7/11 Noam Chomsky: “What is Language, and Why does it Matter”

Noam Chomsky, Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT)
Thursday, July 11, 2013 7 pm
Rackham Auditorium

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There are many questions one can ask about human language, among them, about its distinctive properties, neural representation, characteristic uses, variation, growth in the individual, origins.  Every such inquiry is guided by some concept of what language is, just as in the case of every other biological system – and I will assume that we can take language to be one of these.  In the long history of the study of language, the core question has been dealt with rather casually, but even vague formulations lead to different modes of inquiry.  Thus a traditional view holds that language is primarily a means of constructing thought, contrasting with a modern consensus that it is a primarily a means of communication.  Such contrasting general viewpoints shape inquiry about the whole range of questions in particular ways, and the same is true of other formulations.  Sharpening the core question, and close attention to core properties of the language faculty, can cast a great deal of light on specific topics of linguistic inquiry, as well as concerns over a broader range.