Re: Instincts and Bioprograms

Robert Snower (rs222@WORLDNET.ATT.NET)
Tue, 20 Aug 1996 23:00:24 +0000

At 01:51 PM 8/20/96 +0000, Ronald Kephart wrote:

>A major piece of evidence for innateness is things which seem to be "known"
>prior to experience. For example, children at about six months can
perceive and
>categorize features such as vowel height and voicing of stop consonants (refs
>forthcoming if you want). This is before they can talk of course; indeed, at
>six months they can't produce the acoustic equivalent of adult vowels.
>Chomsky's classic example involves sentences like "The cat that is black is on
>the couch". English speaking children correctly form the yes-no question
> "Is the cat that is black t on the couch?"
>by moving the "is" which is in the predicate (The "t" marks the place which the
>main verb was moved from). They never produce something like
> *"Is the cat that t black is on the couch?"
>which involves incorrectly moving a verb out of a clause embedded in the
>subject. They do not require instruction in this, or even prior experience of
>such question-formation. The conclusion is that phrase structure is
built-in, a
>part of universal grammar.

Thank you for your informative reply. I don't want to quibble, because I
have no doubt that language acquisition involves our pasts as well as what
is presented to us by our senses. But if you care to comment on the
following . . .

1. In French, the child might well produce

"Is it that the cat t black on the couch?"

2. In "synthetic" languages such as classical Latin, and ancient Greek, the
order is not essential to the meaning at all. Doesn't that bear on the
argument for the innateness of the above?

3. The change from such languages to modern analytic language in a matter
of less than 2000 years seems very great to me. Does anyone think this
great change is based on a genetic change? If it is all "cultural," does
that mean a modern child could as readily acquire one of these languages?
Or that an ancient Greek, transported through time, could acquire English as
readily as today's child? (If you decide to perform these experiments, let
me know.)

Best wishes. R. Snower