(Cambridge, MA)--The strongest support yet for Chomsky's universal grammar--his proposal that human beings are genetically endowed with an autonomous syntax module--has come in the discovery of large protein molecules in neural cells which almost precisely mimic the binary-branched tree structures already familiar to linguists worldwide.
The discovery also opens up the possibility of
A TREE STRUCTURE FOR A BASIC
The first scientist to propose the concept of sentence molecules was brain researcher Carl Wornkey. In a now famous case, Wornkey had one patient, Mr. L., whose entire speech capacity consisted of the ability to repeat just one sentence over and over again: "I'll just have to charge you for the battery". The patient also had abnormally high levels of a certain iro-pyramidal-based protein, found in neural cells near Broca's area in the brain. Wornkey hypothesized that the protein molecule and the repetitive linguistic behavior might have some correlation. "Though clearly at that time, we didn't know what we were on to," Wornkey stated recently. The major breakthrough came when researchers at the Wypiwwit Center for Neural Research extracted the same molecule from the brain of L.'s talking parrot. Since then, biologists have identified the molecular structure of a score of other sentences, including, "Seymour cut the salami with the knife" and "Jack shot himself yesterday, but didn't die today."
Now that linguists know about these molecules, they are teaming up with molecular biologists to discover more about language. One theoretical notion which has already been confirmed is the presence of "empty categories". Empty categories were originally proposed by one of Chomsky's students in 1972 as purely hypothetical elements. They had no phonetic realizations but were useful placeholders for describing permissible sentence structures. Through molecular analysis, empty categories are now known to be deactivated peptide receptor locations.
Linguist-biologists are also enthusiastic
This new discovery also apparently answers the question of how a syntactic--rather than semantic or meaning component--could be the basis of language production. "The common--and hence what I term the vulgar or 'weak-minded' view of language--is that speakers begin with what they want to say, then find a way of saying it," said Chomsky in a recent interview. "Our proposal--the 'strong-minded' hypothesis--has always been that syntactic trees without regard to speaker or context lie at the heart of language generation." Such words are now being echoed by molecular biologists. "tens and perhaps hundreds of millions of these 'sentence molecules' are in the process of being formed, broken down, and reformed at any one time," notes biologist Viola Lionetti. "Through a yet unknown and obviously complex molecular process, only one or a handful of molecules which precisely match what the speaker wants to say at that moment are allowed to penetrate the cell membrane and affect actual speech production."
Not everyone has been enthusiastic
The idea... is
Chomsky readily admits he has no answer, but is unfazed by such criticism. "For the past thirty years, my linguistics has been on the inexorable march toward truth. 'Sentence molecules' simply provide a heretofore non-observable correlation that we've always been on the right track. Besides, I consider that the burden of proof lies with my critics--they're the ones who must prove that sentence molecules are not converted into linguistic production."
Does Chomsky think that speech could eventually be chemically altered so that people could no longer say certain words, like black or Jap? "No one knows at this point," says Chomsky, who has already been approached by members of the PC crowd. "But in an era when money for linguistic research has been drying up, we believe we now have a handle for getting nearly unlimited funding."