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Morten Christiansen & Nick Chater: The Language Game


Morten Christiansen & Nick Chater

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Kelly has a fascinating conversation with scholars Morten Christiansen and Nick Chater to talk about their new book, “The Language Game: How Improvisation Created Language and Changed the World.”

So, let’s start with how scientists and linguists have conceived of language in the past.

“It's been a long-standing tradition that somehow language is sort of built into the mind; that it's sort of pre-existing in some form that exists in the mind and that's the notion of it. It's already there and it needs to be chiseled out by chipping away on some underlying structure. However, when you look at languages, there are various components to indicate differences in meaning. So, some languages, like Chinese have tones, others have clicks. Then, of course, we have sign language that doesn't use either of those.”

So, if there’s no pre-existing model that we’re working from, that’s where improvisation comes in, right?

"The idea is that we shouldn't be thinking of ourselves as consulting a fixed theory of grammar or a fixed theory of human nature. It's not that I have a fixed understanding of how people work or how the physical world works; I mean, the world is far too complicated, and languages are too complicated, and other people are too complicated for me to have a theory of them. That's just not the way we work. So, the miracle of your human ability to skate on the thin ice of this complexity is that we are continually improvising – we're dealing with creating new solutions based primarily on similar cases. We deal with what we’ve dealt with before. So, we're thinking, well, here's a weird Your situation that was a little bit like these other ones, and in those cases I kind of did this. So, let's try this. And if you ask the question, is that going to be completely consistent? Is that going to deal with every possible case? No, it isn't. It's you're modeling through. You're coping with the situation. You're in right now. The world is too complicated to have a model of the whole thing.”

And, thus, language is improvised.

“Improvising our communication and improvising our joint behavior: that's it. Fundamentally it’s what humans do. And I think, actually, it may not be unique to humans. But it's really distinctive of humans versus other species. We're just really, you know, deeply joint creatures. We spend a huge amount of time doing things together and talking to each other. And there's no real equivalent of that in other species.”

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