I'm growing more excited about my book, due out this September. I've begun to get some good blurbs and hope for more. As part of the prologue to publication I think from time to time I will post a video on YouTube in which I discuss an aspect of the blog and book. Today's post is the first. Readers through a subscription or RSS service may not be able to start the video from this site. You can find it here.
Note: Once before I posted a video and received a protest from a deaf visitor that she could not hear what I was saying. So below is the text of my video.
I was always an obedient kid, not much given to swiping things from candy stores or talking sass at my parents, so it might seem odd that since childhood I have pursued a forbidden line of research. Of course, I didn't know it was forbidden when I first got interested. I only learned its disreputable nature in college. One evening there I attended one of those after-hours discussions that the school used to hold for students and visiting scholars. In this case the scholar was a distinguished literary scholar, a Jesuit priest named Walter Ong. He said something, from this distance I have no recall what, and I asked, "If that's so, how could language have ever begun?"
Ong shot back, "You are not allowed to ask that question." He went on to explain that in 1860 the Paris Philological Society announced it would no longer accept papers on language origins. There were too many coming in and they were too speculative. Other groups of language scholars soon followed. A hundred years later, the ban was still in existence. I was not in the category of Drs. Frankenstein or Jeckyl and their outlaw experiments, but I was asking a question that was formally forbidden. Until that gathering I hadn't even known there were such things as questions college students were not allowed to ask.
The trouble was that I had gotten interested in the question when I was eleven years old, so by the time I was in college it was a little late to tell me not to wonder about it. More effective in blocking me was that I had no clue where to start thinking about it. Even so, every now and then I would find myself thinking about the paradoxes of the question.
In those days I still understood the puzzle in the naïve terms of a learned invention. I learned English from my parents who learned it from their parents on back. But it cannot go back forever. Our ape ancestors didn't speak. So at some point along the way people had to agree on the meaning and use of words. How could they come to such an agreement without having language already?
I didn't know that Bertrand Russell had raised the same point thirty years earlier, in his book The Analysis of Mind. He wrote there, "We can hardly suppose a parliament of hitherto speechless elders meeting together and agreeing to call a cow a cow and a wolf a wolf"
If I had stayed stuck at that level of the question, I probably would have been forced by my limited imagination to honor the taboo about pursuing it, but a few years after my moment with Father Ong, I had an idea. Language might not be completely learned. There could be some instinctive portion of it. In that case, the question of language origins shifts to the origins of the instinct.
I had a question that could be researched. Was language an instinct? I made a list of five things that would have to be true for my idea to be true, and I was soon able to check off every point on my list. So I was off to the races. I found a book by Eric Lenneberg titled The Biological Foundations of Language. I discovered that Noam Chomsky had already put forth the idea that our basic grammar was inborn.
Thus encouraged, I really broke the research ban by writing and finding a publisher for an article in an old magazine called The Saturday Review. That piece even got me a note from Chomsky saying I had done good work. That note pleased me at the time, and amazes me now because Chomsky never seemed to expect much knowledge to come from looking into language's evolutionary origins. It was not until 1990 that the ban was really lifted when two of Chomsky's disciples, Steven Pinker and Paul Bloom, published a long treatise saying that language had a biological foundation and that foundation must have an evolutionary history. After that, the dam broke. More papers followed and then came conferences on the subject and technical books. When young reporters interview me today they think I must be joking when I say that the subject for most of my life was banned from serious discussion.
An Italian philosopher named Giorgio Marchetti says he thinks my story should encourage young people to pursue even forbidden questions, and I would be glad if it did. My book Babel's Dawn: a natural history of the origins of speech tells the story I first wondered about when I was 11: how we got from apes with no language to a world that doesn't shut up. The book proves that when you take a question seriously, no matter how impossible it seems, an answer can often be found.