Serendip is an independent site partnering with faculty at multiple colleges and universities around the world. Happy exploring!

Evolution of Language: Chomsky & Dennett

the.believer's picture

 Jenny Cai

Professor Grobstein

March 14, 2011

Evolution of Language: Chomsky & Dennett

            Most conscious stories are told through the use of language and have been recorded in text and orally through time. The concept of language has been clearly defined and accepted but the evolution of language remains elusive.  Renowned linguist and philosopher Noam Chomsky developed the theory of universal grammar to explain the phenomenon of human’s innate ability to acquire language and the parallel developmental stages found across humans. Daniel C. Dennett, philosopher and scientist, criticizes Chomsky by claiming that while his theory of innate language acquisition is supported by research, his explanation for its origin is like a “skyhook” in which there is no concrete foundation. According to Dennett, Chomsky is more willing to believe the language organs as a mystery such as the works of a higher power, rather than the mechanism of evolution. Further research on Chomsky’s work shows that he uses algorithms, similar to Dennett, as an attempt to explain the evolution of language.

Many have puzzled over the definition of language and more specifically, which species use language.  Many species communicate but only human communication meets the accepted Hockett’s thirteen criteria of language which include the ability to speak of the past, present and future as well as the ability to create and derive meaning from pre-existing utterances (Hockett). These factors are crucial because humans need to ability to communicate their future plans as well as reflect on their past mistakes to progress. Furthermore, the ability to create utterances leads to the development of the different cultures in today’s society. Similar to Chomsky’s story, Daniel C. Dennett clearly states that humans are the only species with language. Language contributes to human intelligence and is the basis for the development of culture. Language has opened up new areas to explore and contemplate over. Furthermore, it gives one the tools to self improve and allow one’s mistakes to be made public and shared.

Chomsky’s cross-cultural research revealed that all children advance through different stages of language acquisition at a similar age for the same period of time. Furthermore, children have a critical period of acquiring language. If a child is not exposed to language during this critical period, the child will not develop proper language skills beyond that age despite increased exposure or various teaching methods. Based on the research, Chomsky proposed that language acquisition has an innate component. Chomsky’s theory was met with much resistance because further research on language development and its origins becomes more difficult and less concrete if this process is inherent in our mind. Dennett accuses Chomsky of relying on skyhooks to explain how humans acquire language. Chomsky sees the language organ as a mystery that can be analyzed by physics rather than the mechanisms of evolutionary biology. Dennett bluntly claims that Chomsky and his colleagues support each other “over an abyss” for suggesting that language is not a product of natural selection (Dennett, p. 370-393).  However, Chomsky published an article that refers specifically to the use of algorithms as a possible explanation for the evolution of language.

To explain the evolution of language, Chomsky applies recursion, the use of algorithm to obtain a calculation or function, to describe the process. Chomsky explains that animals have domain-specific recursion in which the algorithm directs them towards a particular function. They are restricted to the domains. For instance, recursions in animals may be designed for a specific task such as navigation and will be more advanced in that function in comparison to other species with a different domain specific recursion. Through evolution, these recursions became less specific and more general. Chomsky claims that humans have been able to tap into the domain-general recursion guided through selection or the by product of neural rewiring. Since we are not consciously aware of this algorithm, it is likely that this process occurs unconsciously. The ability to apply this domain-general recursion has allowed humans to evolve communicatively beyond other species (Larson, Deprez & Yamakido, p. 14-38).

Language affects the evolution of humans just as evolution affects language development. A major contributor to our current understanding of human’s inherent ability to acquire language has been criticized. Noam Chomsky’s research led to major discoveries in language development but Dennett accuses Chomsky and his supporters of believing in another power that is not science. However, in a 2002 article, Chomsky proposes an algorithmic process through which language may have evolved only for humans and not other species. Humans have been able to apply the domain-general recursion beyond just a specific function to develop language skills and establish advances in other areas such as reasoning and prefrontal cortex development. Language is possibly one of the greatest advancement in human evolution.  








Dennett, Daniel C. Darwin's dangerous idea: evolution and the meanings of life. NY: Simon & Schuster, 1995. Print.

K., Richard, Viviane Dèprez, and Hiroko Yamakido.The Evolution of Human Language: Biolinguistic Perspectives. Cambridge Univ Pr, 2010. Print.

Voyne, Neilson. Chomsky: ideas and ideals. Cambridge Univ Pr, 1999. Print.

Hockett, Charles F. (1960), “The Origin of Speech“, in: Scientific American 203/3, 89-96.