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The Chomsky/Pinker claims about the biological basis of language are
just that:  a basis.  They are based on many facts:  the universality of
speech in humans for which the only exceptions seem to be extremely rare
cases in which no language was heard in childhood: the fact that there
are specific areas in the brain that, if damaged, remove specific
language abilities (until very recent technology to scan brains, doctors
relied on language capacities to know what part of a brain was damaged);
the fact--noted by Carroll--that children will construct a complete
language from pidgin in one generation; the fact that all known
languages have similar "deep structures" of formation regardless of any
connection between the speakers.

What it means is not at all a mechanical inheritance of words or even
particular syntax patterns but an immense capacity for creativity.  From
about 10 (studies give slightly different numbers apparently) basic
sentence patterns in English--which any native speaker knows--an
infinite number of actual sentences can be constructed.

There is nothing simplistic or simply inherited except the capacity for
language and an apparently universal creation of it in humans.  Now we
are aware that at least some aspects of it are also present in other
animals, especially chimps and bonobos, but there is a question about
whether they ever construct syntax, as opposed to recognize it.

This is all fascinating, but it cannot be discussed by just challenging
biology:  it  is not like inheriting brown eyes or blond hair.
Nancy

>>> [log in to unmask] 11/01/04 11:48 AM >>>
Tom Gray wrote:
>
> One function of DNA is to provide the heritable basis
> for biological entities. It would be difficult to
> consider words doing the same thing. It is a common
> observation in popular books on language that children
> exposed only to a pigdin will construct (collectively?
> ) a full language from it. It would seem from this
> that language is not learned from listening to the
> words but is inherent in the human brain.
>
> The heritable basis for language lies in the heritable
> basis for brain strcuutre. The DNA of language is DNA.
>

The biological basis of language is the flexibility and general
capability of the human mind. Dating of human evolution changes
constantly, but one dating by the anthropologist Tattersall estimates
biologically modern humans go back about a 100K years, language about 40
thousand. Tattersall speculates (no non-speculative evidence either for
or against this) that language was probably invented by children,
_several times_, before it was picked up by adults.

He instances as evidence for the _possibility_ of this a 'tribe' of
monkeys living near the sea, whose food often was sandy as they found
it. Young monkeys began to wash it in the sea. Gradually female monkeys
began to emulate this practice. The old males never did. After a
generation or so it became a "cultural" inheritance of that group of
monkeys. (The behavior was specific to that group -- _not_ to the
species as a whole.) Clearly that species had the biological
(neurological) _capacity_ to learn to wash their food, but the practice
was not in the least specifically "inherent" in their brain. The
_capacity_ for language, similarly, but not language itself is "inherent
in the human brain."

Carrol

P.S. A 'tribe' of baboons was in the habit of raiding a garbage dump in
a particular area. On one occasion the food-stuff was poisonous. Now
baboons, typically, are an aggressive species with a strong hierarchical
social relations. It happened that the "Alpha" males got all the
poisoned food, so all that was left were the 'inferior' members of the
'tribe," the females, and the young. Hierarchy and aggressiveness
disappeared in this group of baboons -- AND IT CONTINUED TO BE
NON-HIERARCHICAL and NON-AGGRESSIVE in subsequent generations. Moreover,
baboons from OTHER groups who joined this group as adults adopted the
'culture' of this group and dropped their preceding aggressiveness.

Very few things are _directly_  and mechanically inherited in most
mammal species, and this is especially so of primates, and most
especially so of homo sapiens. Capacities are inherited. Young rats
whose mothers lick them develop curiosity and courage; they are
exploratory. Young rats whose mothers do not lick them are incurious and
timid.