O’Connell on Modeling Universal Grammar

Linguistics has become increasingly acquainted with the possibility that grammar, as the capacity to conceive and express novel combinations, is the fundamental definition of language. Having compiled a series of comparative observations between our communicative abilities and those of other species, grammar is the consistent distinction (Tomasello, 2010). This difference between ourselves and other species has inspired questions regarding both how language evolved in the context of our species and how language is acquired in the context of the individual.  The latter question having been afforded unique opportunities to answer with the creative application of statistical modeling (Yang, 2012). Within the broader purview of language acquisition, Chomsky’s theory of Universal Grammar (UG) has emerged as a preeminent contender to explain how language is acquired (Cook & Newson, 2014). While unproven, the theoretical integrity of UG endures but more importantly, the empirical evidence amounts exponentially. As mentioned previously, among this evidence exists Yang’s statistical applications (Yang, 2012). This statistical model effectively and comprehensively supports UG as the foundation of the human language faculty.

Without explicitly mentioning UG or alternative perspectives like empiricism, Yang introduces the conflicting interpretations of Language acquisition through grammar vs. memorization (Yang, 2012). In the context of human development, children have conveniently modeled the process by which the language faculty initially develops. Yang characterizes a child’s observed capacity to combine linguistic units as linguistic diversity (Yang, 2012). The question remains what enables this diversity. The two competing perspectives of grammar vs. memorization capably represent the argument of nature vs. nurture and more specifically, UG vs. empiricism. Grammar suggests there exists an innate cognitive aptitude for linguistic diversity while memorization contends imitative learning enables linguistic diversity (Yang, 2012).  The two are thematically identical to UG and empiricism, and in the context of this analysis should be considered synonymous with grammar and memorization.

Yang proceeds to define linguistic diversity as a measurable variable, using samples of generative texts from children that associate the determiners “the” and “a” with nouns to get at the question of grammar or memorization (Yang, 2012). Employing a statistical construct, Yang repurposes a model identifying frequencies to study the proportional differences between the combination of the determiner “the” with a particular noun and the determiner “a” with that same noun (Yang, 2012). Having developed two equations, one of which provides an expected number of combinations between the determiners and the nouns in the samples and the other that indicates the actual combinations, Yang applies the metric to determine the viability of both grammar and memorization (Yang, 2012). The results of which demonstrate the expected number of combinations of the “grammar approach” as being identical to the observed number of combinations in the samples (Yang, 2012). Conversely, the model identifies the opposite for the “memorization approach” (Yang, 2012). The consequence of which is profound. This conclusion contributes an empirically nuanced consideration in which linguistic diversity, the combinatorial capacity to create linguistic novelty, is a product of some inherent grammatical device—the central theme of Chomsky’s UG.

After establishing this statistical imperative with the human samples, Yang pursues a similar approach in assessing the possibility that non-human primates possess a similar grammatical ability (Yang, 2012). In his analysis of the renown chimp “Nim Chimpsky”, an empirical fixture and primate marvel, Yang applies a statistical model comparing grammar vs memorization to Nim Chimpsky’s documented ASL signing combinations (Yang, 2012). Like the human samples discussed previously, the ASL sign samples represent linguistic diversity produced by the respective subject. In stark contrast to human children, the expected value of combinations attributed to grammar or more broadly defined as a “rule-based system”, were dramatically less than the actual observed number of combinations (Yang, 2012). Yang subsequently denies the possibility that non-human primates engage a grammar to create novel combinations and alternatively suggests that Nim Chimpsky’s combinations reflected a complex series of learned associations through imitation (Yang, 2012). This observation implicitly expresses that a rule-based system most often prescribed as grammar is the definitive distinction between human language and other species’ communicative forms. While most obviously supporting the interpretation of language as defined by a grammar, this observation also inadvertently champions the premise of Chomsky’s UG because it indicates that grammar is innate.

In a remarkably succinct fashion, Yang develops a series of statistically inventive approaches to resolve the persistent question of how we acquire language. In doing so, two observations arrive at the intersection of nature vs. nurture. The first, humans recruit an inherent grammatical ability to create new linguistic combinations and the second, non-human primates, despite their extraordinary complexity and human instruction, do not. While the former more explicitly so and the latter more implicitly, both observations contribute empirically fundamental evidence to support Chomsky’s UG as an innate condition of the human language faculty.


Word Count: 790

Works Cited:

  • Tomasello, M. (2010). Origins of human communication. MIT press.
  • Yang, C. (2013). Ontogeny and phylogeny of language. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences110(16), 6324-6327.
  • Cook, V., & Newson, M. (2014). Chomsky’s universal grammar. John Wiley & Sons.

the acquisition of language: a learning experience

Professor Kim noted that one of the issues in the debate around human language acquisition is that Chomskyan scholars tend to concede individual points to the cognitive-behaviorist paradigm while holding that if only one aspect of Universal Grammar (UG) is valid, then the theory holds water[1]. These generativists understand theories of UG as logically encapsulating and preceding cognitive-behaviorist arguments. If, they argue, it turns out that human brains come pre-programmed to comprehend one particular syntactic rule, then Universal Grammar and the Language Acquisition device it implies are valid. However, that framing is infelicitous and patently wrong-headed, because the burden of evidence necessary to disprove it (a repository of information on all languages) is too large and one important tenet of the generativist approach to language acquisition is explainable in terms of a cognitive-behaviorist framework. This essay will explore these problems, ultimately arguing that a cognitive-behaviorist understanding reflects a more feasible and appropriate approach to language acquisition.

Bakhtin writes: “verbal discourse is a social phenomenon – social throughout its entire range and in each and every of its factors, from the sound image to the furthest reaches of abstract meaning”. (l982:259) Language is social, not only in the Saussurean sense that it belongs to society, but also in that it only works as an interpersonal and dialogic phenomenon. A UG approach disagrees on this point, noting that Language exists in the brain at birth but merely needs to be triggered to activate the supposed Language Acquisition Device (LAD). It is then primarily a psychological phenomenon which has a neurological incipiency. However, Chomsky described the development of the language faculty as “a procedure that operates on experience acquired in an ideal community”. (Cook & Newson, 1995:79) Because it contradicts the assertion that language is stimulus-free, the notion that experience is a crucial element of initial language development destabilizes the feasibility of a specific LAD and blurs the line between generativist thought and cognitive-behaviorist theories.

The rationale which supported Chomsky’s early description of an internal and specifically linguistic faculty for language development was largely provided by a critique of B.F. Skinner’s behaviorist theory. According to Cook and Newson, Skinner argued that “language is determined by stimuli consisting of specific attributes of the situation, by responses the stimuli call up in the organism, and by reinforcing stimuli that are their consequences”. (76) This, for Chomsky, was reprehensibly deterministic. If that were the case, they queried, how do “people regularly understand and produce sentences that they have never heard before”? (77) Such a line of questioning fundamentally misunderstands the role of sociality in the acquisition of language. I would like to suggest a recast of Skinner’s behaviorist approach.

Language is not stimulus-free. Chomsky cleverly (or perhaps just unwittingly) concedes this point. Recall that they included experience in a description of how the LAD functions. Simply put, experience is stimulus. Take the following scene from the Lion King (1994) for example. Rafiki strikes Simba on the head with his staff and when questioned for his reasoning responds “It doesn’t matter, it’s in the past. [The past hurts] but the way I see it, you can either run from it or learn from it”. When Rafiki moves to strike Simba again, he ducks. Experience (i.e external stimuli) does condition a response. Language is no exception.

In the case of language, we can understand primary linguistic data as stimuli which conditions a response in the uptake of a particular grammar. Chomsky refutes this line of thinking by noting that a child language learner “rarely encounters appropriate external rewards or punishment”. (Cook & Newson, 77) The successfulness of social interactions does in fact constitute a reward system. Misfires (or other types of botched sociolinguistic interaction) thereby are a kind of punishment. These sometimes are explicit (No, Timmy, foots is not a word; you have to say feet), but not nearly always. Human infants are attentive to the social intent of speakers in word-learning situation. (Saffran & Thiessen, 2007:75) When young spoken language learners babble, as they come closer to approximating groups of sounds which agree with the phonotactics of their parent’ native language, they are met with cheers. Indeed, from the moment they are born, children are surrounded by language doers who excitedly await and encourage their development of that faculty. Within that frame of understanding, the conclusion seems inescapable that language is learned, in the first instance, through social interaction.

One might argue that this practice is only applicable to communities which engage in child-oriented accommodation during the critical period of language development. Those persons who engage in parent-ese give targeted attention to the early linguistic production of infants, but this practice is not universal. Scholars have used the existence of communities that require linguistic bootstrapping of their babies as evidence for UG and the innate LAD. However, as Tomasello points out, “Generative Grammar was created to describe English,” and several universalistic claims made by generativists around linguistic features such as X-bar phrase structure, subject/object relations, and long range syntactic movement do not pan out for all languages. (1995:136,139) Therefore, it is not enough to argue that because child-oriented accommodation is not universal then UG theory must hold water. UG has to be a suitable description of all languages first in order to serve as an adequate model of language acquisition. The cognitive-behavioral model, however does create a sufficient platform upon which to understand this process.

There is no such thing as language that is not social. Universal Grammar assumes that there might be, a truly impossible claim to prove. Thus, it is not a useful way of thinking through language acquisition. Because there is sociality in every level of language use, the cognitive-behaviorist framework ultimately provides a stronger foundation to understand that systems of social interaction allow language acquisition.

[1] I use the phrases Chomskyan and generativist synonymously in this essay to mean “associated closely with the Universal Grammar concept and the constellation of ideas it implies”.


Bakhtin, Mikhail. 1981. Discourse in the novel. In Michael Holquist, ed., The dialogic imagination: four essays by M. M. Bakhtin. C. Emerson & M. Holquist, trans. Austin, Texas: University of Texas

Cook, Vivian, & Newson, Mark. 1995. Chomsky’s Universal Grammar: An Introduction. New Jersey: Wiley-Blackwell.

Saffran, Jenny, & Thiessen, Erik. 2007. Domain-general learning capacities. In Erick Hoff & Marilyn Shatz, eds., Blackwell Handbook of Language Development. Malden, Massachusetts: Blackwell.

The Lion King. 1994. Walt Disney Pictures. Dir. Rob Minkoff. [online]

Tomasello, Michael. 1995. Language is not an instinct. Cognitive Development, 10, 131-156.

Analytical Essay 4

Vy Nguyen


Analytical Essay 4: Thoughts and Language


Language Cannot be Disentangled from Culture


Benjamin Whorf’s novel proposal that suggests a causal relationship between language and thoughts has been critically analyzed by linguists for the last 70 years. Whorf’s idea of linguistics determination has been opted for a less uncompromising stance called linguistic relativity. Recent studies have indicated that there is an extent to which language affects thoughts in respect to spatial representation (Levinson, 1997) and numbers (Daehaene et al., 2011).  Linguists refer to these studies as validation that there exists an causal relationship of language and perception. However, this postulation is only true if we regard language as its own demarcated entity, sheltered from external influence. In reality, language is a core component of culture “…part of a culture and a culture is a part of a language; the two are intricately interwoven so that one cannot separate the two without losing the significance of either language or culture’ ( Brown, 1994, p.165). Because language and culture are inseparable, we cannot extricate culture and leave only language as a sole influencer of thought. As demonstrated by Figure 1, it could very well be that (2) culture affects language which in turn influences thought or like (3) where thought and language do not share a causal relationship, rather, they both share a separate causal relationship with culture.


Figure 1: The relationship among culture, language, and thought


In spatial recognition studies used to validate linguistic relativity, researchers would examine the speakers’ preference for the three types of spatial representation: absolute (geocentric) frame of reference which consists of using cardinal directions to describe spatial location, intrinsic (object-centric) frame consists of the spatial location relative to the object, and lastly a relative (egocentric) frame uses spatial location relative to the person’s location (Wolff and Holmes, 2011). Cross-cultured research done by Majid and other colleagues suggests that speakers of the 10 languages he studied (Arrernte, Balinese, Japanese, Tamil, etc…) show preference toward a certain type of spatial frame of reference. However, he also found preferential differences among those who speak the same language. Specifically, Majid claims that “living in an urban environment is associated with using a Relative FoR and living in a rural environment with using an Absolute FoR” (2004). He does not have a conclusion as to why there is this statistically significant distinction, but the fact that it exists shows that it is possible that an external source influences the choice in frame of reference among those who speak the same language.

Linguists and cognitive scientists have categorized the understanding of numbers in a similar framework as spatial representation. The number domain is split into three systems: the first one allows humans to recognize small quantity (≤4) instantaneously, the second one allows humans to recognize large quantity, also instantaneously, and the third system requires humans to count in order to arrive at an exact quantity (Wolff and Holmes, 2011). The Piraha language of the community in the Amazon rainforest possesses the one-two-many counting system has no exact words for numbers; they only have three terms, hoi(falling tone) for anything less than 6, hoi (rising tone) for any quantity between 6 ant 10, and baagi for any quantity between 7 and 10. An examination of the Piraha speakers shows that the speakers were unable to accurately perform tasks that required exact numerical knowledge, and the variation increases as the number required by the task increases. While this seems to show a direct link between language and thought, it can also be interpreted as a direct link between culture and thought as demonstrated point (3) in figure 1. Could it be that it is just not culturally significant for the Piraha community?

In 2008, Butterworth and colleagues published a study that highly suggests the Piraha’s restrictive number vocabularies is not the inhibitor of understanding numbers, but rather it is their culture. Butterworth studied native children speakers from two indigenous communities in Australia that possess the same one-two-many numbering system. The results indicate that these children perform comparable to those of native English speaking children on tasks that required exact numbering (Gellman and Butterworth). Daniel Everett, the first linguist to study Piraha, claims that the reason for this difference lies in the Piraha’s values of “living in the present” and that it is not important for their culture to distinguish exact numbers (Everett, 2012).  Whether Everett’s exact claim regarding the “living in the present” mentality is true or not, the fact that other one-two-many language speakers are capable of performing just as well as English speakers with exact number system eliminates the claim of causal relationship of language and thoughts.

There are other ways of looking at causal relationships. More can be written on the possibility of language affecting culture as opposed to the other way around or whether thoughts affecting both language and culture. I’ve explored other ways of interpreting data that at first seem to show conclusively that language affects thoughts.


Word Count: 831

Works Cited


Brown, H. D. (1994). Principles of Language Learning and Teaching (3rd edn). Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall Regents.


Chen, M. K. (2013). The effect of language on economic behavior: Evidence from savings rates, health behaviors, and retirement assets. American Economic Review, 103(2), 690-731.


Dehaene, S. (2011). The number sense: How the mind creates mathematics. OUP USA.


Gelman, R., & Butterworth, B. (2005). Number and language: how are they related?. Trends in cognitive sciences, 9(1), 6-10.


Kay, P., Berlin, B., & Merrifield, W. (1991). Biocultural implications of systems of color naming. Journal of Linguistic Anthropology, 1(1), 12-25.


Levinson, S. C. (1997). From outer to inner space: linguistic categories and non-linguistic thinking. Language and conceptualization, 13-45.


Majid, A., Bowerman, M., Kita, S., Haun, D. B., & Levinson, S. C. (2004). Can language restructure cognition? The case for space. Trends in cognitive sciences, 8(3), 108-114.


Wolff, P., & Holmes, K. J. (2011). Linguistic relativity. Wiley Interdisciplinary Reviews: Cognitive Science, 2(3), 253-265.



Analytical Essay 3

Experience of Language Acquisition

Whether or not language is an “instinct”, or innate, is a very much alive and ongoing debate such as between the writings of Pinker and Tomasello. Beyond this point, wherever language emerges from it still needs to be acquired through experience. Language does not just appear out of thin air nor manifests on its own even if it is innate. Most importantly in the acquisition of language is that we acquire it, through experience. From Chomskyian approaches utilized by Pinker (1994) to the Cognitive and Functional approaches supported by Tomasello (1995), where they differ in where it originally comes from, they both indirectly argue that it is ultimately acquired through experience.

While Tomasello (1995) is a direct response of the opposite position to Pinker (1994) there remains an underlying similarity. Whether or not language is an “instinct”, language is attained through experience. Language has thousands of varieties, spoken and signed languages, attainable through “linguistic experiences” (Tomasello, 1995, p. 133). Though as Tomasello (1995) points out, these “communicative conventions known as languages differ from the ‘big L’ Language Pinker mentions, that of Universal Grammar (p. 133). And while UG is meant to be innate and therefore unlearnable, it does not just manifest on its own but lies dormant until accessed through experience. In his defense of language as an “instinct” Pinker (1994) puts Language as a “distinct piece of [our] biological makeup”, a very human, very complex ability which spontaneously develops in children (p. 4). But as seen in the cases of Genie and other ‘feral children’, they did not spontaneously acquire language. It was not until Genie was freed from her previous situation, a largely language-free experience, that she was able to acquire some language. Though these extreme cases of language deprivation are often used as evidence for the sensitive/critical period hypothesis, it was not until Genie gained the experience of language communication and instruction that she was able to acquire some language. Despite her eventual skill level, innate or not, language would not have spontaneously been acquired without the experience gained afterwards and Language, innate or not, would not have fully manifested if not for said experience.

For signed languages Pinker (1994) cites the example of Nicaraguan Sign Language (NSL) to demonstrate instinctness of language as it seemed to suddenly appear and be acquired by the deaf children. Whether the emergence and development of NSL demonstrates the “language instinct” is debatable, but something less so is that the Nicaraguan deaf children acquired their language through experience. NSL’s emergence, acquisition, and development all began with the experience of the children attending the newly formed deaf school. The opportunities of receiving some type of formal and proper language instruction combined with being able to interact and socialize with other deaf children were all valuable and crucial experiences which aided in this development. Though their language instruction was not beneficial, the rejection of the dismal instruction combined with their want to communicate with one another was ample experience for the children to create their own signs. The school itself brought the children together, a lacking experience beforehand, and the specific teaching methods of the school pushed them to seek other means of communicating, experiences not present before. NSL became a “collective product” of these shared experiences which this newly gathered deaf community pooled together (Pinker, 1994, p. 25)

Tomasello (1995) too then cites examples of signed languages for the opposite reason to Pinker, “language is not an instinct”. Using the example of home sign, children improve on their parent(s) signing which Pinker would claim is a result of an “innate syntax module”, something Tomasello obviously does not agree with (p. 148). What is not discussed here, as it also was not for NSL, is the experience which makes this acquisition possible. Home signs are a result of deaf children not receiving proper (or any) instruction of a sign language such as ASL. As a result, self-made signs arise where instructed signs would be, but like how language does not just magically appear, this includes home signs. A similar situation experienced with the Nicaraguan children is experienced here, experience driving acquisition. As Tomasello (1995) points in his rebuttal of Pinker who would use this as examples of innateness, the children’s natural experiences with their situation – experiences and observations of differences in pointing and gesturing – in combination with their human creativity leads to this acquisition (p. 148). The signs do not just magically appear nor do the children just magically create them, the acquisition is experience driven. These indirect similarities between Pinker and Tomasello and their differing views extends to others as well. Language acquisition is an interesting phenomena, but the required experience is crucial.

Language is acquired through experience whether or not it is an “instinct”. Language does not just manifest in someone even if it is innate as Pinker would argue. If it is innate, an “instinct”, then experience is required for its manifestation, to help access it inside us. If it not innate, not an “instinct”, as Tomasello would argue then experience even clearer from this perspective is required for language acquisition. Experience is key to unlock language acquisition, whatever way one believes language is acquired, it can not be done so without experience.


Pinker, S. (1994). The language instinct: How the mind creates language. New York, NY:     HarperPerennial

Tomasello, M. (1995). Language is not an instinct. Cognitive Development, 10, 131-156.

Analytical Essay 2

Ben Alpert


Analytical Essay 2



In the study of linguistics, scholars have long debated the origins, effects, and importance of language. While some focus on speech production itself, what Saussure considers parole, others aim to answer a fundamental question in the quest to human understanding: what is language? There is no single correct way to approach nor answer this question, however, resulting in an abundance of contended evolutionary and behavioral theories. Linguists, philosophers, biologists, and sociologists alike, provide different yet similarly plausible explanations to this phenomenon. I approach this phenomenon by comparing the gestural communication of nonhuman primates, mainly great apes, discussed in Tomasello, with the Chomskyan notion of I-language in humans. In this, I aim not to answer the question of what language is, for it is too soon in the development of the field to speculate definitively, but rather to further discuss the implications of these two evolutionary developments and their possibilities. Because great ape gestural communication shares with human linguistic communication crucial components of functionality and flexibility, a great ape that grows up and lives in a human community of signers from birth could develop a degree of language which is greater than an average primate, but less than an average human, in a process that resembles creolization between different human languages.

The traditional, Aristotelian conception of language as “an instrument of thought” remains central to Chomsky’s arguments, forming the ways in which modern linguistic theory has evolved. Chomsky’s interest in Aristotle’s idea lies in the word “thought” rather than “instrument,” a distinction that he overlooks. The I-language which Chomsky proposes to be an extension of UG, composed of internal, individual, and intensional mental processes that permit us to create novel syntactical sequences at will, is nothing more than a predisposition of abstract mental flexibility. Chomsky believes I-language as central to language, which offers insight into the communicative mediums of gestures in apes. While not fully evident in an ape as a human, there clearly exists some capacity for these more intellectual primates to employ gestural mediums of expression. Chomsky’s hope to discover the “actual computational procedure (Chomsky, 4)” of thought must be reexamined step by step through human evolutionary relatives prior to arriving and understanding the complexities of the human mind.

In a community consisting only of human signers and one great ape, it is possible for the ape to develop the ability “to invent or learn novel gestures quite easily (Tomasello, 21),” particularly during early childhood, much in the same way as young human children learn words. The gestures of the ape, and the signing in the children, both represent manifestations of ritualized or learned signals, that represent social actions (Tomasello, 23). In this theoretical community, the ape will experience the same exposure to signs as the human, beginning with imitation and then crystallizing through ritualization. This process I believe to underline the workings and evolution of I-language. The cognitive predisposition (I-language) to express intention and will through communicative mediums such as gestures and speech (E-language) shows that similar internal processes must occur.

Because we know that even advanced primates have immense difficulty and ultimate failure in learning what we know as human language, due mainly to its innovative and generative nature, we can view this speech community as a sort of creolization of cross-species communicative mediums. Like creolization in different languages today, the interlanguage needed to facilitate efficient and effective communication must be negotiated, likely spanning multiple generations and an immense amount of time. We cannot be sure of how long this would take, but the beginning of a possible linguistic transformation such as this requires researchers, including Chomsky, to reexamine and incorporate his proposal of I-language to intelligent primates as well. This multi-generational change can be viewed from an evolutionary perspective as a possible explanation for the development of human language. Language did not simply appear, like many erroneously suggest, but rather whatever evolved over time to permit the human ability of innovative language did so in a slow, but remarkable way. While this evolution appears relatively sudden, it is just that: relative.

While this theoretical examination of language development in primates and humans is unlikely to actually occur, it is not at all impossible. Evolution has shown that genetic mutations can lead to monumental and beneficial changes that characterize modern life, and therefore it is conceivable to find a primate whose genetic makeup allows for a larger predisposition to interpret and express abstract mental processes, also known as I-language. As I mentioned before, no single explanation to the evolution of language stands alone as fact; rather, we can use components of different theories to fill in the gaps which still perplex some of the most intelligent of humans. With that said, it is not impossible to suppose that primates possess a primitive form of I-language, and that through evolutionary history evolved into what we consider to be human language today.


Word count: 810




Chomsky, N. (2016). What Kind of Creatures are we? New York: Columbia University Press.

De Saussure, F. (1916/1959). Course in General Linguistics. New York, NY: McGraw-Hill.

Tomasello, M. (2010). Origins of Human Communication. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Analytical Essay 2

Searle’s Fundamental Principles of Language

Searle’s principles of the crucial relation between syntax and semantics include discreteness, compositionality, and generativity (Searle, p. 176). These three principles are all essential to maintaining the underlying structure of language in terms of the relation between syntax and semantics. Without any one of them, language as we know it would fracture, and consequently, all three of Searle’s principles for language are equally fundamental in maintaining the organization of linguistic structure and meaning.

According to Searle, discreteness “is that feature by which syntactical elements retain their identity under the various syntactical operations,” (Searle, p. 176). Essentially, discreteness works to maintain a root word’s meaning when it is shifted due to the addition of morphemes or the reconstruction of a sentence, for example. If discreteness did not exist as a feature of language, then the addition of morphemes to a root word would fundamentally change its identity; when dog becomes dogs, for example, the two words would no longer share an identity and would instead serve as representations for entirely different referents. In addition, the reconstruction of a sentence, perhaps through the rearranging of clauses, would alter the meaning of the overall sentence, whereas in language as we know it, the meaning of a sentence remains the same when clauses are rearranged. Ergo, without discreteness as a feature of language, meanings would not remain constant across morpheme and clause shifts as they do now, altering language at a fundamental structural level.

The second principle, if removed, would similarly alter language at a fundamental structural level. Compositionality, defined by Searle as “both a syntactic and semantic property,” relates to the formation of sentences to convey meaning, along with how that meaning may shift depending on the arrangement of what makes up the sentence (Searle, p. 176). From a syntactic standpoint, compositionality operates according to the formation rules of the given language, in that a sentence acts as a composite, made up of smaller elements such as words and morphemes. The meanings of such composites are determined by the syntactical structure, depending on the order of the elements as well as the sentence as a whole. As such, the meaning of a sentence changes if its elements are shifted around; the sentence “Sally slapped Penny,” for example, conveys a different meaning than the sentence “Penny slapped Sally,” regardless of consisting of the same elements, because the key to semantics is the arrangement of those elements, not just the presence of the elements themselves. Consequently, without the principle of compositionality, the formation of sentences would be fundamentally altered. In addition, sentences containing the same elements, regardless of word order, would have the same meaning, disrupting overall semantics. Therefore, without compositionality, language as we know it would become unrecognizable.

Searle’s third principle is what he calls generativity, which would, similarly to the principles of discrete and compositionality, alter language on a fundamental, structural level if removed. Generativity, as defined by Searle, points to the nature of language allowing the creation of an infinite number of novel sentences (Searle, p. 176). Generativity allows the speakers of a language to continually form previously unknown sentences based on the underlying linguistic rules of their language(s). Essentially, generativity is what allows language such fluidity and creativity, as it allows for no upper limit to the number of sentences it is possible to form. Without generativity, we would have no capacity for the creation of original sentences, which would eradicate original stories and all culture rooted in story, greatly simplifying the lives of humanity. Conversation, also, is rooted in story, so conversation would not exist as it does without generativity. Consequently, language would be forever stagnant without generativity, rather than forever evolving, altering language as we know it on a fundamental level.

Searle’s three principles of language; discreteness, compositionality, and generativity; all work together to maintain the relation between syntax and semantics; each principle is crucial in its own right to maintaining language on a fundamental, structural level. As evidenced by the examples mentioned throughout this essay of the consequences of removing any of the three principles, even if just one of these principles were missing, language would fracture into something else entirely, becoming much simpler as well as stagnant, ultimately failing to serve its users as needed and disrupting all interactions of humanity. As such, discreteness, compositionality, and generativity are all equally essential principles in maintaining the fundamental, underlying structure of language, specifically regarding the relation between syntax and semantics.

Searle, John R. What is Language? Some Preliminary Remarks*  Etica & Politica / Ethics & Politics, XI, 2009, 1, pp. 173-202.

753 words

The Necessity of Inclusivity in Language Evolution Theories

In Dunbar’s book, Grooming, Gossiping, and the Evolution of Language, Dunbar argues that language evolved from the human need to facilitate bonding of larger groups by maintaining group size, gossiping, and talking about social topics (Dunbar, 120). In the discussion of language evolution, I forward Everett’s interdisciplinary approach that culture, biology, physiology, and cognitive studies need to be acknowledged simultaneously in order to understand language holistically (Everett, 3804).  I argue that language and culture cannot be separated when studying the evolution of language. Dunbar’s eurocentric arguments present language evolution in a racially and culturally biased way that undermines his credibility and hypothesis of grooming and social networks. This essay will showcase Dunbar’s misleading connections of the physical, social, and cultural aspects of human evolution in regards to language, as well as the racial bias this circulates racial bias in the linguistics discipline.

First of all, Dunbar’s work fails to address that humans in an early evolutionary state, may have not needed to use language the way we do today due to different societal norms. Culture and societal changes are necessary to acknowledge when looking at the evolution of language, but Dunbar focuses more on the biological aspects instead of a more holistic approach. For example, during Dunbar’s discussion of the debate about whether or not neanderthals were the first to use language, he makes logical jumps between the connections of language, biology, and culture in human and language evolution. First, he discusses the controversy of whether or not neanderthals had the physical, biological capabilities to use language. Anatomist, Philip Lieberman, argued that neanderthals did not have the same development in the larynx as humans, and were unable to communicate with anything other than “grunts and screams” (116). Dunbar explains that a full neanderthal skeleton in Israel contested this, because it showed that the neanderthal did have a larynx in a location similar to humans, and that neanderthals’ brain size was larger than humans  (117).  Debating whether or not the neanderthals biologically had the vocal ability to produce similar sounds as humans is irrelevant due to the fact that this example lacks to address that non-human primate communication often uses gestures opposed to vocals (Tomasello, 35) Additionally, it lacks to address the distinction between speech and language. Speech only a can only be studied in the context of language, and speech sounds do not entail language (Saussure, 17). Additionally, speech is not the only way to communicate, sign language is also important to consider- especially due to the fact that humans use this today.

Then, Dunbar jumps to conclude that neanderthals must of had large grooming networks, and that their social groups were maintained in a way that is “quite different than other living primates, including humans,” (117).  Dunbar claims that brain size was not enough evidence for unique social behavior of primates, and that it was the neocortex has a correlation to social group size (66). In another primate study by Savage-Rumbaugh et al, the most successful primate to understand semantics of human language was immersed in a human cultural environment (Savage-Rumbaugh, 917).  Dunbar does not mention cultural context of neanderthals until making racist comparisons.

Dunbar’s arguments of language evolution is misguided by his eurocentric views of culture and social networks. He argues that Neanderthals went extinct not because they lacked language, but because they lacked ‘sophisticated’ culture and social behavior (117).  He then compares neanderthal’s extinction to the genocide of Native Americans (117).  Dunbar mentions studies that say neanderthals were less nomadic than modern humans, and claims  that  “the fate of the neanderthals was similar to that of American Indians and Australian Aborigines at the fate of European invaders” that had ‘more widely distributed political and military power’ (118). Comparing neanderthal extinction to native american genocide contributed nothing to the argument of grooming and gossip amongst social groups in the evolution of language, and only forwarded eurocentric, social darwinist ideologies. Additionally, if Dunbar knew more about diversity within Native American societies and culture, there is a lot of elements that contradict his statements about ‘sophisticated’ culture. Many native americans tribes were historically nomadic, there was a perfectly functional, non-western forms of leadership, and the massive deaths of Native Americans was not only due to european exploitation, but largely attributed to diseases europeans brought with them (“The Impact of European Diseases on Native Americans”, 2018).  Additionally, there are thriving social and research networks within the community today (Native Research Network, 2015). Unlike the Neanderthal’s, Native Americans are not extinct, and most importantly are humans that should not be compared to animals.

Finally, Dunbar’s constant comparison to animals and minority groups in his arguments about brain size make his work questionable, outdated, and offensive.  For example, in the section ‘Do Monkeys Have Big Brains’, Dunbar introduces the complexities of measuring intelligence amongst species by making a racial comparison of intelligence between Black and White children. Dunbar first describes intelligence as the ability to “solve problems that other people can’t” (55). This is followed by comparison between black and white children on IQ tests, and concludes that Black children perform less well due to lack of opportunity ‘to be widely read’ (56).  Dunbar follows this by stating that  the tools we have to measure intelligence instead only can measure an individual’s motivation to answer the question or the persons general knowledge, rather than native intelligence (56). This perpetuates the stereotype that Black people are lazy. It is bad scholarship for Dunbar to then continue to talk about the differences in brain sizes and intelligence amongst species in the following paragraph (56). Historically and sometimes in present day, Black peoples and other minorities sometimes are compared to animals  with derogatory remarks such as being called a ‘monkey’. Additionally, during slavery, many were blacks were murdered to study their brain size in order to compare it to that of whites. It was jarring to see this racial comparison with no context placed in the middle of a discussion comparing animals to people.

In conclusion, Language and culture cannot be separated when studying the evolution of language. Dunbar’s lack of understanding culture shows throughout his work, and his eurocentric arguments undermine his credibility and hypothesis of grooming and social networks.


Dunbar, Robin. Grooming, Gossip and the Evolution of Language. Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press, 1996. Print

Everett, Daniel. Don’t Sleep There are Snakes: Life and Language in the Amazonian Jungle. New York: Pantheon Books, 2008. Web.  March 218

Native Research Network. 2015. Kindle. Web.                                                                      https://www.nativeresearchnetwork.org/

The Impact of European Diseases on Native Americans.” Science and Its Times: Understanding the Social Significance of Scientific Discovery.                   Encyclopedia.com. 4 Apr. 2018 <http://www.encyclopedia.com>.

Savage-Rumbaugh, Sue, et. al. “Ape Consciousness-Human Consciousness: A Perspective Informed by Language and Culture.” American Zoologist. Vol.40, no. 6, 2000, pp. 910-921. JSTOR. Web. March 2018.

Tomasello, Michael. Origins of Human Communication. Cambridge,         Massachusetts: MIT Press, 2008. Print.

Analytical Essay 2

Human Babies Do Not Possess Linguistic Language

In John Searle’s What is Language? Some Preliminary Remarks, he begins by discussing the achievements made in the field of philosophy over the last century or so.  While praising his colleagues, he has one major complaint.  He states, “the problem is that its practitioners in general do not treat language as a natural phenomenon.”  In saying this, it is appropriate to assume that Searle himself must believe that language is a natural human ability.  However, after a deeper look into his paper, although he claims language is naturalistic, from Searle’s perspective, humans are not born with full language, but rather they develop it overtime.  I will attempt to substantiate this point by explaining that at birth children are prelinguistic beings, rather than linguistic begins because they lack the understanding of sarcasm, and therefore lack of representation of linguistic meaning, an essential linguistic language ability as outlined by Searle.

In order to assert from Searle’s view that humans do not naturally have complete language, I will first establish that human babies are born with the prelinguistic abilities he discusses in the first part of his paper.  Searle argues, that in prelinguistic language there are two major components: consciousness and intentionality.  First, I will discuss consciousness.  In section 5, Searle describes prelinguistic consciousness as having, “space, time, causation, agency, and object,” (Searle 181).  And this can definitely be seen very early on in a child’s life.  For example, during infancy when a child is in its crib, but wants to be held, he knows that if he cries loudly, a parent will soon come in to his room and pick him up.  In this example, the space is his crib, the time is how long he waits and cries for a parent’s response, the causation is the loud crying, the agency is the wanting to be held, and the object is the parent to which he cries.  In terms of intentionality, Searle explains that, “any intentional state determines its conditions of satisfaction, and a normal animal that has intentional states must be able to recognize when the conditions of satisfaction are in fact satisfied,” (Searle 179).  This can also clearly be seen in human infants.  For example, many times we know that babies cry for specific reasons, such as a wet dipper or hunger, and when their problems are solved, the babies are aware and usually their crying subsides.

Since it is now established that in fact human babies do possess prelinguistic language, according to Searle, I will now argue that they do not have linguistic language because they are missing sarcasm, which contains the linguistic representation of meaning, an essential piece that Searle describes as necessary to linguistic language.  It has been proven, that children do not have the ability to produce or understand sarcasm.  One 2009 study, by Glenwright and Pexman found that it is not until about six years of age that children begin to identify when sarcasm and irony are being used in conversation, and even when they can identify its use, children are not able to comprehend what the speaker is meaning to say, until about ten years of age (Glenwright and Pexman 1).  This is significant to my argument because at the basis of sarcasm is linguistic representation of meaning.  Searle explains that to have full language we have to be able to, “distinguish representation from expression,” meaning that we have to be able to not only hear and literally comprehend the words someone else is speaking, but also understand the point the speaker is making with the words, which is also obviously necessary in sarcasm (Searle 187).  For example, one night at a dinner table a parent is explaining to their child that they have a lot of work to complete.  Then they leave the table and five minutes later the child runs up to the parent and asks them to play a game.  If the parent were to respond sarcastically with, it’s not like I have anything else to do, the child would most likely think that their parent is free to play, although most people over the age of 10 would know that in fact the parent does have other things to do.  This example shows that children cannot separate the physical words an adult is says, with the actual meaning that the adult is trying to get across, and therefore children do not understand linguistic representation of meaning, which is the underlying foundation for sarcasm.

In sum, from Searle’s perspective, human children are not born with language, rather they are born with prelinguistic language, that overtime develops into complete language.  I confirmed this by first explaining that Searle believes both consciousness and intentionality are necessary in order to have prelinguistic language, and that babies indeed do possess both of these qualities.  Then I described how a fundamental aspect of language to Searle is comprehending linguistic representation of meaning, and explaining that it is evident children do not have this ability because they do not have sarcasm, and sarcasm is rooted in the linguistic representation of meaning.


Word Count: 844







Works Cited


Glenwright, Melanie, and Penny M. Pexman. “Development of Children’s Ability to Distinguish

Sarcasm and Verbal Irony.” Journal of Child Language, vol. 37, no. 2, 2010, pp. 429–451., doi:10.1017/S0305000909009520.


John R. Searle, “What is Language? Some Preliminary Remarks”, in: Etica & Politica / Ethics &

Politics, XI (2009) 1, pp. 173-202.

Does Social Media Affect Dunbar’s Social Group Size?

With new social media platforms emerging every day, it may seem that people are more connected than ever. However, the depth of these connections and relationships may not reach that of face-to-face interactions. While it can appear as though social media allows an individual to expand their social circle, it could be creating the opposite effect. Psychologist and anthropologist Robin Dunbar would likely argue that social media does not make it possible to enlarge one’s social group size and, on the contrary, shifts social behavior in a way that may cause group size to decrease.

Dunbar, in examining social evolution, proposed the idea that language evolved in order to accommodate larger social group sizes. Primates utilize grooming as a means of bonding, but this can be a rather time-consuming activity. Unlike grooming, language allows an individual to interact with several people at once and exchange information about others, which may render it more efficient in this domain (Dunbar 78-79). Replacing language with grooming could allow group size to expand from a maximum of around 50-55 members to 150 members (Dunbar 75). He states that:

The figure of 150 seems to represent the maximum number of individuals with whom we can have a genuinely social relationship, the kind of relationship that goes with knowing who they are and how they relate to us. Putting it another way, it’s the number of people you would not feel embarrassed about joining uninvited for a drink if you happened to bump into them in a bar (Dunbar 77).

Thus, while language can allow bonding with a wider social circle, the number of members in a group is still limited.

While social media makes it easier to interact with more people, Dunbar would likely argue that an individual is still limited to a social circle of 150 people due to cognitive limits imposed by the brain. He believes that an increase in neocortex size made it possible for animals to manage more complex social relationships and thus increase group size (Dunbar 62). Because he views social group size as tied to brain size, a change would have to occur in modern humans to allow for a group size beyond 150 members. It is unlikely that social media has existed long enough for human brains to adapt and grow in a way that would accommodate larger social groups. Taking this into account, Dunbar would likely argue that social circles are not truly expanding as a result of social media use.

Further, Dunbar differentiates between types of groups and relationships, noting that “sympathy and neocortex groups are limited by the way in which you relate emotionally to people” whereas the number of people whose name you may know, for instance, is limited by memory (Dunbar 77). As a result, he would likely argue that while social media may increase the number of people whose existence you are aware of in the world, it will not increase the number of people you truly relate to on a deeper level. However, the overlap between these types of relationships on social media could be problematic. Social bonding is restricted by time, which Dunbar recognizes in proposing that language replaced grooming as more time-efficient from of social bonding (Dunbar 78). Social media allows people to spend their time and energy interacting with a range of people outside of their social group size, which leaves less time for cultivating relationships with those who make up their tighter circle. In this way, social media could ultimately influence the nature of the relationships between those in the 150 group size and maybe even cause a reduction in overall group size as a result.

However, Dunbar may believe that this reduction in group size was probable anyway. Previously, a large social group could bring forth a survival advantage (e.g., ease in locating food, defending resources from other groups, protection from predators). Because of this advantage, Dunbar highlights that there may have been a “relentless ecological pressure to increase group size” (Dunbar 78). Does this same pressure exist for humans today? In some ways, technological advancements have made it so that humans do not necessarily need to share resources for hunting, foraging, and similar purposes. If there is no longer pressure to accommodate a group size of 150 members, perhaps a reduction in group size can be expected. Social media may simply accelerate this process.

In conclusion, though social media allows for efficient, widespread interactions, Dunbar would likely argue that it does not increase social group size beyond his proposed limit of 150 members. Further, this new form of interaction may come at the expense of these smaller groups, potentially resulting in an overall reduction of group size. Ultimately, it is important to distinguish between different types of relationships in order to determine how social media can affect offline social behavior as a whole.

Word Count: 833

Works Cited

Dunbar, Robin. Grooming, gossip, and the evolution of language. Harvard University Press, 1998.

Analytical Essay #2

In his book titled, Grooming, Gossip and the Evolution of Language, Dunbar goes into great detail about the lengthy process of language evolving over time into gossip. He utilizes both biological and psychological evidence to defend this theory on language evolution. Although he tries to demonstrate a clear, step-by-step process of how language progressed, he fails to include both genders in the conversation, which makes a male’s role appear more prominent in the process. He ignores the significance of social interactions between male and female primates, and focuses more on the male-aspect of grooming more-so than the female’s. He integrates evidence of group-size growth over time without providing specific examples that incorporate a woman’s personal development. Through Dunbar’s male-oriented examples of grooming, and group-size, he develops a one-sided argument that lacks sufficient evidence and poorly represents the male and female coalition of language development.

Dunbar initially tries to identify the reason why primates form “coalitions” and “groom” with other fellow primates. In his analysis, he concludes that primates form grooming coalitions in order to prevent other primates from exerting their dominance. This argument is entirely one-sided, because it focuses primarily on the physical, male aspects of grooming more so than the passive, feminine traits that it can encompass. He continues this masculine argument, without even acknowledging the different roles that women may have in forming these coalitions.  Evidence from Dobrovolsky goes against this by pointing out how “mother-child bonding” plays a significant role in the socialization of young primates (Dobrovolsky 18).  Savage in her study on comparing ape and human consciousness, notes how a female baby primate when learning language “prefers to spend time with her human female caretakers and with her bonobo mother…” (Savage 918). This example outlines the roles that females can have in the “grooming” process of younger primates. Women primates and male primates together may contribute differing factors, but ultimately aid in the development of language. Dunbar within this grooming process should have acknowledged the fact that the mother spends a majority of time with the younger primate growing up. Comparing and contrasting the female and male grooming processes would have added more evidence to Dunbar’s argument, making it appear less biased.

Primates can perform other forms of social interactions that could equally be related to the development of language and gossip. Tomasello and his research with primate interactions shows how primates have multiple gestures and goals associated with performing these gestures (Tomasello 25). Besides grooming, primates could use playing and requesting as form of social interaction that develops a close bond with another primate. Dunbar’s approach ignores all the physical gestures of the primates, which undermines his argument of grooming being the dominant pre-cursor to vocal language. Dunbar’s argument doesn’t incorporate all aspects of the primates, which leads to his argument to only being partially defended.

Dunbar tries to relate neocortex brain size to group size, but in actuality is only comparing male group orientations with one another in his examples. He utilizes examples such as a church congregations, and military companies to offer a one-sided approach to language development. For groups to be taken into consideration, both males and females have to be a part of a group and their roles have to be expanded on more-so than just “living” or “existing” within a group. The research isn’t validated if you go into great detail describing a group of military units as “… a bunch of guys who spent time together…” (Dunbar 75). Maybe, including the roles of nurses in the military in comparison to the troops fighting on the frontlines would provide a more applicable example, even if the quantity of the groups didn’t agree with your number.

His examples need to go into greater detail as to why “150” is a viable number. In the hunter-gatherer societies of ancient villages, do they average 150 people because they only need a finite number of men and women to perform specific social roles? Are there other reasons besides difficulty controlling members that relate to why groups form around 150 members? Having legitimate reasons would help strengthen his argument so that it entails a more objective approach. Dunbar, by focusing his attention on the quantity of “150”, ignores the “quality” of the people that entail a group. One of his reoccurring examples involves military and army groups that, “…nestle comfortably around the predicted group size of 150” (Dunbar 75). He lacks sufficient evidence as to why these groups are perfect examples and how they encompass both male and female roles in language. His Empirical evidence makes his argument one-sided, choosing information that only supports his personal claims.

Dunbar throughout his novel makes some unique observations that sets him apart from other scholars. He provides simple and understandable arguments that both readers and scholars can understand. Although he incorporates a large amount of quantifiable, empirical evidence, he still ignores the female’s involvement within language. His subjective approach to language development ignores the various roles that both the male and female have in language’s evolutionary process. The progression of the Human Language, whether it occurred in an immediate explosion or a gradual process, involved a joint partnership between males and females working together.   Word Count: 866

Works Cited

Dunbar, Robin. Grooming, Gossip and the Evolution of Language. Faber and Faber, 2004

O’Grady, William D., et al. Contemporary Linguistic Analysis: an Introduction. Pearson Canada, 2016.

Savage-Rumbaugh, Sue, et al. “Ape Consciousness-Human Consciousness: A       Perspective Informed by Language and Culture.” American Zoologist, vol 40, no. 6, Dec. 2000, pp. 910-921., doi:10.1093/icb/40.6.910.

Tomasello, Michael. Primate Intentional Communication.” Origins of Human Communication,MIT Press, 2008, pp. 13–55.