March 13, 2008

The innateness hypothesis in 1000 AD

Following my report last Friday of finding the standard innateness argument in a 18th-century text by an amateur philologist, I expected my inbox to be overflowing with passages about language acquisition from Aristotle, Descartes and (in contrast) Locke. I had prepared for the onslaught by performing extensive finger-limbering exercises.

Amazingly, the number of people interested in quoting extensively from the work of ancient philologists out there is considerably smaller than the number of rabid Cupertino effect fans, who cannot be beaten off with sticks. Perhaps understandable. But I did get an interesting email from Lameen Souag, of Jabal al-Lughat. An 11th-century Arabic scholar, Ibn Hazm, considered and dismissed the innateness hypothesis before 1064 A.D. As a kind of bonus, in the same passage, he offhandedly alludes to a version of the observation that Saussure laid such stress on: Linguistic signs are arbitrary.

Lameen writes:
If you're looking for earlier discussion of the language instinct idea, you could try Ibn Hazm, d. 1064 - coincidentally, he was also the very unorthodox medieval theologian that the Pope rather misleadingly quoted on Islam's notion of the relationship between God and ethics in his Regensburg address. In his book al-Ihkam fi Usul al-Ahkam (Judgement on the Principles of Rulings), Ibn Hazm briefly considers and rejects the idea, essentially saying that language can't be an instinct because if it were surely we would all speak the same language. I'm afraid the translation below is far from perfect - I'm not too accustomed to reading early medieval Arabic - but the idea is pretty clear:
ولم يبق إلا أن يقول قائل إن الكلام فعل الطبيعة قال علي وهذا يبطل ببرهان ضروري وهو أن الطبيعة لا تفعل إلا فعلا واحدا لا أفعالا مختلفة وتأليف الكلام فعل اختياري متصرف في وجوه شتى. وقد لجأ بعضهم إلى نوع من الاختلاط وهو أن قال إن الأماكن أوجبت بالطبع على ساكنيها النطق بكل لغة نطقوا بها قال علي وهذا محال ممتنع لأنه لو كانت اللغات على ما توجبه طبائع الأمكنة لما أمكن وجود كل مكان إلا بلغته التي يوجبها طبعه وهذا يرى بالعيان بطلانه لأن كل مكان في الأغلب قد دخلت فيه لغات شتى على قدر تداخل أهل اللغات ومجاورتهم فبطل ما قالوا. وأيضا فليس في طبع المكان أن يوجب تسمية الماء ماء دون أن يسمى باسم آخر مركب من حروف الهجاء

"There remains only the case of someone suggesting that speech is a natural action. This is falsified by a necessary proof: that nature would do only a single action, not many actions, and putting together speech is a voluntary action, coming in many different forms. Some might take refuge in a kind of combination [of the arguments], saying that different places naturally impose on their inhabitants the language that they speak. This is entirely impossible, because if languages were imposed by the natures of places, then each place would have to have only the language imposed by its nature; but the falsehood of this is plain to the eye, because almost every place has had many languages enter it due to their speakers' involvement and proximity; so this hypothesis is falsified. Also there is nothing in the nature of a place to require that water be called "water" rather than some other combination of letters."

Elsewhere in the same chapter, he discusses the common origin of Arabic, Aramaic, and Hebrew.
Actually, I don't really want to get a ton of philological email, so if you have additional thoughts on this, you could contribute to the comments section on the crosspost of this post at Heideas. If enough accumulate, I'll update with another post on Language Log.

Posted by Heidi Harley at March 13, 2008 02:11 AM