The prospect of snow in Atlanta animated hopes that my backcountry skis would get outside. Alas, we barely got two inches. Yet a freshly painted white landscape inspires clarity and calm—and fond memories for me of winters in New England.
I was a college student majoring in English literature when I first learned to cross country ski. My family and I were vacationing in Vermont when who walked into breakfast at the inn where we were staying but National Book Award author John Irving.
Wow! I thought. Wait ’til I tell my English professors who I saw! Irving proceeded to sit across from us by a window and enjoy a quiet meal with his breakfast companion.
Later that day, after I was getting pretty good at this skiing thing (I grew up surfing and skateboarding), the famous author and I crossed paths at a trailhead. I told him I was looking into studying rhetoric and literature at his alma mater’s graduate program. He graciously spent a few minutes inquiring about my studies and encouraging me.
Knowing I hadn’t read The World According to Garp, I quickly pondered which of Irving’s works I had read to express my appreciation for his writing. Finally, I offered, “I really enjoyed your short story A&P.” I didn’t remember much about it except that it was assigned reading in tenth grade.
Bemusement in his eyes, he flashed a gracious smile, wished me farewell, and skied away.
I returned to college after winter break with quite a story to tell. My favorite English teacher listened excitedly to every detail. Then she paused, “Danielle, John Updike wrote A&P.”
A few years later, then a seminary student in New England, I crossed paths with the iconic John Updike in a restaurant near his home. I had read A&P, this I knew. But I didn’t even try to catch his eye.
Creatures of Language
Sure, I met a famous author and was close enough to speak to another, but proximity didn’t provide me special knowledge. I naively attributed a text to one and later sidestepped the other!
Still, the beauty of words is that we need not have a face-to-face meeting with their author to be changed by them. Words have a power of their own to transfix and transform us. Words can stir our imagination, expanding our sentient knowledge of our world and ourselves. Words can provoke new perspectives, lifting us above the familiar horizon of “It’s just the ways things are.” For example, feel the pull of Lincoln’s line “the better angels of our nature” and the latent longing of a mere acronym, FOMO (the “Fear of Missing Out”), in our cultural moment. Sit with sentences from “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” or Marilynne Robinson’s novel Gilead: “Love is holy because it is like grace—the worthiness of its object is never really what matters.”1
We are creatures of language. From childhood to adulthood, our lives are a steady stream of syllables and stories, of nouns and verbs put together in such a way to communicate something to someone. But where did our knowledge of language and our ability to make meaning with words come from?
Case in point, consider my Maine Coon cat, Simeon, who likes to try his paws at this writing thing on my keyboard. ddfffmmm Simeon! His social intelligence notwithstanding, I would marvel if he typed, “Feed me!” And yet, a two-year-old child can easily put these two words together.
Well, of course, you say, she’s a human being. True, but again, where did her rudimentary understanding of language come from?
This question has inspired MIT linguistics professor Noam Chomsky for decades. In his seminal 1957 book Syntactic Structures, he challenged the then-reigning theory of linguists and behaviorists like BF Skinner who believed that language was acquired and learned. Chomsky, nonetheless, wanted to investigate what was going on in our minds when we use language. How, for instance, does a two-year-old crying, “Feed me,” know how to string together a subject (an implied “You”), verb, and object to make a sensible request?
His conclusion was groundbreaking: language is innate in human beings. “The basic features of language structure are built into our biological nature,” says Chomsky. “Having a language is something like having arms, not wings…. They’re like the principles that determine why mammals see things in a particular way and insects see things in a different way.”2
So, my super smart Maine Coon can sense a chipmunk under a snow-covered pile of leaves before I know it’s there, but he can’t vocalize a simple word beyond “meow.” However, human beings have an intrinsic capacity for language.
When an interviewer comments to Chomsky, “You’re saying it’s part of our biological design,” he responds, “Yes. Contrary to what people thought, language is not taught, not even learned. It’s something that your mind grows in a particular environment, just the way your body grows in a particular environment.”3
No Behavioral Explanation
Dr. Michael Egnor, Professor of Neurosurgery and Pediatrics at State University of New York at Stony Brook, explains further,
Very young children use correct grammar (syntax) from the very beginning of language development. This intrinsic knowledge of grammar happens for all languages, without exception. Babies are born knowing syntax and the syntax they know is common to all languages—what Chomsky called Universal Grammar. Chomsky pointed out that these structures cannot be learned by children by trial and error. Aside from the utter lack of evidence for a process of trial and error in studies of infant language, Chomsky observed that an infant could not really have the experience needed to explain syntax acquisition that way. Even young children inherently know and use grammar rules. They construct and understand sentences of such consistency, intricacy, and complexity that it is clear that they could not have acquired this knowledge merely through incidental daily experience with language.
There is no behavioral explanation for the acquisition of grammar. Kids don’t start out with completely random jumbles of words and gradually, by a system of rewards, learn subject and verb predicates. Even very young children come fully equipped with an instinctive knowledge of grammar that is common to all languages—a “language” organ—as Chomsky called it.4
Although not without debate, many scholars now agree with these observations: human beings are born with a “universal grammar,” a language organ for which there is no behavioral explanation. Moreover, our language capacity makes us utterly unique and distinct from every other living thing in all creation.
The pages of ancient Scripture would suggest that our inbuilt understanding of the way language works comes from our Creator, who brought forth creation with “mere” words:
And God said, “Let there be light,” and there was light….
And God said, “Let there be…”
And God said…”5
Furthermore, the Christian story intimates that language is foundational to who we are as humans because God intimately associates Himself with words: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things were made through him, and without him was not any thing made that was made…. And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us.”6
The Gospel of John’s paradigm-shattering prologue speaks not only to our ultimate questions of linguistics but also philosophy. As the late Bible scholar Lesslie Newbigin writes, “If we ask the fundamental question of the philosopher ‘Why is there not nothing?’ the answer is that ‘in the beginning was the Word.’ The fact that there is something is not an afterthought or an accident. God’s creative word, which is also his revealing word, was with him before time was.”7
We creatures of language weren’t born to fly like birds, yet I don’t know that we quite understand the wings words give us to see our world in a different way. Words enable us to express love, speak truth, create poetry, and share our lives with others. Words shape us more than we may ever know. And through our use of language—a universal grammar we each share—we somehow mirror a grander story older than the universe. It’s astounding when you think of it, really—
Miraculous, a word made breath, Lucid and small for use in all.8
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Danielle Durant invites others to join her in unearthing the perpetual wonders of beauty and truth found in the ageless drama of Scripture. She has a Bachelor of Arts in English Literature from the College of Charleston (Charleston, SC) and a Master of Divinity from Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary (South Hamilton, MA). Danielle is passionate about all things running, nature, and her expressive Maine Coon cat, Simeon.
- Marilynne Robinson, Gilead: A Novel, reissue edition (New York: Picador, 2020), 209.
- “Chomsky Explores Origins of Language,” Noam Chomsky interview with Naomi Chase (April 1, 1992), https://news.mit.edu/1992/chomsky-0401.
- Michael Egnor, “Why Linguist Chomsky Is A Great Scientist of Our Era” (August 1, 2020), https://mindmatters.ai/2020/08/why-linguist-noam-chomsky-is-a-great-scientist-of-our-era/.
- See Genesis 1:3-27.
- John 1:1-3, 14.
- Lesslie Newbigin, The Light Has Come: An Exposition of the Fourth Gospel (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1982), 2.
- CS Lewis, “The Birth of Language,”https://dc.swosu.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=2836&context=mythlore.