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The Unlimited Novelty Of Language?

What are people doing when they're speaking a language?

According to Tufts University linguist Ray Jackendoff, writing in his new book:

"They're making complex sounds that express their thoughts. Words are part of the system in people's heads that they use to build messages."

Jackendoff is quick to add:

"Speakers are constantly expressing all sorts of new thoughts by making new sounds."

He gives some examples of things his wife and daughter have said, such as "I'm all Olympic'd out," and "This is the kind of house that people sell their big houses in Belmont and downsize to." These are sentences they made up on the spot. Neither they nor (probably) you or I had ever heard them before or had ever thought those thoughts. Yet they were produced spontaneously, and you can understand them effortlessly.

Jackendoff's point — this is not original to him — is that our grip on language gives us unlimited expressive power.

This fact of linguistic creativity plays a pivotal role in an argument that, in Jackendoff's words, "serves as the foundational premise of modern linguistics." (He goes on to note that the argument is Chomsky's and that he's made it in myriad publications.) The argument in question goes roughly like this: the only way to explain our open-ended ability to cope with linguistic novelty is to suppose that "in our heads" there is a system of rules that governs the combination and recombination of words into well-formed sentences. To know a language is to have a "mental grammar."

There is something ironic in the fact that Jackendoff explains linguistic creativity by repeating what Chomsky and others have written elsewhere in myriad publications.

But is it even true? It is striking that Jackendoff doesn't offer anything more in defense of the claim about unlimited novelty than I have repeated here. Is this such a straight forward matter? Is it just self-evident that the examples of Jackendoff's wife and daughter demonstrate the existence of the linguistic creativity that plays such an important role in laying the foundations of linguistic theory?

I am skeptical. Here's why. Let's go back to Jackendoff's original assertion that what people are doing when they speak a language is making complex sounds to express thoughts.


I would have thought what I am doing when I am speaking a language is wishing my neighbor a good morning, or ordering a meal over the phone, stopping my infant daughter from sticking her fingers in the outlet or asking the clerk if there are any organic vegetables, and so on. That is, I use language to do many different things, most of which I have done many times before, and very few of which are plausibly described as making complex sounds to express thoughts.

Is an outfielder doing something novel, or something he has done thousands of times before, when he shags a fly ball?

I once saw a cartoon where a bird sits on a branch above a pond. The bird is watching fish in the water. The bird's thought bubble shows that it's working out the trigonometry to be sure it hits the water at the right angle to snatch a fish. The cartoon is funny. The bird doesn't know trigonometry, but it does know how to catch fish. What makes the cartoon funny is the absurdity of the idea that that the fish's ability to dive down and catch the fish consists in its ability to perform a calculation.

But doesn't a similar absurdity infect Jackendoff's claims and those of modern linguistic theory? And if not, why not?

What the linguists overlook, it seems to me, is that the novelty they descry is an artifact of the way they represent things. Consider for comparison: under a certain description, each time I walk down the street outside my house I am doing something unique and one-off; I am coping with the novel configuration of wind, weather, people, urban terrain. Under a different description, however, I'm just walking down the street, as I do every day.

Knowing how to talk, or walk, or catch fish, is precisely the ability to take up a standpoint from which things in all their variety can be thought of as the same.

Another beloved idea of contemporary of linguistics — Jackendoff mentions it repeatedly — is the fact that you don't need writing to have language. But this brings us to another irony. You may not need to know how to read and write to speak a language. Yes. But it strike me that you probably do need to know how to read and write even to come up with the idea that, as Jackendoff says, speaking a language is building a message in your head.

You can keep up with more of what Alva Noë is thinking on Facebook and on Twitter: @alvanoe

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Alva Noë is a contributor to the NPR blog 13.7: Cosmos and Culture. He is writer and a philosopher who works on the nature of mind and human experience.

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