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Power of Language Sets Humans Apart

December 09, 2020

During a keynote at the Evolution of Psychotherapy presented on Wednesday, linguistics expert Noam Chomsky, PhD, discussed the power of language that has set apart humans in evolutionary history.

We now have substantial evidence that language is a recent development in the four billion-plus years of evolution, emerging with Homo sapiens, Chomsky said.

Language, he noted, is humans’ primary mode of communication, although not the only one, with gestures, and even clothing choices and the way people walk can constitute communication as well. But language remains the richest means of externalizing one’s thoughts, and it can be externalized in many forms, including sounds and signs.

One particularly useful tool of language, the alphabet, was once described by Galileo as the greatest invention in human history because of its remarkable capacity to enable individuals to present externally the inner workings of their minds, Chomsky said.

“We have inside us a system that can create an infinite number of thoughts with a symbolic expression, and we can convey to others who have no access to our minds the inner workings of our minds and all of our thoughts. How can this miracle be possible?” Chomsky said.

The traditional view that language is an instrument of thought seems to be verified by contemporary study, Chomsky said. We can find conflicts between communicative efficiency and computational efficiency.

“A language, we’ve understood in the last 70 years or so, is a computational system kind of like a stored program in your laptop. You might have a program for multiplying numbers,” Chomsky said. “It will run out of space after a while because your laptop has finite memory, but you can add memory to your laptop, and the program continues to multiply by the same rules. It doesn’t change the rule system inside.”

Language can take on different forms, Chomsky said. Continuing his laptop analogy, Chomsky likened words, sounds and signs as different kinds of printers that can be attached to the same computer.

Humans have an innate ability to communicate through language even in ways not formally taught to them. To illustrate his point, Chomsky said that in a family when three children are hearing impaired and their parents have been indoctrinated in oralist tradition that prohibits the use of hand gestures, instead relying on lip reading, if the children play together, they will still develop their own sign language spontaneously. It’s something internal to humans, he said.

“The use of body language, facial gestures, the style of any kind of action we do…all of this is part of us getting across to other people the nature of who we are and what we’re trying to get them to understand is going on in our minds,” Chomsky said.

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