The Part that Sounds Sensible
- The Learning Perspective: B.F. Skinner is the theorist behind the flat mechanics of the learning perspective. He argued that adults shape the speech of children by reinforcing the babbling of infants that sound the most like words and that children learn language from punishment and reinforcement. B.F.Skinner was a behaviorist who’s only tool was a hammer and theorized that every type of behavior was a nail. His theory of language through conditioning briefly dumbed down the whole conversation.
- Interactionist Theory: Interactionists argue that language development is both biological and social; That language learning is influenced by the desire of children to communicate with others. This drive to communicate and share is a powerful motivator. The mistake is concluding that this motivating desire is a causal force rather than a related and helpful one.
- The Nativist Perspective: Developed by Noam Chomsky. He argues that humans are biologically programmed to gain knowledge and that all humans have a language acquisition device (LAD). The LAD contains knowledge of grammatical rules common to all languages. The LAD also allows children to understand the rules of whatever language they are listening to. Chomsky suggests that universal language acquisition behaviors in humans reveal that it is innate. Obvious but unseen till Chomsky.
- The Language Instinct: A 1994 book by Steven Pinker. He argues that humans are born with an innate capacity for language. Pinker sees language as an ability unique to humans, produced by evolution to solve the specific problem of communication among social hunter-gatherers. He compares language to other species’ specialized adaptations such as spiders’ web-weaving or beavers’ dam-building behavior, calling all three “instincts”. In calling language an instinct, Pinker means that it is not a human invention in the sense that metalworking and even writing are. While only some human cultures possess these technologies, all cultures possess language.
You (make-believe loyal reader ) know I am absolutely sure that language is innate. There is a circular but sensible reason it is innate. Everyone has to talk because everyone else does. Language is an essential survival trait in a social species. That means It is too important to leave it up to us. Can you imagine if children had to depend on parents to ensure that they could speak? There would be a large random distribution of mute humans everywhere, trying to get by. The same forces that guarantee the action of your heart and lungs provide you with an automatic phase of intense language acquisition that clicks on when your body says it is time.
Sheer Speculation, but OK
I substantially agree with Pinker except concerning written language. In my hypothesis written language does not appear in all humans because it is triggered by a certain level of complexity in a community. This is a sensibly economical use of our time and energy. This makes written language innate in potential but optional in expression. Communities below the triggering threshold don’t need written language. Increasing complexity generates a need, but not a solution. It is the strain of this awkward “adolescent” stage of growth that pushes us to develop written language. There are too many things to remember, too many stories, laws and deals that must not slip into the void. Our capacity to interact is stretched too thin to grow. To answer this urgent need, written language emerges from the community that requires it. This is an adaptation to a new environment. That the community has to generate a new alphabet, etc. * doesn’t mean that this patch of humanity is inventing written language. Like a baby reaching the age of vocalizing and interacting, The community has reached the “age” of writing. Written language is to the community as vocal language is to the child. It is a natural maturing developmental stage. It allows the next thing to happen. The populace is unearthing it from themselves. This shift is a blooming and rewiring of the whole community. It is a leveling up of the entire group, as the group shares radical enhancements of communication and memory. This all sounds positive but consider how destabilizing this is inside the community and out. Many ways of doing things inside the group are made obsolete. On the other end, tons of people have to gear up and learn this big new thing.
The first multicellular life was a loose group of single cell specialists cooperating to mutual advantage. They became a new organism only when those players committed to a permanent partnership. I think our communities are multicellular organisms made of us. That organism is altered when new functions turn on. The writing mutation installs a dendritic communication network and a group memory that redefines the whole group. This group has synthesized at a higher level of cooperation and complexity. It can now talk to itself, store knowledge and communicate at a distance. I think historical fact supports this with necessary but perhaps not sufficient evidence. There are strange logical implications
Starting to Get a Bit Weird
Welcome to the limb I’m climbing way out on. I perceive that some complex human behaviors seem to be innately spring loaded and waiting for stages of community development to call them from sleep. Early modern humans, ourselves in other words, never even approached the stage that triggers writing. This is the period from 200,000 years ago to around 6,000 years ago. That is a long sleep. Logically it is possible that humans arrived equipped for things that haven’t happened yet and only may happen in a distant, possible future. Sumerian Mesopotamia would be a science fiction marvel in the unimaginable future to early modern humans. It could be that only written language is waiting in the cake to surprise us but there is no reason to think so. Humans may have abilities and behaviors dependent on the state of their extended community rather than themselves alone. It might be compared to gene expression turning genes on and off with environmental changes.
This is a big ask and I don’t blame serious minds for not calling shotgun on this ride. It suggests a level of oversite and planning for humanity, by something that packs everything we’ll need for our trip. Possibly even for stages we have not reached and cannot imagine yet. I have no actor in mind to play this role. A lot of deities have auditioned, but none of them fit the part. Whatever it is, and IF it is, it’s amazing and possibly incomprehensible…unknowable. Something that would turn your mind to showers of confetti if you imagined it rightly.
Or possibly not.
A community doesn’t happen by accident but it does happen in a way that does not depend on the component humans understanding what is happening. That would be too important to leave to us. Every major technology shift that is embraced by a large community is expressed as an altered version of itself. These changes can be destabilizing, empowering, or both. The elder generation may bemoan the change but the next generation knows only that state from birth and anchors it.
I think the only thing comparable in the new world to written language appearing in the old, is the internet. Look at us, embracing it despite ourselves, seasick with change as it destabilizes and rewires everything. The new community is every human place hooked up to the net. Every trollish, nationalistic, short-sighted group on earth is shouting into the damned internet. The din of discord and enmity is beyond belief. Despite the earthquake changes to society, I encourage everyone to take a long view forward of the internet in light of a long view backward on writing. Beloved things collapse and strange things grow but every destabilizing shift except this one is behind us as the motion that brought us here.
>* One thing in passing, writing hasn’t been created many times, just a few. Written language spreads virally. If the answer to your communication problem suddenly shows up you are unlikely to insist on doing all the work yourself.
Some of the historical content here was shamelessly plagiarized from: