innate syntax

José-Luis Mendívil Giró jlmendi at POSTA.UNIZAR.ES
Tue Apr 29 18:46:26 UTC 1997

On Mon, 21 Apr 1997, Yoko Okita wrote:

> Do people think any human gene carries linguistic syntactic
> information??

and on Mon, 21 Apr 1997 Enrique Figueroa:

>Unfortunately, Many pseudoneoCartesians believe this:
>"Sum, ergo loquor, ergo  cogito"
>Some others (dissidents, of course), this:
>"Sum, ergo cogito, ergo loquor"

I think the response is perhaps witty but skin-deep. A simple question:
why should we consider _unfortunate_ such a belief? Is it (or has been) an
obstacle for Science?
By the other hand: Is syntax a social institution or a conscious,
technological human innovation? If it is not, then it must be a genetic
constraint, independently now if we accept or not that syntax evolved
specifically in natural selection.

Even if we accept that syntax (in the Chomskyan sense of a computational
system that relates properly meaning and sound) can be learned, we would
need to say
that the device to acquire that system is innate, ergo we can say (in a
provisional abstract sense at least) that syntax is innate (i.e.
genetically determined in our kind).
I believe this is not questionable. The open question is then (as observed
by Bates on Fri, 25 Apr 1997) if the involved genetic material -which
determines the syntactic structure of natural languages- is specifically
_syntactic_ or not, i.e., if the mind is able to create that system using
some more general genetic information. Note that even in that anti-modular
perspective, human syntax should be considered as innate.
So, as Bates wrote:

>One can reject the strong, domain-specific claims about innateness without
>being forced to the silly conclusion that nothing is innate

By the other way (and from a logical point of view) if the difference
between human syntax and other animal systems is only quantitative and not
qualitative (as has been wrote by Bates too) the question is: why humans do
not acquire animal communication systems when in the appropriate

As a conclusion, consider what Mills wrote on Fri, 25 Apr 1997:

>As for me, the older I get, the less patient I become with people--both
>chomskyan innatist and social folks (?socialists?)--who would draw a
>sharp line between humans and other animals.

If I understand correctly these words, it is suggested that Chomskyan
innatism creates a sharp line between humans and other animals. I believe
just the opposite: the consideration of human language (especially grammar)
as an instinct is the best way to observe the real continuum between humans
and other animals. Humans are not more evolved or developped than other
species. We just evolved differently in some aspects.

Dr. Jose-Luis Mendivil Giro
Linguistica General
Universidad de Zaragoza
C/ Pedro Cerbuna, 12
50009 Zaragoza (Spain)
Fax. 34 976761541
Ph. 34 976761000 Ext. 3978

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