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date: 23 February 2017

Innateness of Language

This is an advance summary of a forthcoming article in the Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Linguistics. Please check back later for the full article.

The concept of innateness (innate is first recorded in the period 1375–1425; from Latin innātus “inborn”) relates to types of behavior and knowledge that are present in the organism since birth (in fact, since fertilization), prior to any sensory experience with the environment. The term has been applied to two general types of qualities. The first consists of instinctive and inflexible reflexes and behaviors, which are apparent in survival, mating, and rearing activities. The other relates to cognition, with certain concepts, ideas, propositions, and particular ways of mental computation suggested to be part of one’s biological makeup. While both types of innatism have a long history in human philosophy and science (e.g., Plato and Descartes), some bias appears to exist in favor of claims for inherent behavioral traits, which are typically accepted when satisfactory empirical evidence is provided. One famous example is Lorenz’s demonstration of imprinting, a natural phenomenon that obeys a predetermined mechanism and schedule (Lorenz’s incubator-hatched goslings imprinted on his boots, the first moving object they encountered). Likewise, there seems to be little controversy in regard to predetermined ways of organizing sensory information, as is the case with the detection and classification of shapes and colors by the mind. In contrast, the idea that certain types of abstract knowledge may be part of an organism’s biological endowment (i.e., not learned) is typically faced with a greater sense of skepticism, and touches on a fundamental question in epistemological philosophy: Can reason be based (to a certain extent) on a priori knowledge—that is, knowledge that precedes and is independent of experience? The most influential and controversial claim for such innate knowledge in modern science is Chomsky’s breakthrough nativist theory of Universal Grammar in language and the famous “Argument from the Poverty of the Stimulus.” The main Chomskyan hypothesis is that all human beings share a preprogrammed linguistic infrastructure consisting of a finite collection of rules that, in principle, may generate (through combination or transformation) an infinite number of (only) grammatical sentences. Thus, the innate grammatical system constrains and structures the acquisition and use of all natural languages.