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We Got Merge: Noam Chomsky on the Cognitive Function that Made Language Evolve

“You got an operation that enables you to take mental objects … already constructed … and make bigger mental objects out of them.”

In 2004, Noam Chomsky — pioneering MIT linguist, cognitive scientist, education guru, Occupy pamphleteer — sat down with McGill University professor James McGilvray to talk about the origin and purpose of language. In 2009, the two reconvened to discuss how half a decade of scientific progress, including developments like “biolinguistics” and computational linguistics, has altered our understanding of the subject. Their fascinating conversations have now been gathered in The Science of Language (public library) — a fine addition to these essential books on language.

Rather than a gradual evolutionary progression, language, says Chomsky, developed incredibly rapidly somewhere between 100,000 and 60,000 years ago — an occurrence he calls “just an outburst of creative energy that somehow takes place in an instant of evolutionary time.” And even though we now know that there is no such thing as a first human being, this cognitive growth spurt could only be explained by some genetic modification that resulted from a small mutation that happened in a single person.

It looks as if — given the time involved — there was a sudden ‘great leap forward.’ Some small genetic modification somehow that rewired the brain slightly [and] made this human capacity available. And with it came an entire range of creative options that are available to humans within a theory of mind — a second-order theory of mind, so you know that somebody is trying to make you think what somebody else wants you to think.


Well, mutations take place in a person, not in a a group. We know, incidentally, that this was a very small breeding group — some little group of hominids in some corner of Africa, apparently. Somewhere in that group, some small mutation took place, leading to the great leap forward. It had to have happened in a single person.

But what, exactly, happened in our great linguistic grandmother or grandfather? Chomsky calls it Merge — a basic cognitive function that, in its simplest form, enables you to take two things and construct a thing that is the set of the two things.

You got an operation that enables you to take mental objects [or concepts of some sort], already constructed, and make bigger mental objects out of them. That’s Merge. As soon as you have that, you have an infinite variety of hierarchically structured expressions [and thoughts] available to you.

Sound familiar? The origin of language appears to have much in common with the origin of creativity, both operating as combinatorial forces that hinge on synthesizing existing ideas into new combinations. There is a reason, perhaps, that we speak of “creative expression” — how we express ourselves creatively is just another form of language, driven by the same Merge function that sparked language itself.

Photo by Brendan Lynch

Published June 20, 2012




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