Thinking of language as an instinct inverts the popular wisdom, especially as it has been passed down in the canon of the humanities and social sciences. Language is no more a cultural invention than is upright posture. It is not a manifestation of a general capacity to use symbols: a three-year-old, we shall see, is a grammatical genius, but is quite incompetent at the visual arts, religious iconography, traffic signs, and the other staples of the semiotics curriculum. Though language is a magnificent ability unique to Homo sapiens among living species, it does not call for sequestering the study of humans from the domain of biology, for a magnificent ability unique to a particular living species is far from unique in the animal kingdom. Some kinds of bats home in on flying insects using Doppler sonar. Some kinds of migratory birds navigate thousands of miles by calibrating the positions of the constellations against the time of day and year. In nature’s talent show we are simply a species of primate with our own act, a knack for communicating information about who did what to whom by modulating the sounds we make when we exhale. Once you begin to look at language not as the ineffable essence of human uniqueness but as a biological adaptation to communicate information, it is no longer as tempting to see language as an insidious shaper of thought, and, we shall see, it is not. […]

To the broody hen the notion would probably seem monstrous that there should be a creature in the world to whom a nestful of eggs was not the utterly fascinating and precious and never-to-be-too-much-sat-upon object which it is to her. Thus we may be sure that, however mysterious some animals’ instincts may appear to us, our instincts will appear no less mysterious to them. And we may conclude that, to the animal which obeys it, every impulse and every step of every instinct shines with its own sufficient light, and seems at the moment the only eternally right and proper thing to do. What voluptuous thrill may not shake a fly, when she at last discovers the one particular leaf, or carrion, or bit of dung, that out of all the world can stimulate her ovipositor to its discharge? Does not the discharge then seem to her the only fitting thing? And need she care or know anything about the future maggot and its food? […]

The universality of complex language is a discovery that fills linguists with awe, and is the first reason to suspect that language is not just any cultural invention but the product of a special human instinct. Cultural inventions vary widely in their sophistication from society to society; within a society, the inventions are generally at the same level of sophistication. Some groups count by carving notches on bones and cook on fires ignited by spinning sticks in logs; others use computers and microwave ovens. Language, however, ruins this correlation. There are Stone Age societies, but there is no such thing as a Stone Age language. Earlier in this century the anthropological linguist Edward Sapir wrote, “When it comes to linguistic form, Plato walks with the Macedonian swineherd, Confucius with the headhunting savage of Assam.” […]

Behind such “simple” sentences as Where did he go? and or The guy I met killed himself, used automatically by any English speaker, are dozens of subroutines that arrange the words to express the meaning. Despite decades of effort, no artificially engineered language system comes close to duplicating the person in the street, HAL and C3PO notwithstanding. But though the language engine is invisible to the human user, the trim packages and color schemes are attended to obsessively. Trifling differences between the dialect of the mainstream and the dialect of other groups, like isn’t any versus ain’t no, those books versus them books, and dragged him away versus drug him away, are dignified as badges of “proper grammar.” But they have no more to do with grammatical sophistication than the fact that people in some regions of the United States refer to a certain insect as a dragonfly and people in other regions refer to it as a darning needle, or that English speakers call canines dogs whereas French speakers call them chiens. It is even a bit misleading to call Standard English a “language” and these variations “dialects,” as if there were some meaningful difference between them. The best definition comes from the linguist Max Weinreich: a language is a dialect with an army and a navy. […]

Inside the educational and writing establishments, the rules survive by the same dynamic that perpetuates ritual genital mutilations and college fraternity hazing: I had to go through it and am none the worse, so why should you have it any easier? Anyone daring to overturn a rule by example must always worry that readers will think he or she is ignorant of the rule, rather than challenging it. (I confess that this has deterred me from splitting some splitworthy infinitives.) Perhaps most importantly, since prescriptive rules are so psychologically unnatural that only those with access to the right schooling can abide by them, they serve as shibboleths, differentiating the elite from the rabble.

When speakers of different languages have to communicate to carry out practical tasks but do not have the opportunity to learn one another’s languages, they develop a makeshift jargon called a pidgin. Pidgins are choppy strings of words borrowed from the language of the colonizers or plantation owners, highly variable in order and with little in the way of grammar. Sometimes a pidgin can become a lingua franca and gradually increase in complexity over decades, as in the “Pidgin English” of the modern South Pacific. (Prince Philip was delighted to learn on a visit to New Guinea that he is referred to in that language as fella belong Mrs. Queen.) But the linguist Derek Bickerton has presented evidence that in many cases a pidgin can be transmuted into a full complex language in one fell swoop: all it takes is for a group of children to be exposed to the pidgin at the age when they acquire their mother tongue. That happened, Bickerton has argued, when children were isolated from their parents and were tended collectively by a worker who spoke to them in the pidgin. Not content to reproduce the fragmentary word strings, the children injected grammatical complexity where none existed before, resulting in a brand-new, richly expressive language. The language that results when children make a pidgin their native tongue is called a creole. Bickerton’s main evidence comes from a unique historical circumstance. Though the slave plantations that spawned most creoles are, fortunately, a thing of the remote past, one episode of creolization occurred recently enough for us to study its principal players. Just before the turn of the century there was a boom in Hawaiian sugar plantations, whose demands for labor quickly outstripped the native pool. Workers were brought in from China, Japan, Korea, Portugal, the Philippines, and Puerto Rico, and a pidgin quickly developed. Many of the immigrant laborers who first developed that pidgin were alive when Bickerton interviewed them in the 1970s. Here are some typical examples of their speech: Me capé buy, me check make. Building—high place—wall pat—time—nowtime—an’ den—a new tempecha eri time show you. Good, dis one. Kaukau any-kin’ dis one. Pilipine islan’ no good. No mo money. From the individual words and the context, it was possible for the listener to infer that the first speaker, a ninety-two-year-old Japanese immigrant talking about his earlier days as a coffee farmer, was trying to say “He bought my coffee; he made me out a check.” But the utterance itself could just as easily have meant “I bought coffee; I made him out a check,” which would have been appropriate if he had been referring to his current situation as a store owner. The second speaker, another elderly Japanese immigrant, had been introduced to the wonders of civilization in Los Angeles by one of his many children, and was saying that there was an electric sign high up on the wall of the building which displayed the time and temperature. The third speaker, a sixty-nine-year-old Filipino, was saying “It’s better here than in the Philippines; here you can get all kinds of food, but over there there isn’t any money to buy food with.” (One of the kinds of food was “pfrawg,” which he caught for himself in the marshes by the method of “kank da head.”) In all these cases, the speaker’s intentions had to be filled in by the listener. The pidgin did not offer the speakers the ordinary grammatical resources to convey these messages—no consistent word order, no prefixes or suffixes, no tense or other temporal and logical markers, no structure more complex than a simple clause, and no consistent way to indicate who did what to whom. But the children who had grown up in Hawaii beginning in the 1890s and were exposed to the pidgin ended up speaking quite differently. Here are some sentences from the language they invented, Hawaiian Creole. The first two are from a Japanese papaya grower born in Maui; the next two, from a Japanese/Hawaiian ex-plantation laborer born on the big island; the last, from a Hawaiian motel manager, formerly a farmer, born in Kauai: Da firs japani came ran away from japan come. “The first Japanese who arrived ran away from Japan to here.” Some filipino wok o’he-ah dey wen’ couple ye-ahs in filipin islan’. “Some Filipinos who worked over here went back to the Philippines for a couple of years.” People no like t’come fo’ go wok. “People don’t want to have him go to work [for them].” One time when we go home inna night dis ting stay fly up. “Once when we went home at night this thing was flying about.” One day had pleny of dis mountain fish come down. “One day there were a lot of these fish from the mountains that came down [the river].” Do not be misled by what look like crudely placed English verbs, such as go, stay, and came, or phrases like one time. They are not hap-hazard uses of English words but systematic uses of Hawaiian Creole grammar: the words have been converted by the creole speakers into auxiliaries, prepositions, case markers, and relative pronouns. […]

Indeed, creoles are bona fide languages, with standardized word orders and grammatical markers that were lacking in the pidgin of the immigrants and, aside from the sounds of words, not taken from the language of the colonizers. […]

Until recently there were no sign languages at all in Nicaragua, because its deaf people remained isolated from one another. When the Sandinista government took over in 1979 and reformed the educational system, the first schools for the deaf were created. The schools focused on drilling the children in lip reading and speech, and as in every case where that is tried, the results were dismal. But it did not matter. On the playgrounds and schoolbuses the children were inventing their own sign system, pooling the makeshift gestures that they used with their families at home. Before long the system congealed into what is now called the Lenguaje de Signos Nicaragüense (LSN). Today LSN is used, with varying degrees of fluency, by young deaf adults, aged seventeen to twenty-five, who developed it when they were ten or older. Basically, it is a pidgin. Everyone uses it differently, and the signers depend on suggestive, elaborate circumlocutions rather than on a consistent grammar. But children like Mayela, who joined the school around the age of four, when LSN was already around, and all the pupils younger than her, are quite different. Their signing is more fluid and compact, and the gestures are more stylized and less like a pantomime. In fact, when their signing is examined close up, it is so different from LSN that it is referred to by a different name, Idioma de Signos Nicaragüense (ISN). LSN and ISN are currently being studied by the psycholinguists Judy Kegl, Miriam Hebe Lopez, and Annie Senghas. ISN appears to be a creole, created in one leap when the younger children were exposed to the pidgin signing of the older children—just as Bickerton would have predicted. ISN has spontaneously standardized itself; all the young children sign it in the same way. The children have introduced many grammatical devices that were absent in LSN, and hence they rely far less on circumlocutions. For example, an LSN (pidgin) signer might make the sign for “talk to” and then point from the position of the talker to the position of the hearer. But an ISN (creole) signer modifies the sign itself, sweeping it in one motion from a point representing the talker to a point representing the hearer. This is a common device in sign languages, formally identical to inflecting a verb for agreement in spoken languages. Thanks to such consistent grammar, ISN is very expressive. A child can watch a surrealistic cartoon and describe its plot to another child. The children use it in jokes, poems, narratives, and life histories, and it is coming to serve as the glue that holds the community together. A language has been born before our eyes. But ISN was the collective product of many children communicating with one another. If we are to attribute the richness of language to the mind of the child, we really want to see a single child adding some increment of grammatical complexity to the input the child has received. Once again the study of the deaf grants our wish. When deaf infants are raised by signing parents, they learn sign language in the same way that hearing infants learn spoken language. But deaf children who are not born to deaf parents—the majority of deaf children—often have no access to sign language users as they grow up, and indeed are sometimes deliberately kept from them by educators in the “oralist” tradition who want to force them to master lip reading and speech. (Most deaf people deplore these authoritarian measures.) When deaf children become adults, they tend to seek out deaf communities and begin to acquire the sign language that takes proper advantage of the communicative media available to them. But by then it is usually too late; they must then struggle with sign language as a difficult intellectual puzzle, much as a hearing adult does in foreign language classes. Their proficiency is notably below that of deaf people who acquired sign language as infants, just as adult immigrants are often permanently burdened with accents and conspicuous grammatical errors. Indeed, because the deaf are virtually the only neurologically normal people who make it to adulthood without having acquired a language, their difficulties offer particularly good evidence that successful language acquisition must take place during a critical window of opportunity in childhood. The psycholinguists Jenny Singleton and Elissa Newport have studied a nine-year-old profoundly deaf boy, to whom they gave the pseudonym Simon, and his parents, who are also deaf. Simon’s parents did not acquire sign language until the late ages of fifteen and sixteen, and as a result they acquired it badly. In ASL, as in many languages, one can move a phrase to the front of a sentence and mark it with a prefix or suffix (in ASL, raised eyebrows and a lifted chin) to indicate that it is the topic of the sentence. The English sentence Elvis I really like is a rough equivalent. But Simon’s parents rarely used this construction and mangled it when they did. For example, Simon’s father once tried to sign the thought My friend, he thought my second child was deaf. It came out as My friend thought, my second child, he thought he was deaf—a bit of sign salad that violates not only ASL grammar but, according to Chomsky’s theory, the Universal Grammar that governs all naturally acquired human languages (later in this chapter we will see why). Simon’s parents had also failed to grasp the verb inflection system of ASL. In ASL, the verb to blow is signed by opening a fist held horizontally in front of the mouth (like a puff of air). Any verb in ASL can be modified to indicate that the action is being done continuously: the signer superimposes an arclike motion on the sign and repeats it quickly. A verb can also be modified to indicate that the action is being done to more than one object (for example, several candles): the signer terminates the sign in one location in space, then repeats it but terminates it at another location. These inflections can be combined in either of two orders: blow toward the left and then toward the right and repeat, or blow toward the left twice and then blow toward the right twice. The first order means “to blow out the candles on one cake, then another cake, then the first cake again, then the second cake again”; the second means “to blow out the candles on one cake continuously, and then blow out the candles on another cake continuously.” This elegant set of rules was lost on Simon’s parents. They used the inflections inconsistently and never combined them onto a verb two at a time, though they would occasionally use the inflections separately, crudely linked with signs like then. In many ways Simon’s parents were like pidgin speakers. Astoundingly, though Simon saw no ASL but his parents’ defective version, his own signing was far better ASL than theirs. He understood sentences with moved topic phrases without difficulty, and when he had to describe complex videotaped events, he used the ASL verb inflections almost perfectly, even in sentences requiring two of them in particular orders. Simon must somehow have shut out his parents’ ungrammatical “noise.” He must have latched on to the inflections that his parents used inconsistently, and reinterpreted them as mandatory. And he must have seen the logic that was implicit, though never realized, in his parents’ use of two kinds of verb inflection, and reinvented the ASL system of superimposing both of them onto a single verb in a specific order. Simon’s superiority to his parents is an example of creolization by a single living child. Actually, Simon’s achievements are remarkable only because he is the first one who showed them to a psycholinguist. There must be thousands of Simons: ninety to ninety-five percent of deaf children are born to hearing parents. Children fortunate enough to be exposed to ASL at all often get it from hearing parents who themselves learned it, incompletely, to communicate with their children. Indeed, as the transition from LSN to ISN shows, sign languages themselves are surely products of creolization. Educators at various points in history have tried to invent sign systems, sometimes based on the surrounding spoken language. But these crude codes are always unlearnable, and when deaf children learn from them at all, they do so by converting them into much richer natural languages. […]

In contemporary middle-class American culture, parenting is seen as an awesome responsibility, an unforgiving vigil to keep the helpless infant from falling behind in the great race of life. The belief that Motherese is essential to language development is part of the same mentality that sends yuppies to “learning centers” to buy little mittens with bull’s-eyes to help their babies find their hands sooner. One gets some perspective by examining the folk theories about parenting in other cultures. The !Kung San of the Kalahari Desert in southern Africa believe that children must be drilled to sit, stand, and walk. They carefully pile sand around their infants to prop them upright, and sure enough, every one of these infants soon sits up on its own. We find this amusing because we have observed the results of the experiment that the San are unwilling to chance: we don’t teach our children to sit, stand, and walk, and they do it anyway, on their own schedule. But other groups enjoy the same condescension toward us. In many communities of the world, parents do not indulge their children in Motherese. In fact, they do not speak to their prelinguistic children at all, except for occasional demands and rebukes. This is not unreasonable. After all, young children plainly can’t understand a word you say. So why waste your breath in soliloquies? Any sensible person would surely wait until a child has developed speech and more gratifying two-way conversations become possible. As Aunt Mae, a woman living in the South Carolina Piedmont, explained to the anthropologist Shirley Brice Heath: “Now just how crazy is dat? White folks uh hear dey kids say sump’n, dey say it back to ’em, dey aks ’em ’gain and ’gain ’bout things, like they ’posed to be born knowin’.” […]

Here is another interview, this one between a fourteen-year-old girl called Denyse and the late psycholinguist Richard Cromer; the interview was transcribed and analyzed by Cromer’s colleague Sigrid Lipka.

I like opening cards. I had a pile of post this morning and not one of them was a Christmas card. A bank statement I got this morning! [A bank statement? I hope it was good news.] No it wasn’t good news. [Sounds like mine.] I hate…, My mum works over at the, over on the ward and she said “not another bank statement.” I said “it’s the second one in two days.” And she said “Do you want me to go to the bank for you at lunchtime?” and I went “No, I’ll go this time and explain it myself.” I tell you what, my bank are awful. They’ve lost my bank book, you see, and I can’t find it anywhere. I belong to the TSB Bank and I’m thinking of changing my bank ’cause they’re so awful. They keep, they keep losing…[someone comes in to bring some tea] Oh, isn’t that nice. [Uhm. Very good.] They’ve got the habit of doing that. They lose, they’ve lost my bank book twice, in a month, and I think I’ll scream. My mum went yesterday to the bank for me. She said “They’ve lost your bank book again.” I went “Can I scream?” and I went, she went “Yes, go on.” So I hollered. But it is annoying when they do things like that. TSB, Trustees aren’t…uh the best ones to be with actually. They’re hopeless.

I have seen Denyse on videotape, and she comes across as a loquacious, sophisticated conversationalist—all the more so, to American ears, because of her refined British accent. (My bank are awful, by the way, is grammatical in British, though not American, English.) It comes as a surprise to learn that the events she relates so earnestly are figments of her imagination. Denyse has no bank account, so she could not have received any statement in the mail, nor could her bank have lost her bankbook. Though she would talk about a joint bank account she shared with her boyfriend, she had no boyfriend, and obviously had only the most tenuous grasp of the concept “joint bank account” because she complained about the boyfriend taking money out of her side of the account. In other conversations Denyse would engage her listeners with lively tales about the wedding of her sister, her holiday in Scotland with a boy named Danny, and a happy airport reunion with a long-estranged father. But Denyse’s sister is unmarried, Denyse has never been to Scotland, she does not know anyone named Danny, and her father has never been away for any length of time. In fact, Denyse is severely retarded. She never learned to read or write and cannot handle money or any of the other demands of everyday functioning. Denyse was born with spina bifida (“split spine”) a malformation of the vertebrae that leaves the spinal cord unprotected. Spina bifida often results in hydrocephalus, an increase in pressure in the cerebrospinal fluid filling the ventricles (large cavities) of the brain, distending the brain from within. For reasons no one understands, hydrocephalic children occasionally end up like Denyse, significantly retarded but with unimpaired—indeed, overdeveloped—language skills. (Perhaps the ballooning ventricles crush much of the brain tissue necessary for everyday intelligence but leave intact some other portions that can develop language circuitry.) The various technical terms for the condition include “cocktail party conversation,” “chatterbox syndrome,” and “blathering.” […]

If a language has only two color words, they are for black and white (usually encompassing dark and light, respectively). If it has three, they are for black, white, and red; if four, black, white, red, and either yellow or green. Five adds in both yellow and green; six, blue; seven, brown; more than seven, purple, pink, orange, or gray. But the clinching experiment was carried out in the New Guinea highlands with the Grand Valley Dani, a people speaking one of the black-and-white languages. The psychologist Eleanor Rosch found that the Dani were quicker at learning a new color category that was based on fire-engine red than a category based on an off-red. The way we see colors determines how we learn words for them, not vice versa. […]

How might the combinatorial grammar underlying human language work? The most straightforward way to combine words in order is explained in Michael Frayn’s novel The Tin Men. The protagonist, Goldwasser, is an engineer working at an institute for automation. He must devise a computer system that generates the standard kinds of stories found in the daily papers, like “Paralyzed Girl Determined to Dance Again.” Here he is hand-testing a program that composes stories about royal occasions:

He opened the filing cabinet and picked out the first card in the set. Traditionally, it read. Now there was a random choice between cards reading coronations, engagements, funerals, weddings, comings of age, births, deaths, or the churching of women. The day before he had picked funerals, and been directed on to a card reading with simple perfection are occasions for mourning. Today he closed his eyes, drew weddings, and was signposted on to are occasions for rejoicing. The wedding of X and Y followed in logical sequence, and brought him a choice between is no exception and is a case in point. Either way there followed indeed. Indeed, whichever occasion one had started off with, whether coronations, deaths, or births, Goldwasser saw with intense mathematical pleasure, one now reached this same elegant bottleneck. He paused on indeed, then drew in quick succession it is a particularly happy occasion, rarely, and can there have been a more popular young couple. From the next selection, Goldwasser drew X has won himself/herself a special place in the nation’s affections, which forced him to go on to and the British people have cleverly taken Y to their hearts already. Goldwasser was surprised, and a little disturbed, to realise that the word “fitting” had still not come up. But he drew it with the next card—it is especially fitting that. This gave him the bride/bridegroom should be, and an open choice between of such a noble and illustrious line, a commoner in these democratic times, from a nation with which this country has long enjoyed a particularly close and cordial relationship, and from a nation with which this country’s relations have not in the past been always happy. Feeling that he had done particularly well with “fitting” last time, Goldwasser now deliberately selected it again. It is also fitting that, read the card, to be quickly followed by we should remember, and X and Y are not mere symbols—they are a lively young man and a very lovely young woman. Goldwasser shut his eyes to draw the next card. It turned out to read in these days when. He pondered whether to select it is fashionable to scoff at the traditional morality of marriage and family life or it is no longer fashionable to scoff at the traditional morality of marriage and family life. The latter had more of the form’s authentic baroque splendor, he decided.


The psychologist Laura Ann Petitto has a startling demonstration that the arbitrariness of the relation between a symbol and its meaning is deeply entrenched in the child’s mind. Shortly before they turn two, English-speaking children learn the pronouns you and me. Often they reverse them, using you to refer to themselves. The error is forgivable. You and me are “deictic” pronouns, whose referent shifts with the speaker: you refers to you when I use it but to me when you use it. So children may need some time to get that down. After all, Jessica hears her mother refer to her, Jessica, using you; why should she not think that you means “Jessica”? Now, in ASL the sign for “me” is a point to one’s chest; the sign for “you” is a point to one’s partner. What could be more transparent? One would expect that using “you” and “me” in ASL would be as foolproof as knowing how to point, which all babies, deaf and hearing, do before their first birthday. But for the deaf children Petitto studied, pointing is not pointing. The children used the sign of pointing to their conversational partners to mean “me” at exactly the age at which hearing children use the spoken sound you to mean “me.” The children were treating the gesture as a pure linguistic symbol; the fact that it pointed somewhere did not register as being relevant. […]

Moreover, it pays to give objects several labels in mentalese, designating different-sized categories like “cottontail rabbit,” “rabbit,” “mammal,” “animal,” and “living thing.” There is a tradeoff involved in choosing one category over another. It takes less effort to determine that Peter Cottontail is an animal than that he is a cottontail (for example, an animallike motion will suffice for us to recognize that he is an animal, leaving it open whether or not he is a cottontail). But we can predict more new things about Peter if we know he is a cottontail than if we merely know he is an animal. If he is a cottontail, he likes carrots and inhabits open country or woodland clearings; if he is merely an animal, he could eat anything and live anywhere, for all one knows. The middle-sized or “basic-level” category “rabbit” represents a compromise between how easy it is to label something and how much good the label does you. […]

What sense, then, can we make of the suggestion that images, numbers, kinship relations, or logic can be represented in the brain without being couched in words? In the first half of this century, philosophers had an answer: none. Reifying thoughts as things in the head was a logical error, they said. A picture or family tree or number in the head would require a little man, a homunculus, to look at it. And what would be inside his head—even smaller pictures, with an even smaller man looking at them? But the argument was unsound. It took Alan Turing, the brilliant British mathematician and philosopher, to make the idea of a mental representation scientifically respectable. Turing described a hypothetical machine that could be said to engage in reasoning. In fact this simple device, named a Turing machine in his honor, is powerful enough to solve any problem that any computer, past, present, or future, can solve. And it clearly uses an internal symbolic representation—a kind of mentalese—without requiring a little man or any occult processes. […]

The overall impression is that Universal Grammar is like an archetypal body plan found across vast numbers of animals in a phylum. For example, among all the amphibians, reptiles, birds, and mammals, there is a common body architecture, with a segmented backbone, four jointed limbs, a tail, a skull, and so on. The various parts can be grotesquely distorted or stunted across animals: a bat’s wing is a hand, a horse trots on its middle toes, whales’ forelimbs have become flippers and their hindlimbs have shrunken to invisible nubs, and the tiny hammer, anvil, and stirrup of the mammalian middle ear are jaw parts of reptiles. But from newts to elephants, a common topology of the body plan—the shin bone connected to the thigh bone, the thigh bone connected to the hip bone—can be discerned. Many of the differences are caused by minor variations in the relative timing and rate of growth of the parts during embryonic development. Differences among languages are similar. There seems to be a common plan of syntactic, morphological, and phonological rules and principles, with a small set of varying parameters, like a checklist of options. Once set, a parameter can have far-reaching changes on the superficial appearance of the language. […]

Some ancient tribe must have taken over most of Europe, Turkey, Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan, northern India, western Russia, and parts of China. The idea has excited the imagination of a century of linguists and archeologists, though even today no one really knows who the Indo-Europeans were. Ingenious scholars have made guesses from the reconstructed vocabulary. Words for metals, wheeled vehicles, farm implements, and domesticated animals and plants suggest that the Indo-Europeans were a late Neolithic people. The ecological distributions of the natural objects for which there are Proto-Indo-European words—elm and willow, for example, but not olive or palm—have been used to place the speakers somewhere in the territory from inland northern Europe to southern Russia. Combined with words for patriarch, fort, horse, and weapons, the reconstructions led to an image of a powerful conquering tribe spilling out of an ancestral homeland on horseback to overrun most of Europe and Asia. The word “Aryan” became associated with the Indo-Europeans, and the Nazis claimed them as ancestors. More sanely, archeologists have linked them to artifacts of the Kurgan culture in the southern Russian steppes from around 3500 B.C., a band of tribes that first harnessed the horse for military purposes. […]

Since ears don’t move the way eyes do, the psychologists Peter Eimas and Peter Jusczyk devised a different way to see what a one-month-old finds interesting. They put a switch inside a rubber nipple and hooked up the switch to a tape recorder, so that when the baby sucked, the tape played. As the tape droned on with ba ba ba ba…, the infants showed their boredom by sucking more slowly. But when the syllables changed to pa pa pa…, the infants began to suck more vigorously, to hear more syllables. Moreover, they were using the sixth sense, speech perception, rather than just hearing the syllables as raw sound: two ba’s that differed acoustically from each other as much as a ba differs from a pa, but that are both heard as ba by adults, did not revive the infants’ interest. And infants must be recovering phonemes, like b, from the syllables they are smeared across. Like adults, they hear the same stretch of sound as a b if it appears in a short syllable and as a w if it appears in a long syllable. Infants come equipped with these skills; they do not learn them by listening to their parents’ speech. Kikuyu and Spanish infants discriminate English ba’s and pa’s, which are not used in Kikuyu or Spanish and which their parents cannot tell apart. English-learning infants under the age of six months distinguish phonemes used in Czech, Hindi, and Inslekampx (a Native American language), but English-speaking adults cannot, even with five hundred trials of training or a year of university coursework. Adult ears can tell the sounds apart, though, when the consonants are stripped from the syllables and presented alone as chirpy sounds; they just cannot tell them apart as phonemes. […]

By ten months they are no longer universal phoneticians but have turned into their parents; they do not distinguish Czech or Inslekampx phonemes unless they are Czech or Inslekampx babies. Babies make this transition before they produce or understand words, so their learning cannot depend on correlating sound with meaning. That is, they cannot be listening for the difference in sound between a word they think means bit and a word they think means beet, because they have learned neither word. […]

Between the late twos and the mid-threes, children’s language blooms into fluent grammatical conversation so rapidly that it overwhelms the researchers who study it, and no one has worked out the exact sequence. Sentence length increases steadily, and because grammar is a discrete combinatorial system, the number of syntactic types increases exponentially, doubling every month, reaching the thousands before the third birthday. You can get a feel for this explosion by seeing how the speech of a little boy called Adam grows in sophistication over the period of a year, starting with his early word combinations at the age of two years and three months (“2;3”):

2;3: Play checkers. Big drum. I got horn. A bunny-rabbit walk.

2;4: See marching bear go? Screw part machine. That busy bulldozer truck.

2;5: Now put boots on. Where wrench go? Mommy talking bout lady. What that paper clip doing?

2;6: Write a piece a paper. What that egg doing? I lost a shoe. No, I don’t want to sit seat.

2;7 Where piece a paper go? Ursula has a boot on. Going to see kitten. Put the cigarette down. Dropped a rubber band. Shadow has hat just like that. Rintintin don’t fly, Mommy.

2;8: Let me get down with the boots on. Don’t be afraid a horses. How tiger be so healthy and fly like kite? Joshua throw like a penguin.

2;9: Where Mommy keep her pocket book? Show you something funny. Just like turtle make mud pie.

2;10: Look at that train Ursula brought. I simply don’t want put in chair. You don’t have paper. Do you want little bit, Cromer? I can’t wear it tomorrow.

2;11: That birdie hopping by Missouri in bag. Do want some pie on your face? Why you mixing baby chocolate? I finish drinking all up down my throat. I said why not you coming in? Look at that piece a paper and tell it. Do you want me tie that round? We going turn light on so you can’t see.

3;0: I going come in fourteen minutes. I going wear that to wedding. I see what happens. I have to save them now. Those are not strong mens. They are going sleep in wintertime. You dress me up like a baby elephant.

3;1: I like to play with something else. You know how to put it back together. I gon’ make it like a rocket to blast off with. I put another one on the floor. You went to Boston University? You want to give me some carrots and some beans? Press the button and catch it, sir. I want some other peanuts. Why you put the pacifier in his mouth? Doggies like to climb up.

3;2: So it can’t be cleaned? I broke my racing car. Do you know the lights wents off? What happened to the bridge? When it’s got a flat tire it’s need a go to the station. I dream sometimes. I’m going to mail this so the letter can’t come off. I want to have some espresso. The sun is not too bright. Can I have some sugar? Can I put my head in the mailbox so the mailman can know where I are and put me in the mailbox? Can I keep the screwdriver just like a carpenter. […]

If a person is asked to shadow someone else’s speech (repeat it as the talker is talking) and, simultaneously, to tap a finger to the right or the left hand, the person has a harder time tapping with the right finger than with the left, because the right finger competes with language for the resources of the left hemisphere. Remarkably, the psychologist Ursula Bellugi and her colleagues have shown that the same thing happens when deaf people shadow one-handed signs in American Sign Language: they find it harder to tap with their right finger than with their left finger. The gestures must be tying up the left hemispheres, but it is not because they are gestures; it is because they are linguistic gestures. When a person (either a signer or a speaker) has to shadow a goodbye wave, a thumbs-up sign, or a meaningless gesticulation, the fingers of the right hand and the left hand are slowed down equally. The study of aphasia in the deaf leads to a similar conclusion. Deaf signers with damage to their left hemispheres suffer from forms of sign aphasia that are virtually identical to the aphasia of hearing victims with similar lesions. [They] are unimpaired at nonlinguistic tasks that place similar demands on the eyes and hands, such as gesturing, pantomiming, recognizing faces, and copying designs. Injuries to the right hemisphere of deaf signers produce the opposite pattern: they remain flawless at signing but have difficulty performing visuospatial tasks, just like hearing patients with injured right hemispheres. […]

Just as crumpling a newspaper can appear to scramble the pictures and text, a side view of a brain is a misleading picture of which regions are adjacent. Gazzaniga’s coworkers have developed a technique that uses MRI pictures of brain slices to reconstruct what the person’s cortex would look like if somehow it could be unwrinkled into a flat sheet. […]

Some aphasics leave out verbs, inflections, and function words; others use the wrong ones. Some cannot comprehend complicated sentences involving traces (like The man who the woman kissed (trace) hugged the child) but can comprehend complex sentences involving reflexives (like The girl said that the woman washed herself). Other patients do the reverse. There are Italian patients who mangle their language’s inflectional suffixes (similar to the -ing, -s, and -ed of English) but are almost flawless with its derivational suffixes (similar to -able, -ness, and -er). The mental thesaurus, in particular, is sometimes torn into pieces with clean edges. Among anomic patients (those who have trouble using nouns), different patients have problems with different kinds of nouns. Some can use concrete nouns but not abstract nouns. Some can use abstract nouns but not concrete nouns. Some can use nouns for nonliving things but have trouble with nouns for living things; others can use nouns for living things but have trouble with nouns for nonliving things. Some can name animals and vegetables but not foods, body parts, clothing, vehicles, or furniture. There are patients who have trouble with nouns for anything but animals, patients who cannot name body parts, patients who cannot name objects typically found indoors, patients who cannot name colors, and patients who have trouble with proper names. One patient could not name fruits or vegetables: he could name an abacus and a sphinx but not an apple or a peach. The psychologist Edgar Zurif, jesting the neurologist’s habit of giving a fancy name to every syndrome, has suggested that it be called anomia for bananas, or “banananomia.” […]

Does this mean that the brain has a produce section? No one has found one, nor centers for inflections, traces, phonology, and so on. Pinning brain areas to mental functions has been frustrating. Frequently one finds two patients with lesions in the same general area but with different kinds of impairment, or two patients with the same impairment but lesions in different areas. Sometimes a circumscribed impairment, like the inability to name animals, can be caused by massive lesions, brain-wide degeneration, or a blow to the head. […]

What does natural selection do when faced with these tradeoffs? In general, it will favor an option with benefits to the young organism and costs to the old one over an option with the same average benefit spread out evenly over the life span. This asymmetry is rooted in the inherent asymmetry of death. If a lightning bolt kills a forty-year-old, there will be no fifty-year-old or sixty-year-old to worry about, but there will have been a twenty-year-old and a thirty-year-old. Any bodily feature designed for the benefit of the potential over-forty incarnations, at the expense of the under-forty incarnations, will have gone to waste. And the logic is the same for unforeseeable death at any age: the brute mathematical fact is that all things being equal, there is a better chance of being a young person than being an old person. So genes that strengthen young organisms at the expense of old organisms have the odds in their favor and will tend to accumulate over evolutionary timespans, whatever the bodily system, and the result is overall senescence.

Steven Pinker, The Language Instinct, 1994

Added to diary 26 June 2018