Wired for Sound

Daniel Dennett

  • The Language Instinct: How the Mind Creates Language by Steven Pinker
    Allen Lane, 493 pp, £20.00, April 1994, ISBN 0 7139 9099 6
  • Patterns in the Mind: Language and Human Nature by Ray Jackendoff
    Harvester, 256 pp, £11.95, October 1993, ISBN 0 7450 0962 X

There was language long before there was writing, a fact that we literate investigators tend to underestimate. Today we are building the information superhighway, and for several millennia the written word has been a primary medium of cultural transmission, but for at least a thousand millennia before that, the main medium of information transfer from generation to generation was the well-beaten path of word of mouth. Language was already a highly refined biological product, complete with all its modern appurtenances, long before writing was invented.

Unlike the illiterate of today and yesterday, we don’t just hear language; we see it, neatly broken into words separated by spaces, strung out in speaking order across visual space. This view is as much a triumph of artifice as the view we get of the moon through a telescope. In the Fifties, Albert Lord recorded the illiterate bards of Yugoslavia, relict masters of the oral tradition’s ancient mnemonic arts. When he interviewed them about specific ‘words’ and ‘lines’ of their epic poems, they were baffled. These bards had a sense of ‘sound groups’, but their productions were not readily analysable by them into words, lines, sentences. Of course, their sound streams were analysable into the standard grammatical categories, but this analysis is a sophisticated product of ‘science’; it breaks language down into elements that are not directly ‘given’ in perception, even though the adept rely on recovering just such perceptual cues to guide their own practices.

The science of linguistics has slowly evolved over several millennia, if we count, as we should, the pioneering (and sometimes strangely stumbling) attempts at analysis by such early masters of self-consciousness as Plato and Aristotle. What was a word? How could meaning reside in a sound? Why are some sequences of words better than others, and how many dimensions of comparison are there? Some utterances are false but beautiful, others are true but ugly or boring, and still others are not even up to being true or false – they are nonsensical or incoherent, or ungrammatical. How can this be? Grammar and logic and rhetoric and poetics all took their proper places as parts of the systematic analysis of language, but it was only in the 20th century that the various phenomena of language began to come into focus. And once that happened, linguistics was ready for its Newton, or its Einstein: Noam Chomsky. Building on the foundations provided by earlier logicians and linguists, Chomsky showed how the protean complexities of language could be analysed – along at least some of their dimensions – with mathematical precision.

The most striking discovery Chomsky made was that we were misled by the view of language we got through the prisms of writing. Words are not just beads of sound strung together in a line, with tiny gaps of silence in between. The processes that generate the sentences we speak and the processes that parse or analyse the sentences we hear have a beautiful structure inaudible to the naked ear and invisible to the ill-clothed eye of the literate speaker. It is the structure of a tree, with a trunk and branches, not a string of pearls.

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