Encyclopedia of Evolutionary Psychological Science

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| Editors: Todd K. Shackelford, Viviana A. Weekes-Shackelford

Noam Chomsky and Linguistics

  • Víctor M. LongaEmail author
Living reference work entry
DOI: https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-319-16999-6_3621-1


Language Evolution Computational System Animal Communication Minimalist Program Universal Grammar 
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The impact of Noam Chomsky on the field of linguistics, particularly the evolution of language.


Noam Chomsky (born December 7, 1928) is one of the most influential contemporary thinkers. His huge impact surpasses linguistics to include psychology, philosophy, or computer science, among other fields. The advent of Chomsky’s generative grammar in the second half of the twentieth century challenged the traditional view that considered language to be a purely cultural trait deriving from our great intelligence and unlimited learning capacities, by claiming that language is an innate trait, part of the human biological endowment.

It would be hard to provide an overall presentation of Chomsky’s linguistic work, for it has been crucial in many topics: nativism, language and mind, universal grammar, the poverty of the stimulus, language acquisition, language structure, etc. All of these topics have been widely discussed and are well known. Therefore, this piece will discuss a perhaps lesser-known topic, Chomsky’s views on language evolution, characterizing the evolutionary processes by which language could have come into being. This is especially relevant, for some scholars (Dennett 1995) have suggested that according to Chomsky language could not have evolved.

The structure of the piece is as follows: first, Chomsky’s conception of language is summarized; then, his main ideas about language phylogeny are brought to the fore. Finally, some criticisms are raised to his approach, although without the abandonment of the core theoretical premises Chomsky adhered to.

Chomsky’s View on Language

In the 1960s, Chomsky challenged the traditional conception of language by claiming that this trait is biologically rooted (i.e., an innate trait), thus belonging to the human biological endowment. Accordingly, the biolinguistic approach (Jenkins 2000) analyzes language from a biological perspective, by assuming that its study should be conceived of as a branch of human biology (Chomsky 1980). The innate principles (taken to be genetically seated) responsible for language acquisition make up the universal grammar. Language grows in the mind; given a minimum of experience, those principles are triggered, thus making it possible to attain the steady state of linguistic knowledge that characterizes native speakers. When language development comes to an end, the individual possesses a mental grammar, or I(nternal)-language, by which infinite sentences can be generated/interpreted.

One point is in order: the notion of language is ambiguous, for it covers many different aspects (historical, social, cultural, etc.), but the biolinguistic approach is not concerned with aspects like those. To avoid terminological problems, the notion of faculty of language (henceforth, FL) will be used instead to refer to language as a biological capacity. Its architecture will be briefly presented, for it is such an architecture that is to be explained in evolutionary terms.

From the view of the Minimalist Program (the current Chomskyan model; Chomsky 1995), FL (syntax) is a natural computation system that resides in the mind/brain of all human beings (pathologies aside). In that definition, two notions are to be highlighted: computational means that FL is a system of information-processing based on the capacity for manipulating mental elements and performing computations on them, while natural means that FL is an innate mental organ restricted to our species (at least, currently).

From the point of view of the mental architecture, FL is a bridge faculty connecting the articulatory-perceptual system (henceforth, A-P), in charge of our visual, oral, gestural, and auditory activities, and the conceptual-intentional system (C-I), responsible for the production of intentional thoughts and attitudes about the world. Both capacities, though, are independent: on the one hand, not every thought needs to be externalized; on the other, sounds can be produced without associated meaning. FL provides the channel by which representations of A-P and C-I systems (sounds/gestures and meanings) become accessible to each other. FL takes elements from the lexicon and “generates an infinite array of hierarchically structured expressions” (Chomsky 2010, p. 45). This capacity is enabled by recursion, which permits to embed constituents within constituents of the same type. FL connects to the A-P and C-I systems through two interfaces: an external sensorimotor interface with the A-P system, in charge of the production and perception of the expressions generated by FL, and an internal conceptual-intentional interface with the C-I system, which links the mental expressions with their semantic and pragmatic interpretation, concepts, reasoning, etc. Accordingly, any expression generated by FL receives an interpretation at both interfaces.

The next section approaches how the architecture of FL could have come into being evolutionarily.

Chomsky and Language Evolution: A Conceptual Guide

This section will provide the key points of Chomsky’s thought on language evolution. For the sake of clarity, the section is organized into questions and answers.

Did Language Evolve from Animal Communication?

Because human and nonhuman animals communicate with conspecifics, many proposals take animal communication and language to be evolutionarily related through a gradual process of descent with modification. However, Chomsky has persistently contended that language could not evolve from animal communication.

The extensive study of animal communication systems has revealed highly complex communicative behaviors that make use of truly referential signals, like those of bees. In addition, animals like birds, whales, bats, etc., possess combinatorial systems that somehow resemble that of language, for they are arranged according to several levels of structure (Berwick et al. 2011).

Despite the great complexity of animal communication, its properties are very different from those of language (Longa 2012). For instance:
  1. 1.

    Animal communication is restricted to the expression of biological needs (food, danger, mating), whereas language makes it possible to communicate any event.

  2. 2.

    Animal signals are restricted to “the here and now” (Hauser et al. 2002, p. 1576), while language may refer to past or future events.

  3. 3.

    Animal signals trigger a unique response: when a monkey hears an alarm call of a conspecific, the only possible response is to escape. This points to a rigid functional association between the signal and the danger the signal refers to. That association does not apply for language: language does not evoke reactions, but properties (Bickerton 1990).

  4. 4.

    Animal communication depends on sensory perception (i.e., experience), but language makes it possible to refer to everything, even in the absence of prior experience. Therefore, language is a powerful representational system, according to which any concept/event (even an unreal one) may be represented and expressed. This means that language constructs our reality but constructs unreality as well. For this reason, it has a key role in human creativity.

  5. 5.

    Animals do have sophisticated concepts, but most of them cannot be expressed to conspecifics: a barrier exists between cognition and communication. That barrier is absent in humans: everything we can represent can be communicated to others.

  6. 6.

    While animal concepts keep a referential relationship with objects/events in the world, human concepts and words lack the relation to mind-independent entities that defines animal signals (Berwick and Chomsky 2016, p. 84). An apparently simple concept like book, which seems to point to a real referent, may nevertheless apply to many situations that reside in the mind, not in the environment: a book that has never existed, etc.

  7. 7.

    Although some animal systems have a combinatorial nature that may somehow resemble that of language, those systems lack semantics (see Berwick et al. 2011, p. 118).


Because animal systems “are radically different from human language in structure and function” (Berwick and Chomsky 2016, p. 63), language seems to be biologically isolated. Accordingly, Chomsky (1968) contended that language is a biological emergence, which can hardly be explained through a process of Darwinian descent with modification from animal communication. A question becomes very relevant: Is language an overall emergence? Not really, according to more recent stages of Chomsky’s thought.

Is Language a Unique Trait or Is It Based on Mechanisms Shared with Other Species?

Hauser et al. (2002) propose a divide between faculty of language in the broad sense (FLB) and in the narrow sense (FLN) as a useful methodological tool for guiding research on language evolution. According to these scholars, language is not a monolithic trait, but something like a mosaic, composed of many different components that are evolutionarily superimposed. The divide makes it possible to analyze the evolutionary history of each component, aiming at determining which components are shared with other species and which ones are not. The features that can be thought of as being inherited unchanged from a common ancestor, or subjected to minor modifications, are said to be part of FLB, while the qualitatively new components are said to be part of FLN. Therefore, FLB gathers all the capacities necessary for language that are neither specific to language nor to humans, whereas FLN covers those capacities which are unique to language and to humans.

From the comparative evidence, Hauser et al. (2002) suggest that main mechanisms of the A-P and C-I modules have clear homologues in animals, those mechanisms long predating the emergence of language. The opposite applies for the computational system: this is the only evolutionary novelty and the only component of FLN. A second contention of Hauser et al. (2002) is about the specific contents of FLN: its only component is recursion, i.e., the procedure the computational system makes use of, with its open-ended generativity based on the structural embedding of hierarchically organized phrases. The search for a syntax-like system in animals, whether wild or trained, has been fruitless. Apes appear to be able to acquire symbolic systems, at least under experimental conditions, although no primate has ever been able to acquire a full-fledged language or even rudimentary versions thereof involving combinatorial syntax. This suggests that FLN is unique to the human species (Hauser et al. 2002, p. 157).

What Has Evolved, Then?

Because FLN lacks any kind of homologues, the computational system had to emerge in the course of human evolution. It is necessary to shed light on what the computational system consists of, given that its very nature will determine the range of hypotheses about its evolution.

From the view of the Minimalist Program, the computational system is mainly reduced to a single operation, named Merge, which applies recursively, giving rise to hierarchical structures through the merging of two syntactic objects (lexical items, affixes, or groups of lexical items) into a new object. One of the two elements becomes the head of the resulting structure. For example, a sentence like John will read the book derives from these successive applications of Merge (specific details omitted):
  • Merge 1: {the, book}

  • Merge 2: {read, {the book}}

  • Merge 3: {will, {read the book}}

  • Merge 4: {John, {will read the book}}

The conclusion can be reached that FL is very simple: it basically derives from a single operation, the conditions of which are simple as well (Longa et al. 2011, p. 599):
  1. 1.

    Binary branching: Merge combines two elements instead of three, four, etc. This greatly reduces the computational complexity.

  2. 2.

    Asymmetric labeling: the outcomes of Merge become identified with one of the two merged elements, not with both of them or with a different one; the projection of a noun produces a nominal phrase, etc. This means that asymmetric labeling presupposes headedness (endocentricity).

  3. 3.

    Structural preservation: each successive application of Merge preserves the structure obtained so far. This condition is computationally efficient: it leaves the two syntactic objects unaltered.

  4. 4.

    Unboundedness: Merge operates in an unlimited way (limitations are due to short-term memory, attention, etc.).


Merge, at the heart of FL, is according to Chomsky the only specifically linguistic and specifically human component of language emerged in evolution. Combined with the prior infrastructure (FLB) and with the appearance of the lexicon (a deep mistery for Berwick and Chomsky 2016), Merge led to language emergence. This is the main contention of Hauser et al. (2002): a specific novelty linked to pre-existing components. The proposal fits in well with evolutionary dynamics (see Chomsky 2010; Berwick and Chomsky 2016): evolution is something like a tinkerer that operates by adding slight modifications on previous systems: “Evolution does not produce novelties from scratch. It works on what already exists” (Jacob 1977, p. 1164).

How Did FL Emerge?

Merge is taken to be the evolutionary key of language (Berwick and Chomsky 2011, 2016; Chomsky 2007, 2010). What evolutionary event gave rise to it? Chomsky’s answer is that Merge first arose in the domain of thought, and was subsequently exapted for language (Chomsky 2010; Berwick and Chomsky 2016), this view implying an evolutionary asymmetry (see below).

More specifically, Chomsky suggests that Merge could have arisen through some slight rewiring of the brain produced by a genetic event, “presumably a small mutation” (Chomsky 2007, p. 14). The mutation could have taken place in an individual pertaining to some anatomically modern human small breeding group from East Africa, from which we are all descendents, this claim deriving from the essential uniformity of FL in the species. However, it should be emphasized that Merge arose in the domain of thought and consequently gave rise to an inner language. Merge led to a substantial modification of the simple system of thought existing so far, based on elementary schemata, and allowed to generate an infinite array of internal expressions made up from (already available) lexical items. The individual who experienced that mutation was endowed with many advantages, like “capacities for complex thought, planning, interpretation, and so on” (Chomsky 2010, p. 59). Then, the mutation could be transmitted to the offspring also as an internal capacity, in such a way that it began to proliferate among the group.

When that internal capacity spread over the population, “there would be an advantage to externalization” (Chomsky 2010, p. 59). Perhaps through a mutation, such an internal capacity was linked as a secondary process to the A-P system in charge of externalization, intact for hundreds of thousands of years. When the complex language of thought became externalized, FL emerged in its current sense.

To summarize, three stages were involved: (1) a simple system of thought; (2) at a given point, the appearance of Merge produced a linguistically structured system of thought; (3) that system of thought became externalized, giving rise to FL, the specifically linguistic and specifically human component of language. The slight rewiring of the brain triggered by the mutation had nevertheless great effects (FL) because the vast majority of ingredients for language were already in existence.

When Did Language Emerge?

The appearance of FL happened after the speciation event that produced our species, FL consequently being an evolutionary result linked to anatomically modern humans. Its emergence may be dated within a narrow evolutionary window, a timespan between 200,000 and 60,000 years ago (Berwick and Chomsky 2016, p. 110), before the great exodus from Africa. More specifically, it could have taken place more than 80,000 years ago, if the wide symbolic record found in sites like Blombos Cave (South Africa) is considered (Berwick and Chomsky 2016, p. 87). The reason for such a dating is not unknown to paleoanthropologists (for a review, see Balari et al. 2013): many of them consider that modern behavior arose in that period, including many instances of symbolism (several forms of art, ornaments, engravings, burials with offerings, music), technology unknown to date, etc. Those proxies reveal an unprecedented cognitive flexibility and a powerful creativity, both factors being very unlikely in the absence of language, which makes it possible to build any kind of mental models (Dennett 1996). Therefore, the emergence of FL is for Chomsky the obvious candidate for those behavioral changes to be explained. The aforementioned proxies would be a visible effect of the externalization of thought, thus indicating the full emergence of language. To summarize, the evidence suggests that (1) FL is a recent evolutionary outcome and (2) it arose in the African Middle Stone Age about 100,000–80,000 years ago.

Why Does Language Imply an Evolutionary Asymmetry?

An evolutionary asymmetry exists between the two interfaces of FL (Berwick and Chomsky 2016, p. 71; Chomsky 2010, p. 55). If we keep in mind that the previous stage to FL was an internal language of thought, the said asymmetry implies that the interface of FL with the C-I system is primary, while the interface with the A-P system (related to externalization) is secondary (although by no means crucial for language to exist). In fact, FL exhibits an optimal relation with the C-I system, for language is just externalized thought (Longa et al. 2011). From this view, there is only one internal language in the species, in charge of generating the expressions of the language of thought.

However, externalization does not hold the same relationship with FL; it is far from optimal, as evidenced by the fact that it causes humans to express common internal thoughts very differently, according to the very disparate mechanisms (case, aspect, agreement, etc.) language makes use of. This secondary process reveals the evolutionary asymmetry, as reinforced by the fact that language is even modality-independent (oral or gestural).

This leads to the question of why there are so many languages if there is just a common internal language of thought. The said asymmetry provides a reasonable answer: the great variation shown by languages is linked to externalization and suggests that this phenomenon is not to do with the biological evolution of language but with historical and cultural processes (historical change; Chomsky 2010, p. 61), which are very variable and produce heterogeneous results. Therefore, while the computational system is essentially uniform across the species, the morphological and phonological processes that convert hierarchical internal syntactic objects into linearly ordered objects accessible to the A-P system are very different from each other; interlinguistic variation derives from the very disparate solutions to how internal syntactic representations surface in the form of sentences. Thus, language diversity does not lie in the computational system, but in how those internal syntactic objects generated by the computational system become linearized. This is the very task morphology and phonology are concerned with: to map hierarchical internal syntactic objects into linearly ordered strings.

What Is the Role of Natural Selection?

Chomsky has always been reluctant to consider language to have evolved through natural selection, by claiming that “there is no substance to this assertion” (Chomsky 1968, p. 85). This claim should be well understood, because Chomsky does not deny such a mechanism. He acknowledges that “Language must surely confer enormous selectional advantage” (Chomsky 1980, p. 239). However, one thing is to argue that a trait has an adaptive value and a quite different thing is to assume that it is the adaptive value that has driven the evolution of the trait. Actually, Chomsky distinguishes two roles of natural selection: (1) as a creative process which according to Neo-Darwinism is the only mechanism responsible for complex design and (2) as a process which just sifts the results generated by other means. Chomsky rejects the former sense and accepts the latter one. From this view, natural selection would be a “coarse filter that rejects the utter failures” (Goodwin 1994, p. 157). This amounts to saying that “natural selection works on already developed outcomes (so it can not have caused those outcomes)” (Gottlieb 1997, p. 17). Accordingly, evolutionary novelties, like Merge (slight, although endowed with far-reaching consequences) arise abruptly, although they will need to be sifted by the process of natural selection (see Berwick and Chomsky 2016, ch. 1). To summarize, FLN is not the product of prolonged and gradual evolutionary development driven by natural selection. In addition, that possibility does not fit in well with the brief interval of time within which language evolution appears to have occurred.

Was Communication the Selective Pressure That Guided Language Evolution?

The aforementioned evolutionary asymmetry illustrates a core idea of Chomskyan thought that strongly departs from an adaptive view of language. Adaptationism considers that the traits evolved through natural selection adapt organisms to their environments, thus solving specific needs. Therefore, for adaptationism it is crucial to suggest a selective pressure that guides the evolution of the trait and provides practical, adaptive advantages. As regards language, approaches which aim to explain language origins as an adaptation underline its communicative advantages (Pinker and Bloom 1990), assuming that a selective pressure towards more efficient communication was the driving force that guided language evolution.

Chomsky rejects that view: language did not emerge linked to communicative needs, for communication was a secondary process, derived from externalization. In fact, the idea that the main function of language is communication cannot be sustained, because language, as humans experience it, serves multiple purposes: to communicate thoughts, to be sure; but also to assert the mere presence of an interlocutor, to lie, joke, express beauty, to talk to oneself, to describe instances of nondenumerable expressions in mathematics, and surely many other purposes that any reader can fathom. Any of those is a “function of language,” though none of them seems more natural than the others. Accordingly, “The funcions of language are various” (Chomsky 1980, p. 230). Had a function of language to be emphasized, it would be its use for internal thought, because the appearance of Merge gave rise to language as an internal tool, something like a cognitive glue that binds together other cognitive systems (Berwick and Chomsky 2016, p. 111). Therefore, any approach mainly based on communication is “seriously misguided” (Chomsky 2010, p. 61): if communication is taken to be the driving force in language evolution, then an animal communication-like system would suffice.

Some Criticisms

To summarize in a few paragraphs the main criticisms of the Chomskyan treatment of language evolution (and language) would be impossible, for many approaches strongly disagree with such a treatment (for a wide picture of current approaches on language evolution, see Tallerman and Gibson 2012). For that reason, this section will briefly raise several criticisms that, nevertheless, share the computational approach on language Chomsky adheres to.

According to this scholar, FL is a uniquely human capacity that consists of a specifically linguistic computational system, uniquely involved in language. Therefore, the notion of Merge is taken to be part of the universal grammar (Chomsky 2007, p. 7), the genetic equipment for language. However, doubts can be raised about the alleged specificity of FL: Balari and Lorenzo (2013) contend that the biological machinery of language is neither specifically human nor specifically linguistic. Language emergence would be just one of the far-reaching consequences of a slight modification operated on an ancestral architecture shared with many other vertebrates. According to Balari and Lorenzo (2013), the computational system (named the central computational system) is an unspecific device, used not only by language but also by many other motor or cognitive tasks humans are engaged in (see also Longa 2013). These scholars also claim that the computational system language makes use of is not specifically human; actually, many vertebrates share it, the difference being the amount of computational memory associated with such a system (no memory, a basic memory, or a sophisticated one) that produces several types of computational regimes. The more memory the system has at its disposal, the more computational power it is endowed with. Linguistic computations are context-sensitive, and accordingly they require powerful memory resources.

This view of the computational system makes sense from a neuroanatomical and evolutionary perspective. Currently, it is clear that the neuronal substrate of the computational system relies on the coordinated activity of both cortical and subcortical brain areas. The unspecific view finds support in the basal ganglia grammar model (Lieberman 2006, p. 207 and ss.). This model characterizes a system composed of circuits that participate, among other tasks, in the motor programming of speech, sentence comprehension, or walking and is comprised of two components: an iterative sequencing device (cognitive/motor pattern generator) located in subcortical areas (basal ganglia) and a working memory component located in cortical areas. It is not difficult to link both components to the computational approach: the differences between the several computational types do not reside in the computational system itself, but in the amount of memory the system is endowed with. Therefore, a common computational system has been combined with a greater or lesser working memory space in different species, depending on the development of the cortex.

For the computational system to be operative, it needs to be connected to some external modules supplying their input and capable of receiving their output. The same unspecific computational system may be thus connected to different modules in different species. This means that the connection of FL with the A-P and C-I systems in humans may be a contingent, i.e., accidental fact.

Therefore, there would be two axes of variation, one of them corresponding to the working memory space the computational system has access to and the other axis corresponding to the number/kind of external modules the system interfaces with.

To summarize, according to this approach, the notion of FLN is not a useful one, for the computational system is neither specifically human nor specifically linguistic, although language can still be considered a species-specific innate trait, this specificity resulting from how its several components are integrated. FL has not developed a specific machinery but uses a system shared with many other animals. A slight change involving an increase in working memory produced a dramatic qualitative change in humans, by which the access to a computational power unknown to date in other species was reached.

Another problematic idea of the Chomskyan approach is the genocentric stance it adheres to. Since its inception, this approach has assumed the need for the universal grammar or linguistic genotype, the genetic principles that make language acquisition possible. The same geneticism is also assumed for phylogeny, for Chomsky contends that Merge, the key of language, arose though a genetic mutation, and thus became part of the universal grammar (see Berwick and Chomsky 2016).

That gene-centered approach suggests that the genes do contain linguistic information, but this is untenable from a view informed by developmental biology. The notion of a linguistic genotype amounts to saying that the elements contained in it, like Merge, would be directly represented in the genes, in such a way that “there are elements of the genome that stand in a one-to-one relationhip with elements of behavior” (Johnston 1987, p. 160). This is untenable, for “Genes store information coding for the amino acid sequences of proteins; that is all” (Bateson 2001, p. 157).

The Chomskyan view conflates the terms innate and genetic (as Neo-Darwinian biology does), assuming that an innate feature must be a genetic one. However, this conflation is ill-founded, for “being genetic is not necessary nor sufficient for being innate” (Wimsatt 1999, p. 160). Linguistic principles can be innate even though they cannot be seated in the genome, as shown by Longa and Lorenzo (2012).

Chomsky does not offer an overall picture of language evolution but solely of the evolution of Merge. We should be reminded that according to minimalism, the architecture of language consists of FL and two adjacent systems, A-P and C-I (and their interfaces with FL). Therefore, for language evolution to be accounted for, it would be necessary to explain how the internal syntactic objects became linked with the interfaces with A-P and C-I (Berwick and Chomsky 2016, p. 66). Unfortunately, such a task is not really developed: Chomsky leaves aside the C-I system and its interface with the computational system. As regards A-P system, he assumes that it preexisted long before language, and after the appearance of Merge, internal thought became externalized through its secondary link with A-P. However, no proposals are offered at all about how such a link could happen, with the exception of the rather vague suggestion that a mutation could link the internal thought to the preexisting A-P system. Therefore, the only aspect Chomsky deals with is actually the evolution of Merge, leaving aside how this operation became integrated with the preexisting systems.

As regards the neurobiological foundations of language, works like Berwick et al. (2013) or Berwick and Chomsky (2016) clearly show that the only brain components taken into consideration when accounting for language and language evolution are cortical areas and circuits, like Broca and Wernicke’s areas and several cortical (dorsal and ventral) pathways involved in language. Undoubtedly, the importance of cortical areas and circuits cannot be denied, but Chomsky completely ignores subcortical areas and the circuits between subcortical and cortical areas. In fact, the emphasis on cortical areas has recently been criticized by Tremblay and Dick (2016), who assert that the classical Broca-Wernicke model “is based on an outdated brain anatomy” (Tremblay and Dick 2016, p. 66), for it just leaves aside subcortical areas and connections that are crucial for language.


Chomsky has argued that language is part of the human biological endowment. If so, it had to evolve biologically. This entry has summarized the main points of the Chomskyan approach on language phylogeny. Although this scholar has further developed his approach since the advent of the Minimalist Program, his core ideas have remained unchanged since the 1960s: (1) language could not have evolved from animal communication, (2) language is not an adaptation for communication, (3) FL evolved suddenly, not gradually, which means that (4) FL did not evolve by natural selection, which is a mere filter, rather than the factor responsible for complex design.



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Copyright information

© Springer International Publishing AG 2017

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Faculty of PhilologyUniversidade de Santiago de CompostelaSantiago de CompostelaSpain

Section editors and affiliations

  • Christopher D. Watkins
    • 1
  1. 1.Division of Psychology, School of Social and Health SciencesAbertay UniversityDundeeUK