Wednesday, January 23, 2019

How the Study Of Language Sparked the Cognitive Revolution

by darinlhammond (writer), Rexburg, Idaho, November 29, 2012

Amazing how much we know, how much we don't

As writers, we value the power of words. We don't often consider language's scientific significance as the first direct portal to the brain and cognition.

Complexity in Language
Language represents a mystery of the mind that has been explored for ages, with an exponentially increasing complexity. Think of all that must take place for you to read and understand this sentence alone. And in most cases, the communication is almost instantaneous, an astounding feet of computing power.

First rumblings of a revolution
I suspect that most, like me, have been unaware of the cognitive revolution, beginning in the study of linguistics.Noam Chomsky declared war on the old linguistic regime in 1957, with his dismantling of the popular view of language orchestrated by B. F. Skinner, the famous behavioral psychologist (the one who performed all the pigeon training experiments).

Skinner believed that language was a simple matter of training and years of experience, similar to training pigeons with huge brains. In 1957, Chomsky wrote a scathing review of B. F. Skinner’s (1957) most important work on language, Verbal Behavior. In his short review Chomsky dismantled Skinner’s argument deftly, labeling the idea of language “through reinforcement [or training] ... quite empty” (p. 12). In one mighty stroke, Chomsky tore apart the most respected theory of language, revealing the hollow center.

Noam Chomsky's new vision
Chomsky ripped through the old view with the ease of a genius, suggesting that all humans are born with hardwiring in the brain that prepared them to learn any language. This programming was the result of millions of years of evolution in the human brain. Chomsky's view shocked both linguists and psychologist, making the brain far more complex than Skinner had imagined. Humans, according to Chomsky, are born ready to learn language.

The cognitive revolution burst forth with this shift in thinking, and the study of cognition or cognitive science began to flourish. Linguistics moved from the study of grammar to the study of the mind and the infinite complexity of language, entering the realm of true science.

A new regime
As a consequence of the linguistic breakthrough, ripples of influence washed through all of academia, with whole new fields of study springing up rapidly. New departments were popping up on campuses across the United States and Europe, Chomsky having opened the black treasure box of the brain. Language was now seen as an entry point into the inner workings of the mind.

In his continued scholarship, Chomsky broke language apart and put the pieces back together again, meticulously studying and observing language as the means of acquiring data, hypothesizing, and experimenting. Chomsky envisioned language as a set of building blocks from which any individual can create and understand an infinite variety of utterances. This is sometimes referred to as transformational or generative grammar.

This new transformational model accounted well for the complexity of human language. Chomsky’s work in the late 1950’s established the mental mechanisms that could manipulate words, phrases, and clauses into an infinite number of structures that an average speaker can both produce and process.

A vision of universal grammar
Breaking the syntax of language into finite, fundamental units allowed Chomsky to push closer to an understanding of how language might work in the human mind. He hoped that this would lead to the ever-illusive universal grammar, representing the rules of structure that connect all human languages. His work pointed to the commonality between languages and cultures across the globe.

Breaking down the language to the fundamental pieces that are combined and recombined made possible the concept of computing and computer languages. Chomsky opened the door to computers and at the same time gave birth to a plethora of new fields of study such as computer science, cognitive science, modern linguistics, neuroscience, neurophilosophy, evolutionary psychology, and many more. All computer technology can trace some of it's history back to Chomsky's cognitive revolution.


Chomsky, N. (1957). Syntactic structures. Netherlands: Mouton.

Chomsky, N.(1959).Verbal behavior, by B. F. Skinner. Indianapolis, IN: Bobbs-Merrill.

Skinner, B. F. (1957). Verbal behavior . Acton, MA: Copley Publishing Group.

About the Writer

I am a former English professor, turned writer, but my secret passions include web design, social media, technology, Spanish, neuroscience, construction, landscaping, and bonsai on the side. I love to blog at, and I also write for BC Blog, Technorati, Blog Critics, and Social Media Today.
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