“The” faculty of language

When we talked about the specialist’s view of linguistics, I mentioned that the scientific study of language can be approached from a variety of standpoints. Generative linguistics, in its contemporary form, assumes from the outset that there is a “species property, close to uniform across a broad range” (Chomsky 2004, p. 104) that is responsible for the human capacity for language. This faculty of language is “more or less on a par with the systems of mammalian vision, insect navigation, and others” (Chomsky 2005, p. 2). This point of view is often referred to as biolinguistics.

Broadly construed, the human faculty of language is a cognitive system, realized by the brain, that enables the production and consumption of language. Modern generative linguistics is generally conceived of as a theory of the faculty of language, or at least some portion thereof. A more precise characterization would be that generative linguistics is a family of theories of a portion of the faculty of language; theories in this family share some basic assumptions, have a variety of characteristics in common with one another, and partake of a common intellectual tradition.

The distinction between the faculty of language and what we can observe as spoken and written language is often expressed as a distinction between internal language (I-language) and external language (E-language). Intuitively, we might expect that a theory of internal language, being the cognitive component that enables language production and consumption, should provide the underpinnings of a theory of external language, which is the observable result of that cognitive function. However, there is a gap between the two.

The notion of internalized language is taken to be a “‘notion of structure’ in the mind of the speaker ‘which is definite enough to guide him in framing sentences of his own’” (Chomsky 1986, pp. 21-22, citing Otto Jespersen). The cognitive processes that lie between this “notion of structure” and the externally observable phenomena of language are not represented in the division between internal and external language. “The standard assumption in linguistics,” suggests Lyle Jenkins, “has always been that the theory of the language faculty must be embedded in a real-time theory of speech synthesis, perception, parsing, and the like in accordance with the modularity viewpoint” (2000, p. 71). The language faculty to which he refers here is already a relatively constrained conception, corresponding to the notion of I-language, and excluding a number of cognitive functions that must occur in the production and consumption of observable language.

This gap was part of the subject of discussion in a 2002 article by Hauser, Chomsky, and Fitch. In this article, they distinguish between broad and narrow senses of the term “faculty of language”. The broad sense of the faculty of language (FLB) “includes an internal computational system (FLN, below) combined with at least two other organism-internal systems, which we call ‘sensory-motor’ and ‘conceptual-intentional’” (pp. 1570-1571). Further, the narrow sense of the faculty of language (FLN) is “the abstract linguistic computational system alone, independent of the other systems with which it interacts and interfaces” (p. 1571). This would be a useful distinction, if it were not for later discussion claiming instead that “the contents of FLN are to be empirically determined, and could possibly be empty, if empirical findings showed that none of the mechanisms involved are uniquely human or unique to language, and that only the way they are integrated is specific to human language” (Fitch, Hauser, and Chomsky, 2005, p. 181).

When we look at any specific theory of generative grammar, we find that the gap between the internal and external views of language will continue to exist, independent of the status of any evolutionary arguments regarding homologues in other species or the evolutionary purpose of an adaptation. In deference to the 2005 clarifications, I will allow FLB and FLN denote the distinctions related to biological homologues and evolutionary purpose. I will further distinguish between the generative faculty of language (FLG), which is the constrained sense of “faculty of language” (I-language) referenced by Jenkins, and the cognitive faculty of language (FLC), consisting of all of the cognitive processes realized by the brain that enter into language production and consumption.

Copyright © 2008 Michael L. McCliment.


One Response to “The” faculty of language

  1. […] logic and biological foundations Last week, we considered generative linguistics as a theory of the faculty of language, and identified four […]

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