30 October, 2019
“This award recognizes Noam Chomsky’s unparalleled contributions to the understanding of human language. It is an honor to number such a central figure in the history of the humanities among the winners of our Frontiers of Knowledge Awards,” affirmed the BBVA Foundation. President. Professor Chomsky replied expressing his appreciation for the award: “Thank you very much. It’s an incredible honor. I am very grateful.”
In their eleventh edition (2018), the Frontiers of Knowledge Awards – the BBVA Foundation’s prize scheme distinguishing world-class scientific research and cultural creation – incorporated the new category of Humanities and Social Sciences, to alternate annually between the two domains, with the inaugural award being devoted to the humanities. On 16 April last, the selection committee decided to bestow the award on Noam Chomsky, its citation stated, “for his unparalleled contributions to the study of human language.”
Health issues prevented the linguist from traveling to Bilbao, the city that hosted the award ceremony for the first time, instead expressing his gratitude for the recognition in a video shown at the event. It was for this reason that Carlos Torres Vila made the journey to his Tucson residence to present him personally with the award.
An innate faculty of the human mind
Noam Chomsky, in the words of the Frontiers Award committee, set the study of the human mind “on a new and productive path encompassing theoretical linguistics, psycholinguistics, cognitive science, the philosophies of language and mind, and cognitive psychology.”
Through his view of language as something the human mind is innately able to produce by calling on predefined structures, Chomsky made “humanity’s most distinctive cognitive product understandable from both a scientific and humanistic point of view,” the citation continued. Language thus becomes not just an instrument of communication, but a cognitive-biological object born out of the human mind, and therefore providing a window onto the workings of the human brain.
Chomsky believes that just as we are born with “a mammalian visual system rather than an insect visual system,” we are also born with “a genetic predisposition” to acquire a human language based on the “generative grammar” principles common to every one of our species’ tongues. For Ignacio Bosque, Professor of Spanish at the Universidad Complutense de Madrid and a member of the Real Academia Española, the faculty to which Chomsky refers is “a kind of template into which any human language fits.”
Chomsky is currently an emeritus professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and laureate professor at the University of Arizona. His first book, Syntactic Structures, published in 1957 when he was just 29 years old, introduces the concept of generative grammar: the idea that the grammatical rules of all languages spring from a universal grammar that is innate to the human brain.
One problem for which Chomsky’s theory provides a better fit than any of its predecessors is the speed with which language is acquired. Between the ages of two and eight, children are reckoned to learn one new term every waking hour. In the first half of the 20th century, behaviorist theory explained this learning curve as a process of trial and error in which children acquire their mother tongue by repeating what they hear and correcting their mistakes.
But Chomsky thought differently. For him, a mere stimulus-response could not account for children’s ability to come up with entirely new sentences. The capacity to produce an infinite number of structures – sentences – out of a finite number of elements – words – implies that the human brain comes prewired with the rules of universal grammar that underlie each language, so the learning process is not confined to a child repeating what is said by other speakers.
“It is a remarkable fact – the linguist explains – that a young child can acquire a rich understanding of properties of language for which they have no evidence whatsoever. As soon as you look at that problem, you immediately recognize that there must be something internal to the individual that directs the course of development and growth of this incredible competence and shapes it, and that this something is common to all human beings.”
The cerebral architecture of language
Chomsky has set out his linguistic postulates and theories on the relationship between language and brain function – what the committee calls his scientific program – in some of the all-time highest cited publications in the humanities area; among them, Aspects of a Theory of Syntax (1965), Lectures on Government and Binding (1981) and The Minimalist Program (1992).
“More and more we have found that languages that look on the surface very different, turn out to be fundamentally the same in their major properties,” he explains. “When you don’t understand the system, what you see at first glance seems kind of random and chaotic. But the more you come to understand its internal workings, you see principles that are uniform, fixed and deep.”
In sum, Chomsky’s work revealed that the staggering diversity of languages symbolized by the biblical myth of the Tower of Babel is more apparent than real, since in fact the whole edifice of human language is sustained on a foundation of shared grammatical structures. This prodigious cerebral architecture is, in the theorist’s own words, a “product of biological evolution” that distinguishes us as a species from the rest of Earth’s creatures. “There is nothing comparable to it or even remotely analogous elsewhere in the biological world,” he insists, adding that it is also the core of “our creative accomplishments.”