In their new book The Language Game, cognitive scientists Morten H. Christiansen and Nick Chater set out to identify the origins of human language—and the pair’s findings deviate from the traditionally accepted schools of thought on linguistic evolution.
Christiansen and Chater argue that, rather than viewing language as a series of rules hardwired in the human brain, we ought to view language as a sort of charades-like game in which individuals and communities attempt to understand each other’s points of view.
“In our new book, The Language Game, we argue that language isn’t about rules at all,” the researchers wrote in a column for New Scientist. “It is about improvisation, freedom and the desire to be understood, constrained only by our imaginations. This radical idea helps to explain long-standing mysteries about language—as well as how language evolved and why it makes humans special.”
The pair has worked together on several other research projects over the years, largely tackling problems regarding universal grammar, a popular theoretical framework in the field of linguistics that was originally proposed by Noam Chomsky. The theory of universal grammar essentially states that humans evolved a “language-specific biological endowment” wherein language is encoded within the brain as a series of rules and constraints that are activated according to an individual’s exposure to their first language.
The Language Game brings the duo’s research to a more approachable platform—rather than publishing in scholarly journals, they have published a more widely accessible, full-length book written in understandable language.
Several researchers have criticized universal grammar since its first proposal in the mid-20th century; Chater and Christiansen have been particularly critical of the theory, arguing that it is not “evolutionarily viable.” While Chomsky’s theory proposes that the human brain evolved such that it could produce language, Chater and Christiansen argue that language evolved to adapt to the constraints of the human brain.
Central to Christiansen and Chater’s thesis is the idea that words are ever-changing entities whose meanings vary across temporal and physical contexts—that is, their meanings are not static and preconstrained but change in order to allow humans to communicate different ideas at different times. Christiansen and Chater believe that viewing language in this way allows us to better understand how human language has developed.
“We view language itself as a complex and interdependent ‘organism,’ which evolves under selectional pressures from human learning and processing mechanisms,” the two wrote in a 2008 paper predating their most recent work.
“That is, languages themselves are shaped by severe selectional pressure from each generation of language users and learners.” AW