X99Lynx at X99Lynx at
Thu Feb 4 06:58:45 UTC 1999

In a message dated 2/3/99 10:45:20 PM, GregWeb at wrote:

<< Chomsky apparently cannot explain how a universal grammar
template would come to exist in the brain although it makes sense that it
does.   Pinker makes a rather convincing argument for its evolution and
existence, and he does not posit the existence of a grammar gene.   Neither
does he imply that humans suddenly began speaking with lots of vowels,
consonants and vocabulary roots.>>

The problem here is that if we did not have this grammar gene, would we have
to conclude that we could not have developed grammar?

A large amount of prefrontal capacity and human larynx, unusual among apes,
may have been all we needed at that point in historical time.  Just as all we
needed was that and thumbs (and a few other things) to be able to eventually
build chariots, cars, airplanes and what ever comes next.  We don't have to
conjecture an airplane building gene.

The basic reason language must follow basic rules is the same reason airplane
technology must follow basic rules about structure.  Otherwise they don't

Its not impossible that these structures are built into our make-up.  But it
seems much more likely that we learn the demands - the rules - of airplane
building and of language building, because we are capable of dadjusting to new
rules when the situation demands it.  As hard as it might be to imagine a
world where airplanes don't need wings and not all verbs need nouns, we might
be able to adapt to such a world.

There really is no problem with considering language an "acquired trait" like
so many other human things that are passed on from one generation to the next.
The question of why we are so good at passing on acquired traits and improving
on them is however worthwhile.  The gene passes on pre-wired traits from
generation to generation.  What gene helps us pass on a learned trait like

A gene that makes us want to imitate sounds might be worth looking into.  It
appears to be a true inherited trait in birds, like the Mynah.  Perhaps it is
in human babies, if not human adults.  It may also explain why we sometimes
"can't get a tune out of head."

Grammar, on the other hand, may be no more than a reflection of how the world
is.  And by the time we are old enough to use grammar, we have already learned
that the world is divided into things and actions and attributes and so forth.
And that we need to discriminate between these things to describe them.  Any
other arrangement would not work.  Imagine if we only saw the world as actions
and there were no objects.  We'd be missing an important aspect of reality.

Our ancestors help us out by giving us a language - developed over many
generations - very adept at those discriminations and already loaded with
considerable detail.  Otherwise each individual human might have to develop
aorist on its own. :)

Steve Long

[ Moderator's note:
  This thread, while interesting, is marginal with respect to Indo-European
  studies.  Unless there is something to be said about IE directly, let's
  move the discussion to private e-mail, or the Evolution-and-Language list.
  --rma ]

More information about the Indo-european mailing list