The Rosetta Stone
Last June I posted a three-part series titled "I'm Tired of Chomsky" in which I summarized Chomsky's theory, put forth an alternate theory, and reached some conclusions (Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, All 3 in 1 PDF). At the end I found that there was some overlap in our ideas about language:
- Internal language: Although I do not accept Chomsky's theory of innate, elementary concepts, I do believe that humans enjoy a subjective, sensory knowledge that language can evoke but not reproduce.
- A Merge system: I disagree with Chomsky's idea that language is produced by combining symbols for elementary concepts, but I agree that language is created by combining words into a string. In my view, the words direct attention to evoked knowledge.
But, as the saying goes, you can't beat something with nothing. Chomsky and his many admirers have produced an elaborate system of analysis that has its limitations—how seriously can anybody take an account of language that does not explain how we are able to communicate knowledge?—but has the great virtue of actually existing. I have felt for some time that somebody ought to produce an account of how language can evoke not just images, but complete ideas that hang together.
I wrote a technical paper titled "Attention Based Syntax" and sent it to Giorgio Marchetti, the philosopher based in Urbino, Italy who has been doing the heavy lifting of bringing together students of attention and language. He showed the paper to three reviewers who offered comments, which led me to produce a better paper. The revised version has been posted on the Mind, Consciousness, and Language website which is maintained by Marchetti and Giulio Benedetti. People who are interested can download my paper here.
Most of the paper is devoted to introducing a method of parsing sentences in terms of how language can evoke complete ideas, what I call bound perceptions. The paper argues that:
- The basic facts of syntax arise from the need to pilot attention and bind the different focal points into a whole.
- Syntax can vary enormously because there are no innate syntactic categories, and no inevitable binding priorities. Starting with the phenomena of consciousness, cultures are free to evolve any possible piloting-and-binding system.
- Classical syntax seems arbitrary because it ignores the conscious processes that produce utterances.
- The naïve idealism of classical syntax forces the assumption that objective syntactic categories and structures are innate, but the facts of variability force the universals to be general and abstract. Thus, the generalized universals can offer no help in understanding or predicting any particular syntax.
As for the subject of this blog, language origins, the answer flows pretty naturally from its argument: Language began and developed as our ancestors began to harness their powers of attention.
Like I said, you can download my paper here.