Noam Chomsky’s conception of language as a natural agent may be the noted academic’s most intriguing idea

The illustrious public intellectual’s most important contribution might be from his day job as a linguist

Abdullah Rayhan
Published : 8 Dec 2022, 10:38 PM
Updated : 8 Dec 2022, 10:38 PM

If you are interested in language, linguistics, or world politics, you have probably already come across the name Noam Chomsky. His multi-hyphenate accomplishments on Wikipedia call him “an American linguist, philosopher, cognitive scientist, historical essayist, social critic, and political activist.” American writer Margalit Fox goes so far as to credit him as the father of modern linguistics. 

While he has many interesting insights on different topics, his most intriguing one, in my opinion, is about language. The way Chomsky describes the characteristics and functions of language makes it a natural component, as natural as animals and plants. Now, this isn’t his overt argument, but his analysis of ‘language’ leads to this conclusion. 

How is language a natural constitute? Firstly, it resides in the mind, just as the notion of fear or the urge to sleep does. In other words, language is present in the brain. Chomsky also argues that language originates biologically and is innate to all humans since birth. Now the question may arise, where do these ideas come from? Chomsky provides an explanation. 

If you look at nature, you will realise there is an intrinsic structure to everything and this structure is consistent. Similarly to this, language is also formed based on a consistent arrangement. Chomsky points out that most languages, and all the major languages of the world, contain word classes of nouns, verbs, and adjectives. This means the basis of all these languages is essentially the same. 

Chomsky also strongly believed that language is innate. It’s a faculty that children are born with. In The Architecture of Language, published in 2000, Chomsky says, “To say language is not innate is to say that there is no difference between my granddaughter, a rock, and a rabbit.”

One interpretation of this line is the idea that language is an exclusive trait of humans. That language, no matter which one it is, is an essential natural agent that gives us a unique identity. 

In another Chomsky book, 1968’s Language and Mind, he argued that the product of language’s creation is unrestricted and marked by individuality. This result comes from following rules that are both strict and diverse. He says,

“Language is a process of free creation; its laws and principles are fixed, but in manner in which the principles of generation are used is free and infinitely varied.”

The features of language Chomsky describes here fit the context of nature as well. Nature follows a set of consistent ‘laws and principles'. But, at the same time, nature is independent when it comes to production and its creation contains a plethora of variations. Similarly, the product of natural creation is free, individual entities (for example birds, and trees). 

And, just like nature depends on different elements to function, language too can’t work without certain linguistic components. 

Chomsky basically placed language in parallel to nature. While popular belief argues that language is a man-made tool (which is certainly true), it is also a natural instinct like hunger, sleep, or libido. Thousands of years of evolution have made language an intrinsic and inseparable part of life. This is why language can have effects that are unlike anything else. It builds relationships and creates music, art, and everything we need to experience life properly.

It is undoubtedly that we have taken this functionality of language for more or less granted as it silently keeps our life full of novel experiences. Thanks to Chomsky we now have an understanding of how language is an organic and natural part of human life. Let’s hope this profound realisation makes us more responsible in the use of language in our everyday life.

Toufique Imrose Khalidi
Editor-in-Chief and Publisher