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Selected Books by Edmund Blair Bolles

  • Galileo's Commandment: 2500 Years of Great Science Writing
  • The Ice Finders: How a Poet, a Professor, and a Politician Discovered the Ice Age
  • Einstein Defiant: Genius vs Genius in the Quantum Revolution

« Does Language Exist? | Main | Chimp Generosity »


Raymond Weitzman

Chomsky's sense of unboundedness seems to be limited to idealized structural ones. It is completely divorced from the everyday constraints on the contingencies that control language behavior in ordinary conversations. His view of language is strictly limited to form.

Chomsky's so-called logical truth is also divorced from reality. If you assume your basic assumptions or axioms are true, logic will lead you to logically true conclusions. But the rub is in assuming the axioms are true and the propositions they entail are true.

Chomsky's speculation that language appeared only 50-100,000 years ago as some kind of punctuated or saltational evolutionary development seems to go against what is known about how species are modified with descent.

Right now the origin of speech is something of an enigma. Chomsky seems to assume that the inner language led to external speech, but this is sheer speculation and only plausible if inner language can be independently and empirically proven. It is not likely that speech arose via reflexive vocalizations or some kind of Pavlovian conditioning. No doubt speech became potentiated when the human species gained voluntary control over their vocal apparatus, just as signing would not have been possible without voluntary control over facial and body gestures. Once such control was possible, imitation and operant conditioning may have been the likely mechanisms for the development of speech.

John Roth

I've got a couple of comments. First, there is now a much better and much more believable explanation for the "great leap forward" that doesn't require the sudden invention of language: the "grandparent hypothesis." See for links.

Second, Chomsky is getting really tiresome. What he's saying only makes sense by ignoring the rest of the system of which language is only a part.

The end result of understanding something winds up in short term memory, the same as if the information had come in via direct sensory perception. Grammar, while it's important enough that the system wouldn't work without it, isn't central. Short term memory and the brain's "executive function" are central.

To the best of my knowledge, short term memory doesn't have stopping points. Stopping points are strictly a function of grammar. They're important to allow refocusing of attention.

As far as I'm concerned, the more important issue is disconnecting a vocabulary of sounds or gestures from a one-to-one (or at least a one-to-small-number) of meanings. You can see the rudiments of this in various animals that can learn other animals' vocabulary and interpret them appropriately as kinds of danger, food or whatnot.

Paul Strand

Briefly, a decade ago, nativists were empiricists. They encouraged inquiry into FoxP2 believing it would prove the existence of a stand-alone language system. That FoxP2 is not a language-specific gene has hastened a retreat from science back to the impregnable fortress of logic and philosophy.

Outside that fortress, empirical work continues. Douglas Greer and colleagues at Columbia University are investigating the nature of autism-related language deficits. Consistent with the social focus of this blog, they review evidence that the vocalizations of others are less reinforcing to individuals with autism. They go on to show that conditioning the human voice as a reinforcer improves subsequent language productivity among 5 year olds diagnosed with autism (Greer et al., 2011).

Despite its neglected status in the origins-of-language debate, work with language-deficient humans may help us understand “what got language going”. This work converges with findings from the primate literature to suggest that a lack of language generativity may stem from motivational deficits. In addition, there is an unmistakable absence of evidence that real world language deficiencies stem from stand-alone problems with language generativity, as should be the case if the nativists are correct. Instead, language deficiencies co-occur with cognitive and social/motivational deficiencies.

The evidence from work with humans and non-humans provides a common focus for future research into the origins of language and begs the question, why bother laying siege to an empty fortress?


Greer, R.D. et al. (2011). Effects of conditioning voices as reinforcers for listener responses on rate of learning, awareness, and preferences for listening to stories in preschoolers with autism. The Analysis of Verbal Behavior, 27, 103-124. (Available to all at PUBMED).
BLOGGER: In the early days of this blog I paid steady attention to autism and language problems, but pulled back. I still think useful information will come from that area but perhaps not yet.

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