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.

One Reply to “Analytical Essay 2”

  1. Hello Ben,

    I liked your paper in that it identified that primate gestural communication can exist within a gray area in between human communication and animal communication. It can be hard drawing a line that separates humans from primates when they both share many similar features. People have opposing views about human language, especially in regards to how it exactly evolved from primates. I was wondering what particular theory or theories, excluding Darwinism, that lead you to believe that language evolution occurred in a slow, gradual process? Is it because many other biological aspects of primates evolved gradually over time? I think that it would be very interesting to study a primate within a deaf community to see what specific linguistic cues the primate picks up. Researchers could learn a lot implementing a similar type of study.

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