order to understand this, it is
interesting to consider the idea of a "Language Acquisition Device",
which explains the transformation of a "corpus of speech", ie a set
of utterances (some grammatical, some not) into a complex
grammatical system. This is generally studied in relation to the
acquisition of language in a child. For example, the corpus of
speech will be utterances overheard by a child in a given
environment. Upon receipt of this corpus, the Language Acquisition
Device creates a grammatical system. The device therefore represents
some kind of internal structure, that must be able to acquire any
natural language. It is therefore universally applicable to the
fundamental human capacity for language. The idea of an internal and
universal capacity for language is closely associated to that of
Universal Grammar (UG), whose study is clearly an attempt to specify
the forms and features common to all human language. UG suggests a
universal set of grammatical rules, and therefore also suggests that
a child is predisposed to entertain certain hypotheses concerning
the structure of language. The idea of UG clearly implies the idea
of a biological foundation of language, and suggests that no
individual will thus "start from scratch" his/her acquisition of

A number of elements seem thus to support the claim that language is
most of all a biological capacity. However, it is easy to notethat
it is not this biological basis alone that makes up for the study of
language. Indeed, it seems to have a context as well, some sort of
external, CULTURAL aspect.

Indeed, language is often considered a cultural invention, precisely
because it evolves differently among peoples and cultures as a means
of communication. Language often seems to have been invented by man
simply in order to communicate with his peers. The capacity to use
language is a capacity to use and comprehend the use of SIGNS, and
it is the arbitrariness of the sign that implies that there is
something cutural about language. The fact that for example the word
"tree" is used to define the concept of a tree in the English
language, but that in French one will use the word "arbre" to the
same concept, proves the arbitrariness of the sign, ie the word.
This arbitrariness shows that language is culturally determined to
some extent, and relates to the idea of "particular grammar" in
opposition to UG. "Particular Grammar" studies the features of a
particular language ( though always in relation to universal
features of Grammar.) Another important aspect to consider with the
cultural aspect of language is the external factors having an
influence on the acquisition of language. Language may well be
culturally determined, in that some aspects of a culture or a given
environment may well act as stimuli to the development of it. The
"nurture" view (as opposed to a "nativist" account of language)
emphasises on an account of traditional learning principles being
key-elements in the development of language. The theorist
B.F.Skinner (1957) proposes a theory of reinforcement, in which he
explains that it is certain elements in a child's environment (eg
parents) that are capable of "reinforcing", that is, improving the
child's early babbling sounds. The concept of imitation is here very
important, since it is this activity that enables the child to
"reinforce" its language abilities. It is therefore in this sense
that language can be considered as culturally determined, because
certain aspects of a culture tend to either provide a language with
a particular grammar peculiar to that culture, or simply reinforce
the process of acquisition.

It would seem that the origins of language are a little complicated
to undersand. Although it would appear obvious that language
represents a cultural invention ( because of its communicative
function and the fact that it actually symbolises man's will to
communicate), language seems to be at the root biologically
determined, proving man's predisposition to acquire and use a
language. However, one must take into account both sides of the
answer. Indeed, language seems definitely to be genetically
determined and universal, but finds its evolution and development in
external factors aswell. An internal structure would therefore be at
the core of language acquisition, whereas external stimuli lie
around this key-structure to make it more solid and complex. One can
thus say that language is both a biological capacity and a cultural

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