Following up on Maggie Tallerman’s presentation yesterday in support of a language faculty, Evolang this morning began with a further defense of the same concept by Robert Berwick, a colleague and collaborator with Noam Chomsky. Berwick has even drawn back from the famous Hauser-Chomsky-Fitch paper of 2002 which suggested that the humans-only part of the language faculty might be narrowed to recursion, i.e., the embedding of syntactical structures to form every larger structures; e.g., the + apple --> Newton saw + the apple --> Newton saw the apple + fall --> I don’t believe + Newton saw the apple fall.
Berwick maintains that there are a set of core language properties that are universal and part of the human genome. For example, all languages follow verb + object or object + verb order. This claim left me wondering: if it’s true, why did Tallerman have to make such a technical argument to show elements of word ordering inn the Wambaya language?
Another core property takes a negative form: no language organizes itself by counting. For example, no language calls for placing a special marker in the fourth position in a sentence. (Odd as such a rule might sound, computer languages use this sort of forced ordering rule quite routinely.) The property sounded plausible to me, but Tallerman reported that in Wambaya an auxiliary, if used at all, must be in second place, either as the second word or second constituent.
Berwick distinguishes between all the parts of a language that are learned and the core properties. The learned features vary from language to language and, over time, within a language. Like the fashion for hemlines, these learned properties rise and fall. They change so fast that the genome can never catch up with them, thus they can never become part of the language faculty.
Core properties are like the hemline itself. It may rise and fall, but there always is one. (I know; not all dresses do have hemlines, but you get the point.) These core properties cannot even be tested on a computer simulation because there is no alternative to model.
An evolutionary explanation based on biology is also impossible. The genetic data needed for determining how genes shape language and how they were selected is out of reach. The story of how language evolved is still beyond our ken.