The theories of the world's best-known linguist have become rather weird
FEW disciplines are so strongly associated with a single figure: Einstein in physics and Freud in psychology, perhaps. But Noam Chomsky is the man who revolutionised linguistics. Since he wrote “Syntactic Structures” in 1957, Mr Chomsky has argued that human language is fundamentally different from any other kind of communication, that a “linguist from Mars” would agree that all human languages are variations on a single language, and that children's incredibly quick and successful learning (despite often messy and inattentive parental input) points to an innate language faculty in the brain. These ideas are now widely accepted.
Over the past 60 years, Mr Chomsky has repeatedly stripped down his theory. Some aspects of human language are shared with animals, and others are part of more general human thinking. He has focused ever more narrowly on the features of language that he reckons are unique to humans. All this has led to a remarkable little book, published late last year with Robert Berwick, a computer scientist. “Why Only Us” purports to explain the evolution of human language.
Other biologists, linguists and psychologists have probed the same question and have reached little consensus. But there is even less consensus around the world's most eminent linguist's idea: that a single genetic mutation created an ability called “Merge”, in a single human whom Mr Chomsky has called “Prometheus”, some time before the human exodus from Africa. That mutation was so advantageous that it survived and thrived, producing today's 7,000 languages from Albanian to Zulu. But the vast differences among the world's languages, Mr Chomsky argues, are mere differences in “externalisation”. The key is Merge.
But what is it? Merge simply says that two mental objects can be merged into a bigger one, and mental operations can be performed on that as if it were a single one. The can be merged with cat to give a noun phrase, which other grammar rules can operate on as if it were a bare noun like water. So can the and hat. Once there, you can further merge, making the cat in the hat.