One of the great mysteries of the human mind is how language is acquired. In the first years of life, children quickly become fluent in their native tongue, learning the rules of language quite naturally. Just how is it that children can master the complexities of language, in spite of all of its quirks and irregularities?
Some linguists, such as Noam Chomsky, have argued that human speech is the result of hidden rules of language that are “hard wired” somewhere in the brain. Many computer scientists, following the ideas of the seventeenth century British philosopher John Locke, believe that the mind is a tabula rasa, or blank slate, at birth, and children learn language by picking up raw data from the outside world and then forming associations between words and objects.
Pinker argues that the human brain utilizes both kinds of thought. Words are memorized links between a sound and a meaning. The word “dog,” for example, does not look, walk, or bark like a dog, but once one connects the sound with the idea, one has formed an association. Humans also combine words into larger words and into sentences, based on a set of rules. Hence, the two ingredients of language, according to Pinker, are words and rules. Languages are composed of a list of memorized words, each an arbitrary pairing between a sound and a meaning, and a set of productive rules that assemble words into combinations. As children’s vocabulary begins to grow, they learn to generate ever more complex sentences based on the rules of language. Pinker believes that such rules appear to be innate; it is part of what he calls “mental machinery.” As new verbs come into the language, people use these rules to determine their forms with the various tenses.
The evolution of language can best be seen through the application of regular and irregular verbs. Looking back at the English language through the centuries, Pinker believes that it has not evolved haphazardly but according to a set of rules that determine future verb forms. He argues that irregular verbs are the result of words becoming increasingly distorted over time, until eventually the rule governing their use becomes lost. This is especially true of words that have fallen into disuse—words such as “smote,” “slew,” and “forsook” that are so infrequently used by English speakers that they will most likely disappear.
The words and rules theory neatly explains how one acquires fluency in a language and learns to predict past-tense forms of a verb, but it does not explain the overwhelming presence of irregular verbs. Irregular verbs such as “go” and “went” and “be” and “was” do not conform to any established pattern or rules of language but must be memorized by rote, as anyone who tries to learn a foreign soon learns. The apparent failure of cognitive scientists to discover a consistent rule to explain the presence of irregular verbs has wide-ranging implications in explaining how words are used in conversation and in reading, how new words are created, how children learn their mother tongue, how language is organized in the brain, and whether the languages of the world conform to a universal design. It appears that the centuries-old debate between rationalism and empiricism—whether human knowledge is innate or obtained only through experiences with the surrounding world—has taken on a new relevance. According to Pinker, while the rules of language appear to be innate, irregular verbs must rely upon mental recall. For example, a person learning the English language could not deduce the past tense of “go” as “went”; such irregularities must be committed to memory. The English language has 180 such irregular verb forms, which simply must be memorized. With regular verbs, humans seem to apply the rules instinctively. Therefore, a child encountering an unfamiliar word, such as “wug,” will give the past tense as “wugged.” It appears, Pinker concludes, that two parts of the mind and two different types of thinking are utilized in the use of language. He believes that this complex interplay between words and rules and regular and irregular verb forms are a basic characteristic of all language and possibly of all human thought.
Such discoveries help to explain and predict the future course of a language as new words and colloquialisms are introduced. How, Pinker asks, does the human mind handle new inflected and derived words such as “mosh” or “bork”? Does it rely on an enormous dictionary that lists all the common forms of every word? Does it function like a computer spell-checker and rely on a minimal dictionary and a set of rules, carving unfamiliar words into...
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