LINGUIST List 3.436

Tue 26 May 1992

Disc: Innateness

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  1. Eric Schiller, Re: 3.427 Innateness
  2. , Re: 3.427 Innateness
  3. , Innateness

Message 1: Re: 3.427 Innateness

Date: Sat, 23 May 92 12:22:03 CDRe: 3.427 Innateness
From: Eric Schiller <>
Subject: Re: 3.427 Innateness

Time for me to leap to the other side of the fence for a change.
Innateness does have a significance for linguistic theory itselt,
if only in that the limitations of our inate abilities, mathematical,
linguistic or what have you, limit the types of linguistic theories
which can be plausibly constructed. Processing of grammatical
structures in real time is one example.

Of course, we know almost nothing about the capacity of human
beings in this regard, which is slightly more or less than we
know about universals of language, if any. <grin>. Still, to
the extent we have or can acquire information about our inate
capacity for language (assuming it to exist), it can help
direct our energies in the proper direction.

Of course before we start talking about the limits of this
capacity, we ought to have a clear picture of what sorts of
linguistic phenomena are involved in spoken language, but
that is the dreaded Descriptivism again...

Eric Schiller, Department of Linguistics, Univ. of Chicago
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Message 2: Re: 3.427 Innateness

Date: Mon, 25 May 92 15:35:28 EDRe: 3.427 Innateness
From: <pesetskAthena.MIT.EDU>
Subject: Re: 3.427 Innateness

Joe Stemberger writes:

>I've never understood why it makes any difference at all to linguistic
>theory whether highly language-specific information is innate or not.
>Innateness is usually used as a explanation for universals, or for
>constraints on variation (parameters). But it has always seemed to me that
>what is important is that something is universal or that variation is
>limited to a few options. What possible difference TO LINGUISTIC THEORY
>could it make whether the observed patterns are due to language-specific
>innateness, or due to some more general feature of cognitive processing, or
>(for that matter) due to guidance from guardian angels or aliens from
>another dimension. The observed
>patterns are real under any explanation of where they come from, and
>languages seem to abide by them. We can still rule out some potential
>explanations because they might violate a universal, and still provide
>explanations where two phenomena are linked because they are due to the
>same parameter.
>So, why all this stuff about innateness? I've never understood why we care.
>Does innateness buy us anything FOR LINGUISTIC THEORY ITSELF?

Innateness is a *conclusion* from linguistics, not a premise. If one
looks on it as a premise, one indeed gets into a logico/scientific
muddle like the one you outline. But since it a conclusion, not a
premise, linguistic theory buys us innateness, not the other way around.

We care because its an interesting conclusion, and because the more one
learns about how language works in the child and adult, the more it
looks like the only plausible conclusion (at least to me). It gives
neurophysiology/genetics some work to do, work which is beginning to get
done. In this respect it is superior to an appeal to guardian angels
and aliens, although in some other century, past or future, this
judgment might be different.

Furthermore, language-specificity looks more plausible than a "general
feature of cognitive processing", for reasons that were hashed out
during the flamefest on modularity early in the life of LINGUIST.
However, a negative can never be proved. Thus, reduction to general
cognitive principles of the ECP, the OCP, or categorial perception of
point of articulation for stop consonants in neonates remains a
possibility. And once again, we are dealing with a conclusion, not a

-David Pesetsky
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Message 3: Innateness

Date: Tue, 26 May 92 10:13:56 EDInnateness
From: <>
Subject: Innateness

I shouldn't get involved, but here goes:
Joe Stemberger <> writes
> One last statement implicit in much work in linguistics: "I have no theory
> of genetics, ontogeny, or evolutionary biology, but I'm sure that if I did,
> modern linguistic assumptions about innateness would fit in real well."

I don't have my copy of "The Origin of Species" here, so I can't give a real
but the above lines remind me forcefully of a problem early evolutionary
faced, one which Darwin was painfully aware of. Darwin had no "theory of
genetics," and in fact the then current ideas of genetics made precisely the
predictions for evolution. (It was thought that a new trait would simply be
blended in with already existing traits, instead of remaining a discreet
trait.) It wasn't until Mendel's work on heredity was rediscovered (in the
 1930's, if
I recall correctly) that the theory of evolution had a way of explaining why
developed traits were not lost in a population like a single water drop would be
lost in the ocean.

The history of science is full of new theories that appear to have fatal flaws,
the theories are accepted anyway, in faith that an explanation will turn up
(Another example is the idea that the planets revolve around the sun in space,
rather than being attached to crystal spheres that rotate around the earth.
 What on
earth :-) holds them in their orbits?)

Stemberger also writes:
>I've never understood why it makes any difference at all to linguistic
>theory whether highly language-specific information is innate or not.
>Yes, it makes a lot of difference for e.g. language acquisition, but that's
>beyond the scope of what most linguists do. It's not considered essential
>to study the acquisition of Warlpiri before you study the adult grammar,
>most linguists study only adult grammar, and the main principles of grammar
>have come from studies of adult grammar.
It makes no difference if you're simply writing grammars that attempt to be
descriptively adequate (in the sense of "descriptive adequacy" that Chomsky
about in Aspects). But it's not clear to me that that is really a theory of
If, on the other hand, you want an explanatorily adequate theory of linguistics,
you need to worry about how the learner comes up with the right rules. After
no linguist, even the most brilliant, has ever come up with a descriptively
grammar of any language; whereas every child (down to some limit at the level of
retarded children, I guess) comes up with a way of producing and understanding
his/her language in a descriptively adequate way. Regardless of what you
as to whether the child produces a descriptively adequate grammar, there is a
mystery here. If linguists haven't studied child acquisition (they have, but
Stemberger is using a slight hyperbole here), it's simply because they have made
decision about how to investigate the problem, not because they don't thing
the real problem.

Mike Maxwell Phone: (704) 843-6369
Box 248
Waxhaw, NC 28173
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