Additional Thoughts on Syntax of the Mother Tongue
By Lonnie Brown

Chomsky wrote that he was motivated by one question that perplexed Plato: given such a relatively small amount data to work with, how is it that we learn language so quickly and so well?

Chomsky's other burning question was (following Orwell): given that we have so much of the real story right before our noses, how is it that we don't see it. He was referring to misbehavior on the part of governments (e.g., illegal "covert" actions like the 1973 coup in Chile, and so on), but it applies equally well to an enormous host of situations. Castaneda, it seems, sort of collapsed both problems (Plato's and Orwell's) into one basket and said "it's the flyer mind."

My personal explanation for Orwell's problem is that we learn to define different types of behavior as appropriate to different contexts. So, for example, if someone doesn't know how to perform some function using some software application, they call their trusty "computer expert" or user support person, who in all probability is no more familiar with the particular application than they are--probably less. But because they "are not supposed to know about computers" and the "computer expert" is, they'll call him/her up and he/she will SEE (must be energy as it flows) what they can't because they have already decided that they "don't know anything about computers." And your average, mid-level clerical type doesn't see the job as a context for learning "about computers." There are, of course, exceptions.

There was a show on PBS a month or so ago about a parrot with amazing language skills. Do you think maybe the flyers have designs on some future parrot civilization?

I don't any more about Keller, but if she wasn't deaf and blind until she was fourteen months old, then she did have the dreaded syntax implanted. That explains something that always puzzled me about her. In the few actual cases of feral children that have occurred, cases where the children did not "learn" the syntax before they were three, the children without exception never acquired more than the most rudimentary ability to use language. Any half-way bright chimp could give them a run for their money in the application of language skills. But Helen Keller became quite articulate and accomplished.

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>Words alter the way the brain functions. This is natural. So is "the syntax of the mother tongue."

Not so much words as language taken as a whole. Interestingly, the syntax at the most abstract level precedes the mother tongue. The syntax of the mother tongue amounts to setting paramaters on the "Universal Grammar." These parameters have to do with phrase structure (head first or head last), case marking, and a host of other things. So in English the head generally comes at the end of the phrase (the skinny old fart), and a preposition comes at the beginning of a prepositional phrase. In Spanish the head often comes at the beginning of a phrase, while in Japanese the preposition follows its object.

Apparently, the brain needs those settings established at an early stage of development. Otherwise further development of the necessary neural networks for linguistic competence is seriously impeded.

Also interestingly, I'll bet many of us were aware of much of this information all the while we were gobbling up Castaneda's "explanations", but we didn't see our involvement in Castaneda's teachings as a context for bringing those two areas of discourse together to see how they stood up to one another.