As part of its eighth annual Marshall M. Weinberg Symposium on Saturday, the Weinberg Institute for Cognitive Science hosted Noam Chomsky, an MIT professor, linguist and cognitive scientist. The interdisciplinary symposium titled “The Architecture and Evolution of the Human Language Capacity” showcased speakers from the fields of philosophy, psychology, linguistics and cognitive science.
The event itself appealed to people from many backgrounds, including Naila Ashraf, a University of Michigan alum.
“I’m not a linguist,” she said. “I don’t know anything about cognitive science. I came to see him because he’s a living legend. I am really interested about his political activism and his critique of American democracy as well as global political systems.”
Chomsky’s presentation centered on the Galilean Challenge, where Galileo urged linguists to show how just a few sounds can construct “an infinite variety of expressions (that) reveal all the secrets of the mind.”
University alum Mahela Ashraf questioned the challenge’s premise of infinite language.
“Isn’t there going to be a point at which you come to a realization that everything meaningful that had to be said will have been said by 2050, and from then on, you are only trying to interpret those really original thoughts?”
Chomsky explained how he has addressed this aim and how the challenge itself has evolved, asserting the challenge had not been taken up until the mid-20th century because the intellectual tools were not available. However, mathematicians have established a theory of computability, which illustrates how our brains can generate infinite variations of expressions.
In doing so, mathematicians have made possible the “basic property” of human language — the ability to digitally build an infinite amount of structured expressions, which can be interpreted into a thought and externalized. The product of this is what he calls “the language of thought,” or the system of thoughts that, when externalized, can be used for communication.
“The language faculty of the human brain provides the means to construct a digitally infinite array of hierarchically structured expressions,” he said. “Each of which is semantically interpreted as expressing thought, and each of which can be, and sometimes is, externalized in one or another sensory modality.”
However, Chomsky believes internal language is used more than external language. Internal language refers to the linguistic knowledge inside the mind of the speaker; therefore, external language is only internal language made audible.
He stated languages seem very complex, and this view was held by professional linguists just 60 years ago. However, a new program called the Biolinguistic Program has shown how languages, in reality, are consistent from one to another. He briefly discussed the importance of biology in his work by hinting at some of his most familiar discoveries — language acquisition devices.
“At peak periods of language acquisition, children are acquiring about a word an hour, that is, often on one presentation,” Chomsky said. “It must be, then, that the rich meaning of even the most elementary words is substantially innate.”
He continued by saying linguistics, in particular, faces difficulty with Galileo’s objective because it must account for evolution. He asserted the language faculty emerged with modern humans, but not too much information is known about the evolution of modern humans. This, in Chomsky’s mind, complicates the primary goal of the Galilean Challenge — to determine the genetic structures that allow for language.
Chomsky, also a renowned social critic and political activist, was asked by an audience member what could be done to turn the United States around from its current state. He urged listeners to do anything to speak out, asserting the United States is still a free society with many opportunities to have individual voices heard. He also concluded that there is popular base of people capable of enacting serious changes to the current governmental practices. One of the necessary changes, Chomsky argued, is campaign finance.
“For well over a century, elections in the United States have been essentially bought,” he said. “You can pretty well predict the electability simply on the basis of campaign funding.”
LSA senior Anthony Quail shared Chomsky’s hopes for uniting and mobilizing the public.
“In the present climate, it’s easy to forget that change starts with individual actions,” he said. “We cannot allow ourselves to feel powerless.”