Chomsky claims that every child comes into the world knowing already what a house is. As it grows up and acquires its natal tongue, it just has to connect that concept with the locally appropriate sound:

‘There’s a fixed and quite rich structure of understanding associated with the concept “house” and that’s going to be cross-linguistic and it’s going to arise independently of any evidence because it’s just part of our nature.’[1]

If this applies to house, Chomsky reasons, it must apply in the same way to other concepts:

‘There is overwhelming reason to believe that concepts like, say, climb, chase, run, tree and book and so on are fundamentally fixed.’[2]

Note the inclusion of ‘book’ in this list. This is puzzling since no books existed during the palaeolithic age, when our species emerged and humans were everywhere hunter-gatherers.

Why does Chomsky make this strange claim? As so often, he denies that he is offering a hypothesis.[3] If it were a testable hypothesis, his astonished critics might be tempted to cite counter-evidence. Not believing in empirical tests or experiments, Chomsky argues instead from what he terms ‘conceptual necessity’. Lexical concepts, he observes, ‘have extremely complex properties when you look at them’. From this it follows ‘that they’ve got to basically be there and then they get kind of triggered and you find out what sounds are associated with them’.[4]

So much for climb, chase, run, tree and book. But Chomsky knew he could not restrict himself to an arbitrarily chosen list of words. Was ‘house’ natural, whereas ‘book’ was cultural and artificial? Where exactly should we draw the line? For his thesis to have any merit, it had to apply across the board. So what about, say, ‘carburettor’? Or ‘bureaucrat’? Or ‘quantum potential’?

When the philosopher Hilary Putnam realized what Chomsky was claiming, he could hardly conceal his astonishment. Such nonsense, he complained, had nothing to do with real genetics or biology. To have installed in our last common ancestor a complete stock of the words which future generations might need, observed Putnam, ‘evolution would have had to be able to anticipate all the contingencies of future physical and cultural environments. Obviously it didn’t and couldn’t do this.’[5]

But to everyone’s surprise, Chomsky did not flinch. Young children, he reaffirmed, acquire words so rapidly that learning cannot be what is really happening. He proposes instead that each child needs merely to discover which locally appropriate vocal label should be applied to a concept which is already in its mind.[6] After elaborating this idea with respect to relatively simple words such as ‘table’, Chomsky continued:

Furthermore, there is good reason to suppose that the argument is at least in substantial measure correct even for such words as carburetor and bureaucrat, which, in fact, pose the familiar problem of poverty of stimulus if we attend carefully to the enormous gap between what we know and the evidence on the basis of which we know it … However surprising the conclusion may be that nature has provided us with an innate stock of concepts, and that the child’s task is to discover their labels, the empirical facts appear to leave open few other possibilities.[7]

‘Thus Aristotle had the concept of an airplane in his brain, and also the concept of a bicycle – he just never had occasion to use them!’, responded philosopher Daniel Dennett, adding that he and his colleagues find it hard not to burst out laughing at this point. Perhaps ‘Aristotle had an innate airplane concept’, Dennett continued, ‘but did he also have a concept of wide-bodied jumbo jet? What about the concept of an APEX fare Boston/London round trip?’[8]

Despite the hilarity, however, Chomsky has continued to defend the idea.

  1. Olson G. and Faigley, L. 1991. Politics and composition: a conversation with Noam Chomsky. In Journal of Advanced Composition 11.1, pp 1-36.

  2. Chomsky, N. 2000a. The Architecture of Language. Oxford: Oxford University Press, p. 75.

  3. Chomsky, N. 2000b. New Horizons in the Study of Language and Mind. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, p. 66.

  4. Chomsky, The Architecture, p. 75.

  5. Putnam, H. 1988. Representation and Reality. Cambridge MA: MIT., p. 15. Putnam is criticizing the ‘strong innateness hypothesis’ as presented by Chomsky’s colleague Jerry Fodor. Fodor, J. A. 1975. The Language of Thought. Scranton, PA: Crowell. Fodor’s position is equally Chomsky’s.

  6. Chomsky, New Horizons, p. 61.

  7. The same, pp. 64–66.

  8. Dennett, D. 1991. Consciousness Explained. London: Penguin, pp. 192-93; note 8.’