Chomsky, linguistics, and justice: Grammar is in every brain

Every brain contains the grammar of a language
Every brain contains the grammar of a language

This post follows on the 4 points I learned about people from the linguistic theories of Prof. Noam Chomsky. Please refer to “Chomsky, linguistics, and justice: Background” for a full introduction to this idea.

1. Grammar resides in every human brain.
Chomsky defines grammar as the rules that produce and decode language. As a result, grammar resides inside the human language-speaker. It doesn’t exist “out there” in a book or only well-trained minds.. Moreover, this grammar is not something learned in school; it’s acquired as a child engages in the community of your native language.

When I lived in Morocco, I saw the importance of this idea because of how the opposing assumption played out. I wanted to learn Moroccan Arabic (Derija) so I could understand and converse with average people around me. So I would ask one of my English-speaking friends about syntax in Derija. “Our language doesn’t have rules,” he replied. “We just open our mouths and it just comes out. Fusha [formal written Arabic] has rules. Not Derija.”

“If your language didn’t have rules,” I retorted, “I wouldn’t be able to make mistakes. But I think you can hear when I make mistakes.”

This attitude humanizes all speakers of all languages. On linguistic grounds, one language is not better or more correct than another. Derija has grammar just as Formal Arabic. Most people prefer the latter because it is more prestigious and more “beautiful.” But prestige and beauty are not linguistic terms. They both have nouns and verbs, they both employ particular word orders, and each includes particular idioms exclusive to itself.

What do you think? Does every human possess grammar? Does grammar exist outside native speakers’ actual use of the language?

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Photo credit: dierk schaefer / Foter / CC BY

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15 thoughts on “Chomsky, linguistics, and justice: Grammar is in every brain

  1. Yes, any human that normally acquires a language in childhood has a mental grammar. And no, languages don’t exist outside of there. The concept of a “language” is a convenient abstraction. In reality, there is no such thing as English. Or perhaps there are billions of English dialects (one per brain) and a whole lot of overlap.

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    1. Good point about a “language” being an abstract category of idiolects. A bunch of people talk to each other, and if their unique system of mental rules mesh, then we call it a language.

      I guess it’s like the notion of a “species.” If they can mate with each other, we say they’re the same species. If they can’t, they’re not. If two people understand each other, it’s the same language. If they can’t, it’s not the same language.

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  2. The first para is slightly contradictory… ¨grammar resides in every human brain” and then “it is acquired as a child engages…” So, it resides there ONCE it is acquired, but not until then. I would agree with that.

    I always thought (I may well be wrong) that Chomsky had argued that “universal grammar” comes as a sort of pre-installed module in human brains. I don’t believe that even for a minute…

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    1. Grammar resides in every brain, but it is constantly evolving. When a baby’s brain matures and grows, it learns how to do things it couldn’t do. Adults’ grammars evolve, too. One learns new words and new constructions, but adult grammar evolves much more slowly than children’s grammar.

      I agree with Chomsky’s “pre-installed module,” as you put it. The notion arises from some of the paradoxes and generalizations from human language. For example, how does a human baby distinguish between human language and clinking glasses? Somehow, a child distinguishes these human sounds and begins to generalize on the sounds to represent the abstract notions from his brain. This process is at work when children over-generalize on linguistic rules. Almost every English-speaking child uses the word “goed” instead of “went” at some point. Why? The child never heard that from an adult, but the rules in his head created a word that shouldn’t exist.

      Further, we can generalize from language certain rules. For example, we don’t have any language in which the verb regularly appears between the article and the noun. We don’t have languages with two forms of a verb, one which indicates past or future and the other indicates the present. Moreover, we see certain language rules cluster, even if the languages are not genetically related. For example, if the verb tends to appear at the end of the sentence of a language, the adjective will tend to appear before the noun.

      As a result, we assume that there is a structure in every human brain ready to catch onto language data, to generalize on that data to create rules, and to structure those rules in a particular way.

      Does this make sense? What do you think?

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      1. I don’t know… I guess our brains are designed for assimilating, processing and producing human speech, but I the pre-installed grammar thing… I’m finding that hard to accept. Really enjoyed your response, though, thanks for taking the time 🙂

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