March 06, 2008

The innateness hypothesis in the late 1700s

Here's something I've been meaning to post since before Christmas. You may recall at the time that a student and I were excited to have found an older use of the word 'eggnog' than was recorded in the OED. Turned out we were far from the first to have noticed it, but it was fun anyway -- and it paid an unexpected dividend. Harvard had kindly mailed me, via inter-library loan, their actual copy of the posthumous 1807 printing of philologist and clergyman Jonathan Boucher's 'Glossary of Obsolete and Provincial Words', with an extensive introduction. Looking at WorldCat, it seems there are only 7 extant copies of this printing in libraries they know about, which makes me even happier that I photocopied the introduction while I had my paws on its old and yellowed pages (very, very carefully, of course).

It's printed in a tiny font, and I haven't read through it thoroughly, but one early passage caught my eye, which I thought I'd share with you. Boucher (kind of) makes the case for language as an instinct -- an innate endowment of the species -- rather than as garden-variety learning:

Common as the case is, it is not easy to describe the process that is gone through in learning to speak; nor is it possible, for instance, to assign a reason, why some children, apparently of equal capacities and with equal opportunities, learn to speak so much later, and with so much more difficulty than others; and why also, in a family of children, all brought up together, and as near as may be in the same manner, one pronounces one certain letter with ease, which another cannot pronounce at all. There are whole nations that cannot pronounce the letter r. One thing is certain, that all mankind do, sooner or later, learn to speak; and, in general, though we hardly know how, wih a degree of ease, not less extraordinary than the certainty of success. [...] This is a most providential dispensation: since, at a period in which our powers are too feeble, and but little disposed to learn other things, they are eminently well calculated, and well disposed also, both to acquire and to retain words. [...] And when we contemplate with what difficulty children, and even grown persons, are taught things which, comparatively speaking, are infinitely less complicated than any language; whilst yet they learn to utter, combine, and understand words of the most diversified forms, almost as naturally and easliy as they learn to perform any of the other most ordinary functions of life, we are lost in astonishment at the goodness of that Almighty Power, who formed us with these admirable capacities.
This, except for the appeal to the supernatural at the end, could practically have been lifted straight from an introductory lecture pushing the innateness hypothesis about language acquisition. The note that all non-disabled people eventually learn to speak, at an age when it's hard to explicitly teach them, and the comparison of the complexity of language with that of other material which is learned later in life with much more difficulty, are all key points in any such lecture.

When reading the rest of the Introduction, I bogged down somewhere in the middle, where Boucher is arguing that of all the modern language families, Celtic is most closely related to Hebrew, the proto-language, and that the other Indo-European languages are descended in turn from the Celtic languages. I'm not a historical linguist, nor yet (more importantly) a linguistic historian, so I don't know how widespread such views were in those days when Sir William Jones was just first lecturing on the connections between Sanskrit, Persian, Greek and Latin, but I'm assuming that the historical discussion is partly a reflection of Boucher's times as well as a reflection of his calling.

But I'd be interested to know more about whether similar passages about the remarkableness of language acquisition appeared in other linguistic discussions of the age.

Posted by Heidi Harley at March 6, 2008 05:19 PM