LINGUIST List 6.1032

Mon Jul 31 1995

Sum: Chomsky's "single mutation"

Editor for this issue: Ann Dizdar <>


  1. "Larry Trask", Summary: Chomsky's "single mutation"

Message 1: Summary: Chomsky's "single mutation"

Date: Mon, 31 Jul 1995 17:32:24 Summary: Chomsky's "single mutation"
From: "Larry Trask" <>
Subject: Summary: Chomsky's "single mutation"

A couple of weeks ago I posted a query about an alleged quotation
from Chomsky. The quote came from Gordon Hewes, an anthropologist
and a specialist in language origins, in his 1977 paper `Language
origin theories' in Duane Rumbaugh's book _Language Learning by a
Chimpanzee_, on page 43. There Hewes asserts that Chomsky has
explicitly attributed the human language faculty to a single genetic
mutation in one of our ancestors. The source was given as "Chomsky
(1967)", but no such item appears in Hewes's bibliography, nor indeed
any works by Chomsky at all. I therefore asked if anybody could
point to such a statement in Chomsky's works.

I received seven responses, most of them from people who either know
Chomsky personally or who take a professional interest either in
Chomsky's work or in language origins. No one was aware of any such
statement by Chomsky, either in print or elsewhere, and a couple of
people flatly disbelieve that Chomsky has ever said any such thing.

I myself have tracked down and read all of Chomsky's 1967
publications which might be relevant, and I can find no such
suggestion in any of them, though two of them do make passing remarks
on language origins. I have also skimmed through Chomsky's books
_Cartesian Linguistics_ (1966), _Language and Mind_ (1968, 1972) and
_Knowledge of Language_ (1986) without finding any such statement
(though I haven't read them carefully).

It appears, then, that Chomsky has made no such suggestion, and that
Hewes's statement must result from some kind of error or
misunderstanding. I find this odd, though, since Hewes is well known
as a specialist in language origins and since the remark occurs in
the middle of a generally well-documented survey of earlier
suggestions on the origin and evolution of language. Most peculiar.

My thanks to Keith McCormick, Robert Freidin, Scott DeLancey, Vivian
Cook, Rich Hilliard, Massimo Piattelli-Palmarini, and Raf Salkie for
their helpful responses.

Larry Trask
University of Sussex
Brighton BN1 9QH
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