On Nature and Language – Noam Chomsky

After diving into specific areas of the field of linguistics such as semantics and natural language processing, I decided it was time to take a step back and understand why the field is so complex and interesting to study. Thus, I picked up one of the most well-known linguistics books, Noam Chomsky’s On Nature and Language, a work that describes in great detail the thoughts of many great philosophers on human communication. 

The book begins with an editor’s introduction that gives context to what Chomsky discusses later. To understand his writing, it is vital to understand the definition of linguistics that he uses throughout the work. Linguistics is part of individual psychology and the cognitive sciences; its ultimate goal is to define a central component of human nature, language, in a biological setting. With this claim in mind, let’s dive into the words of Galileo Galilei, Charles Darwin, and Rene Descartes.

Galileo was the first to recognize the significance of human language. He held one of its most distinctive properties in quite a high regard: the ability to make infinite ideas and meanings with the finite set of tools commonly referred to as the alphabet. This truly is an incredible phenomenon. In its most basic form, language is mere guttural sound, so there is no reason that the word “cat” refers to a fluffy feline animal commonly treated as a household pet except that English speakers agree that it does. Using that logic and the idea that there are indeed infinite combinations of the letters of the alphabet, it is easy to see why human language is such a special phenomenon.

This brings us to the words of Charles Darwin, who also recognized the importance and complexity of the human language. As you may already know, Darwin specialized in evolution, and language was at the heart of his theories. He claimed that language was the only thing that set humanity apart from the other animals inhabiting our planet, which he supported by explaining that a human’s ability to express ideas and thoughts through a series of sounds is far more complex and meaningful than the communication methods of other animals. It is worth noting that Chomsky claims this statement is far too extreme, replacing language being “the only thing” with language being “a significant thing” to make the idea more accurate.

Descartes too had many interesting thoughts on the nature of language. He stated that the “limitless array of language” was special because it allowed humanity to express ideas appropriate to situations but not caused by them, and the array was confined to our bodily functions but not determined by them. He called this idea “the creative use of language”, and it provides yet another explanation as to why the connections between nature and language are so special. All forms of verbal human communication, or spoken language, allow us to express our ideas under any circumstances, but the ideas we express aren’t necessarily reliant on the situations that are presented to us. It’s a fascinating thought, and I’ll leave you to ponder it more.

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