The Prism of Grammar: Foreward & Preface
Roeper (Tom) & Keyser (Samuel Jay)
Source: Roeper (Tom) - The Prism of Grammar: How Child Language Illuminates Humanism
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Foreword by Samuel Jay Keyser (Full Text)

  1. In his book1 The Third Chimpanzee, Jared Diamond suggests that what distinguishes our species, Homo sapiens, from other members of the tree of human evolution2 is innovation. Neanderthal man, he argues, provides an instructive comparison. Here is what he says. The earliest examples of complete Neanderthal skeletons date to about 130,000 years ago. They may be even older. The latest skeletons date to about 40,000 years ago. During that entire 90,000-year period, there was absolutely no change in Neanderthal culture as reflected in its artifacts. The tools of the earliest Neanderthals are identical to the tools of the latest:
      Today we take cultural differences among people inhabiting different areas for granted. Every human population alive today has its characteristic house style, implements, and art.... No such cultural variation is apparent for Neanderthals, whose tools look much the same whether they come from France or Russia. (p. 43)
    He then describes the cultural changes of Cro-Magnon man, the earliest known European example of Homo sapiens. The changes are staggering. Earliest tools evolved and were refined. Art, even superb art—for example, the Lascaux cave drawings — suddenly appeared. And in the thousand years that passed from the earliest to the latest Lascaux cave drawings, drawing and coloring techniques clearly got better and better. In other words, about 40,000 years ago there was a revolution. A creature suddenly appeared on the savannahs of Africa capable of constant and volatile change. Sound familiar? This is how Diamond describes it:
      These variations of culture in time and space are totally unlike the unchanging monolithic Neanderthal culture. They constitute the most important innovation that came with our rise to humanity: namely, the capacity for innovation itself. To us today, who can't picture a world in which Nigerians and Latvians in 1991 have virtually the same possessions as each other and as Romans in 50 B.C., innovation is utterly natural. To Neanderthals, it was evidently unthinkable. (p. 50)
  2. If Diamond is right to think that innovation is the sine qua non of being a human being, then perhaps human language is the engine of that innovation. This, at any rate, lies at the heart of the book you are about to read. Roeper writes:
      A major theme of this book is that systematic creativity is what is special about every human being.... To get perspective on grammar, we start with a grammar-style vision of human nature itself.
  3. Going well beyond Diamond, Roeper's thesis is that grammar is everything:
      Every human thought and action is built by grammar-like rules. It may seem odd or bold to assert that grammar is a model for how everything in the mind works. My argument goes further:
      The body is just an extension of the mind.
      The body is designed to express the mind—the opposite of the common view that the body is real and the mind an illusion. The mind as pervasive is what we see when we adjust our focus to a microscopic level.
    This bold vision takes very seriously the view expressed almost half a century ago by Noam Chomsky that language offers an essential insight into what it means to be human. For Roeper, the capacity for language and being human are interchangeable.
  4. What happened in our dim and distant past that led to us? I suppose an answer to that question depends on how far back you go. But, of course, the farther back you go, the less you can know. That is one of the paradoxes of human history. A good place to start is roughly 2 million years ago in Africa when — as a result of geological changes that began 50 million years earlier — a lush, tropical landscape was replaced by one that was semiarid, the vast African savannahs. One of the consequences of that change was that numerous hominids living in the tropical forests of Africa died out. Two survived because they were able to adapt to their new environment. One of those two was our ancestor.
  5. Neanderthal man and Homo sapiens were the descendants of those African savannah survivors. But what precisely happened 40,000 years ago that left Neanderthal man in the dust? To persist in that metaphor, what lifted humankind up out of the dust of the primate world into the loftier realm of innovation? Language is what happened.
  6. Roeper is at pains to show what language means in all its multifoliate nature. What made language happen? Here is an interesting speculation, one that Roeper is clearly attuned to. What happened may well have been a genetic fluke, a chance modification, a one-off change in the wiring of the brain that made it possible to think recursively. In Roeper's words:
      An essential feature of all grammars is a concept at once elementary and mathematically profound: put something inside itself.
    The ability to function recursively gave the brain a capacity it didn't have before, the capacity to produce words, phrases, and sentences that have no upper bound just as, indeed, it can with numbers. Both can figuratively if not literally go on forever.
  7. It seems probable that this genetic moment had nothing to do with brain size. After all, Neanderthal man's brain was 10 percent larger than ours. Rather, it had to do with brain architecture: the way the wetware of the brain was wired, or, more accurately, rewired. One day a hominid was born whose brain was slightly different. Suddenly it had the capacity to produce words likelion hunter, and lion hunter hunter, and lion hunter hunter hunter, and on and on and on, each word being the input to the same rule that produced the word it came from. It is hard to know why the brain could suddenly perform this mental gymnastic, but perform it it did and does. Mutations have occurred throughout the history of life on Earth. This one was special. It gave rise to history and, therefore, to us.
  8. While it is hard to fathom what exactly happened, it is not hard to accept that something biologically unprecedented did happen. After all, every so often a genius walks among us, someone whose vision opens vistas that the rest of us have never seen, someone like Michelangelo, or Bach, or Einstein, or Louis Armstrong — someone whose mental hard-wiring enables him or her to do things differently. The first hominid who could think recursively would certainly have been a genius among his or her peers. That creature could do what no one else on the planet could do.
  9. Barbara Wallraff begins her book Word Fugitives this way:
      Imagine being the first person ever to say anything. What fun it would be to fill in the world with words: tree, dog, wolf, fire, husband, wife, kiddies.
  10. I have often thought about what life must have been like for the first human being, the one who could say things none of his peers could say. I have always thought life for that first person would have been a living hell. He — or she — could do what no one else could do. How could he possibly share that ability with his peers? My wife, Nancy Kelly, recalls an event from her childhood. She was four years old, and she was with her older sister and a friend. Out of the blue, it occurred to her that she could think. She meant that literally. She suddenly realized that there were thoughts in her head and that she was in charge of them. She could make her thoughts appear and disappear. She could make them move around, give way, line up, roll over, just as if they were circus animals. She was their trainer. Instantly, she wanted to know if her older sister had thoughts as well. She stared hard, trying to penetrate her sister's mind. When she realized she couldn't, she did what any four-year-old would do. She threw a tantrum. That is how I imagine the first speaker reacting to the knowledge that she could speak.
  11. It is frustrating for all of us. But speaking is the only way we will ever begin to know what others are thinking and, of course, what we are thinking ourselves. It is a remarkable fact that the majority of the time when we are using our innate language ability, we are using it to talk to ourselves. Now, of course, this incredible gift of language is something we all take for granted. But thanks to Roeper's book, each of its readers will be able to touch a bit of that wonder. Each reader will understand what it means to be able to speak a language and that every child born into this world is an incarnation of that first speaker, the one who realized for the first time that he could speak.

Preface (Full Text, cut where indicated)
  1. This book rests on three pillars: the formal principles that guide children in the astonishing feat of acquiring their first language; the subtle nature of dialectal variation; and the social, educational, and philosophical implications of human grammar. Naturalistic observation, academic experiments, and a personal outlook all come into play.
  2. One might ask, why put grammar, philosophy, social implications, and experiments all in one book? Whitehead once said that one should have a "devotion to abstraction and a passion for detail." In that spirit, it is precisely my goal to make connections among philosophy, empirical detail, and social implications. My purpose is to show how philosophically deep questions, and a child's basic dignity, are connected to what children say, even to the first word they speak and to what we adults think of as cute expressions. One child said, for example, "My mind is very angry, and so am I." She assumed two levels of mind, perhaps a body and a soul, and underscored the reality of the soul for a six-year-old. Beyond philosophy, I will urge that we all recognize the social significance of abstract theories.
  3. Every act we humans undertake requires us to summon our whole being and personality in order to choose what to do. How does a person, not just a brain, decide to eat or sigh or think of love (or do all at once)? How is the mind organized so that it can integrate diverse information to make such decisions? One thesis of this book is that our grammar "machine" can be a model for all dimensions of mind and personality. Though each module of mind has its own makeup, still we generate emotions, art, athletic moves, friendship — everything our minds and bodies create — with combinatory principles similar to those we find in grammar.
  4. What we say is like a visible DNA, a slender angle on ourselves that projects both an image of shared human nature and an intricate map of individuality. The words that tumble out of our mouths—even a child's first words — show that we each command abstract, unconscious "mathematical" principles, instantaneous creativity, and a unique personal gestalt that we share when we speak and that others can recognize. I will argue that we each have a unique formula that determines our actions. One reason why we should have respect for each other is that none of us can quite grasp that formula within another person. Intuitively, most people sense that each person has dignity beyond the judgment of others.
  5. One way to gain respect for ourselves and for children is to look straight at the challenge of language acquisition: how do children acquire every nuance of meaning and every odd piece of grammar their native language contains? As we will see, everything about the human mind gets into the act.
  6. Gratitude
    • Sometimes I feel I would like to thank everyone I ever met or heard. Almost everyone makes an indelible impression in the first words one hears from them.
    • When asked if her mother would come home for dinner, a six-year-old girl I met in Mississippi as a civil rights worker responded, "Sometimes she do ... and sometimes she don't." Her words gave her some philosophical equanimity to cope with daily uncertainty. Henry Kissinger revealed much about himself when he said (in an interview, as I recall), "In diplomacy you have to lie even when you tell the truth." The human mind — highlighted in such simple phrases — is the most challenging scientific quarry anyone ever tried to hunt down. This book aims — with what degree of success, I can't be sure — to connect the mathematical structures behind grammar to the whole human being that radiates every time we speak.
  7. Colleagues
    • Many people deserve many thanks for what I have gained from them – from nuggets of linguistic insight to their inspiring academic spirit. Much has found its way into this book in ways I do not fully grasp myself.
    • First, my closest colleagues: Jill de Villiers and Harry Seymour have shared the adventure of language acquisition — and its pursuit in the Africa American English and Specific Language Impairment Projects — for more than twenty-five years. They have not written a single word of this book but I feel that a little of their spirit lingers behind every one that I wrote (even a few they may not agree with).
    • Most of the ideas in this book originated directly or indirectly with Noam Chomsky (though I may have given a few of them a stronger twist than would have). I want to thank him here especially for his concern for the human dimensions of linguistics, his example, and his support for this project.
    • Jay Keyser has been a friend, collaborator, and supporter for many years and has been kind enough to write a foreword for this book. It has been my privilege to be close enough to him to see his unseen magnanimity. In unknown and unheralded ways, as administrator, editor, and colleague, he has made hundreds of contributions to the well-being of the field of linguistics, and I want to take this occasion to thank him for all of us. His generosity helped create the world from which this book comes.
    • Collaborators and projects beyond the Pioneer Valley have created a kind of international electricity that has given rise to many of the ideas in this book. [ … snip …]

In-Page Footnotes

Footnote 1: See "Diamond (Jared) - The Rise and Fall of the Third Chimpanzee: How Our Animal Heritage Affects the Way We Live".

Text Colour Conventions (see disclaimer)

  1. Blue: Text by me; © Theo Todman, 2020
  2. Mauve: Text by correspondent(s) or other author(s); © the author(s)

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