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MIT Better World

I had studied with both MIT faculty members in the 1980s, as a Course 9 doctoral student. Their first co-authored book, Why Only Us, is Berwick’s fifth with the MIT Press and Chomsky’s eighth, and builds on years of research on the biological basis of language. This excerpt from Chapter 2 emphasizes that the study of how human language evolved requires a closer examination of what language is for. —Amy Brand PhD ’89
The inference of a biological trait’s “purpose” or “function” from its surface form is always rife with difficulties. [Richard] Lewontin’s remarks in The Triple Helix (2001) illustrate how difficult it can be to assign a unique function to an organ or to a trait even in the case of what at first seems like a far simpler situation: bones do not have a single, unambiguous “function.” While it is true that bones support the body, allowing us to stand up and walk, they are also a storehouse for calcium and bone marrow for producing new red blood cells, so they are in a sense part of the circulatory system.
What is true for bones is also true for human language. Moreover, there has always been an alternative tradition, expressed by [Robbins] Burling (1993) among others, that humans may well possess a secondary communication system like those of other primates, namely a nonverbal system of gestures or even calls, but that is not language, since, as Burling notes, “our surviving primate communication system remains sharply distinct from language.”
Language can of course be used for communication, as can any aspect of what we do: style of dress, gesture, and so on. And it can be and commonly is used for much else. Statistically speaking, for whatever that is worth, the overwhelming use of language is internal—for thought. It takes an enormous act of will to keep from talking to oneself in every waking moment—and asleep as well, often a considerable annoyance. The distinguished neurologist Harry Jerison (1973) among others expressed a stronger view, holding that “language did not evolve as a communication system…. The initial evolution of language is more likely to have been…for the construction of a real world,” as a “tool for thought.” Not only in the functional dimension, but also in all other respects—semantic, syntactic, morphological, and phonological—the core properties of human language appear to differ sharply from animal communication systems, and to be largely unique in the organic world.
Excerpted from Why Only Us: Language and Evolution by Robert C. Berwick and Noam Chomsky, published by the MIT Press in 2016. Copyright Robert C. Berwick and Noam Chomsky. All rights reserved.