Syntax of the Mother Tongue
By Jeremy Donovan
The quotes in the following post were copied from an article in the January 25, 2000, edition of The Los Angeles Times.
CC spoke of "the syntax of the mother tongue," and implied it was a severe limiting factor to our perception, which is presumably inserted into us by invisible inorganic beings and/or forced upon us by our parents when we are babes, or something like that. But what appears more likely is the view of linguists, like Noam Chomsky, the language theorist from MIT, who "first proposed in the 1960s that people are born with an innate sense of grammar that transcends individual languages."
And while it was hotly debated for years, many linguists would currently agree that all languages are "cast from the same mold". Their reason for saying so would be quite different from CC's, however, as they believe this to be a "master plan rooted in human biology and shaped by shared genetic inheritance." They have evidence for this belief.
Recently, in a major survey of over 500 languages, a team of linguists found "40 core characteristics common to all [languages] . . . that comprise a kind of periodic table of linguistic elements, from which all variations of human language can be created".
I suppose CC would try to say "aha! The Flier's mind --- the evil syntax I always warned you about!" or some such thing. But linguists and neurologists would say that the systems which process language are natural systems in the brain, evolved over hundreds of thousands of years. They have evidence for this. Researchers at the Salk Institute recently discovered that: "...the brain retrieves words to describe the world around it through a kind of interactive mental dictionary dispersed in many separate parts of the left cerebral hemisphere. Additional networks throughout the brain are activated to help locate and retrieve the different kinds of information that add up to the meaning, construction and pronunciation of a noun. Verbs are orchestrated by entirely separate networks of neurons. The more complicated the grammar of a sentence, the larger the amount of brain tissue pressed into service..."
Thus ... the different individual elements of the friggin' "syntax of the mother tongue" actually correspond to specific separate neural networks in the brain, and this is something which evolved long ago. The archeological evidence suggests that "humanity acquired language approximately 500,000 years ago." Since other animals have shown some ability to process limited syntax, it would stand to reason that a lot of the basic neural systems even predate that considerably. Some of the associated physical systems definitely do. For example, "humanity's distinctive anatomical capacity for speech may have evolved some 2 million years ago."
Miscellaneous fascinating information:
"Helen Keller, the noted educator who was deaf, blind, and mute from the age
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of 16 months, did not learn her first word until she was 7. She later described her isolated, wordless inner world as "an unconscious but conscious time of nothingness ... a dark, silent imprisonment. I did not know that I knew aught, or that I lived or acted or desired."
So ... here is a person who, while possessing her brain's raw capacity for syntax, did not have the dreaded syntax fully "implanted" in her until she was 7 years old. Does she report remarkable experiences of perceiving in inconceivable ways when she finally learns to communicate? No.
(I find this a most peculiar case, actually. She was not blind or deaf for 16 full months after birth? So I'd think she would have had all kinds of dreaming experiences for she would have had the memory of images from which to construct dreaming internally unless all the visual and auditory systems of her brain were damaged as well, or ... unless it is necessary to develop the linguistic capacity of one's brain in order to become fully "conscious" of what one perceives (interesting question?). Does anyone know more about Keller?)
"Oxford University researchers last year found a gene on chromosome seven that appears to warp virtually every aspect of grammar and language --- so much so that the speech of the family that inherited it is incomprehensible to an untrained listener."
So, their "syntax of their mother tongue" is just a little different, huh?
And it's different because of genetics.
At the Salk Institute, they also found that there are different neural networks in our brains for broad categories of words such as "tools" and "animals" and "colors."
Different languages, while having common elements, and following generalizable physical patterns, are stored in the brain in different ways.
For example, "Italian and English actually use different areas of the brain".
So while there are different neural networks for different syntactical categories, there are all kinds of different specific "actualizations" of these neural networks in real human brains. In babies' brains, the experience of language itself actually molds the brain into what it will become. So there is no way you are going to "go back to the position of a baby." There would be no way to "undo" all those neural networks once they have been formed. They can only be modified to some extent.
It has been found that often a second language will be stored in the brain in an entirely different manner than the native language (depending on how early it is learned).
Words alter the way the brain functions. This is natural. So is "the syntax of the mother tongue."
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