One of the persistent questions about language origins asks when did it begin. This blog has always favored a very ancient date. Truth is, I suspect the earliest Homo genus had language, in the sense of using joint attention to consider a topic. At that stage speech might have been no more complicated than a modern 24-month-old toddler today. In other words, they could speak phrases, but not full sentences with two nouns and a verb. The evidence for that is two-fold: (1) all healthy, modern humans go through such a developmental phase today, and (2) chimpanzees and gorillas are already smart enough to use language at this level. I’m fully in tune with Michael Tomasello’s argument that apes lack the motivation to use language, not the smarts.
Meanwhile, the elite consensus seems to be that language is no more than 100 thousand years old, which is to say that it appeared a hundred millennia after the appearance of Homo sapiens. Their evidence is that symbols only become a regular feature of archaeological remains at about that time. The many biological adaptations for speech must therefore have evolved for some other purpose. What other purpose might that be? Can’t say, but it must be so.
Late summer looks to be a rough time for Dr. Chomsky. Veteran journalist/novelist Tom Wolfe has a book coming out at the end of August. The Kingdom of Speech mounts a frontal assault on Chomsky the man. Unfortunately it also goes after Darwin, and Chomsky’s defenders can dismiss Wolfe’s well aimed shots by pointing out all the bad potshots aimed at “Charlie” Darwin.
Then, a month later, anthropologist Chris Knight publishes his Decoding Chomsky: Science and Revolutionary Politics. Knight has written the sounder book, though I suspect it will be lucky to get one-tenth of the publicity. Maybe Yale University Press can persuade Wolfe’s reviewers to include Knight in their discussion.
Both books nail Chomsky on his most glaring problem: He keeps changing his opinions His major point remains unshaken--knowledge of language is innate and universal--although the supporting evidence keeps changing.
Knight does the better job of destroying Chomsky’s story by showing a constant, failing effort to make the unshakeable idea work. Wolfe makes the tale more dramatic, but probably less convincing. And Wolfe hangs his drama on secondary issues. He badly misunderstands the whole matter of recursion, for example.