Autistic Songs

Alan Griswold


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Universal Grammar

Although the term is correct, universal grammar has been given a meaning that does not match what those words actually say.


Noam Chomsky’s early work in the field of linguistics deserves the highest praise. Before such efforts as Syntactic Structures (Chomsky 1957) and Aspects of the Theory of Syntax (Chomsky 1965), linguistics was stuck in a quagmire of piecemeal analysis—an irrelevant quicksand of phonemes, morphemes and dead-end semantics. Chomsky uncovered language’s structural essence and promoted it to first-rate prominence, and his clever introduction of the tools of logic and recursive mathematics furnished linguistics with a language all its own, one that remains useful to the present day.

But Chomsky badly misguessed the source of language’s structural underpinning, and in fact it is a bit of a puzzle why he had to make a guess at all. Having spent countless obsessive hours working through the many transformational rules of verbal syntax (his complete The Logical Structure of Linguistic Theory is so extensive it was only just recently made available in its entirety), Chomsky was given ample opportunity to recognize that his linguistic schemas had an immense amount in common with the formal rules of physics, mathematics, logic, chemistry, digital electronics and so many other non-biological disciplines. Space, time, proof, natural law, formal syntax—these concepts are in many ways so structurally similar they border on being isomorphic. So how could Chomsky have failed to recognize that as he was sketching out the structure of human language, he was also sketching out the basic structure of the experienced world? But such was the allure of brain science dogma even some forty odd years ago—Chomsky turned to biology instead and posited an instinct for human language.


To be fair, Chomsky was being handicapped by two critical pieces of evidence. One piece of evidence, in plain sight, proved to be an overly enticing red herring; and the other piece of evidence, far more useful and productive, was alas not available to Chomsky at all.

The red herring of course was the speed and apparent ease with which most children acquire spoken language. That an instinct was at the heart of this process was undeniable, but the first thing that should have been considered was whether an already known instinct could have adequately accounted for the phenomenon. The young of many species pass through a relatively brief period of rapid assimilation to their species’ behaviors—learning to hunt, find shelter, meld to group social dynamics, and so forth—all leading quickly to adult-level skills in the areas of survival and procreation. The immense variety of these maturational activities makes it clear that it is not so much the activities themselves that are innate—what is instinctive in most animal species is their pedigree of being intensely species aware and species imitative.

Acute species recognition, to the degree of nearly complete perceptual exclusion of all other sensory input, is the common evolutionary thread that explains how the young of nearly every species rapidly transform into exact behavioral copies of all the other members of the population. Humans of course have been no different. When humans were once verbally silent hunter-gatherers, their children rapidly matured into being exact behavioral copies, taking on fully developed hunter-gatherer roles as early as the age of puberty. When humans then swiftly transformed into being both more verbal and more civilized, their children did not skip a maturational beat, just as quickly assuming this new set of common behaviors, brandishing them from a very early age. What most children have an instinct for is to do what other humans do. It has been that way for a very long time, and it still is.

But Chomsky became convinced that language had to be something different. With page after page of formulas and recursions laid out before him, aware more than anyone else of the complexity running throughout the entirety of syntax and semantics, Chomsky must have found it inconceivable that so much surface variation and core structural similarity could be acquired through species assimilation alone. In this, he was being hurt by his failure to see that it was not just language that was being newly absorbed by the human species, but also an entire assortment of corresponding behaviors and conventions, all with corresponding degrees of structural complexity. For Chomsky, language seemed to be something monolithic and thus became the sole focus of his attention, independent of these other new aspects of human behavior. Furthermore, language seemed to be something that had to be unique to this one species alone. Although hunting behaviors, sheltering behaviors, hierarchal behaviors—although these too are extraordinarily complex and their quick absorption no less amazing than the absorption of language, with thousands of other species able to serve for example and with the long reach of evolutionary time helping to soothe any concerns about how such behavioral complexity might be taken on, Chomsky did not doubt the species-assimilative forces when applied to such time-honored and widely distributed skills. Just not so language, the late-arriving skill without parallel. But even assuming Chomsky could have accepted that language might be absorbed by the usual species-assimilative means, this would have raised only a much larger question in his mind: where did language come from in the first place? Having appeared quite suddenly on this planet and having arrived as it were nearly full blown like Athena from Zeus’s head, language would not have been able to chalk up its origin at the very least to some typical, down-through-the-generations event.

Faced with language’s unique standing in the biological world and hampered by the seemingly unanswerable question regarding its origin, Chomsky resorted finally to some scientific magic and proposed an entirely separate instinct for human language. In one fell swoop Chomsky turned language into something biological, genetic, neural, evolutionary, and restrictively human. Thus the term universal grammar debuted as an ironic phrase, for now there was nothing universal in the concept at all.


The more productive piece of evidence that Chomsky did not have access to was an accurate description of the condition known as autism. Autism of course was known in the 1960s and 1970s, but at that time autism was regarded as little more than a medical catastrophe, its gravity compensated for only by its extreme rarity. The few autistic individuals who were recognized in Chomsky’s day, both from the acuteness of their condition and from the cruelties likely being perpetrated upon them, would have been unable to provide many clues in a study of general linguistics. It would be at least another twenty years before the medical community would begin to recognize that autism was a condition not necessarily so devastating (and uncoincidentally, not all that uncommon), and of course even through the present day the medical community continues to struggle under the delusions from that misguided past.

Autism, when more accurately described, tells a much broader story than has been previously considered, a story touching upon, among many other things, the history and construction of human language.

Fundamentally, autistic individuals possess significantly less species recognition and species-assimilative capacity than do most other humans (and indeed, than do most other organisms). For reasons still unknown, autistic humans do not easily perceive human-specific features in their sensory environment, and therefore their initial sensory perception remains mostly ungrounded, with early autistic development running a gauntlet of a nearly overwhelming sensory chaos. In compensation and to varying degree, autistic individuals form their cognitive grounding instead out of the non-biological, structural features that inherently stand out from the surrounding environment—perceptions based primarily upon symmetry, patterns, repetition, order, and the like. The unusual early behaviors of autistic children are filled with the evidence from these unique forms of perception and cognition, with the developmental activities of nearly all autistic individuals—from childhood through maturity—showing marked preference for the more orderly, non-biological aspects of the objective world, rather than for the social, biologically-based features usually preferred by the human population at large.

Space, time, logic, mathematics—these concepts, representing the structural framework of the objective world, were introduced to the human species through the medium of autistic perception; they are the direct product of a compensatory form of autistic cognition that finds its essential grounding in the symmetries and patterns to be found in the surrounding world. Nonetheless, autistic individuals are biological creatures themselves and are therefore subject to the same set of restrictions on experience as are any other organism. Space, time, logic, mathematics—these concepts cannot be grasped by immediate biological perception alone, they are not an inherent part of immediate biological experience.

To bring non-biologically based perception into the realm of biological experience requires the aid of an intermediary. To bring non-biologically based perception into the realm of biological experience requires the use of an artifact that can be immediately and biologically perceived, but which also serves the purpose of representing that which is not biologically present. This intermediary is precisely that entity we call language, and if autistic individuals have been responsible for introducing the realm of non-biological pattern and structure to the human species, they have also been responsible for bringing along its essential companion—they have been responsible for the introduction of language.


If Chomsky had been able to contemplate an autism-inspired origin for human language, then perhaps he would have found himself less puzzled by the source and nature of language’s underlying structure.

As the early artifacts of human language (abstract gestures to some degree but primarily spoken sounds) began to circulate around the globe, they quickly diverged both in vocabulary and surface form. But as Chomsky rightly noted, the underlying structure of human language changed hardly at all, never varied in any appreciable degree from tribe to tribe, from place to place, from generation to generation. This split between language’s surface presentation and its underlying structure captures exactly the distinction between the arbitrary nature of the artifacts doing the representing, and the far more determinant nature of the entity being represented. Only the artifacts of language can be indeterminate, only they can take on a nearly unlimited guise—hundreds of spoken languages, thousands of individual dialects, written extensions, charts, symbols. As humans have so ably demonstrated, almost any sense-perceivable object can serve the purpose of conveying language; all that is required is some degree of convention. But although the artifacts of language can be derived from almost any perceivable source, what language represents is of a class entirely different. What language represents, by necessity and by the original purpose of language, is something already perceptually determined.

Space, time, logic, mathematics, pattern, symmetry—these concepts representing the form of the objective world are precisely those concepts that must be reflected inside language’s foundational structure. Object and concept, noun and verb, temporal tenses, spatial adjectives, all manner of nuanced prepositional form—as autistics introduced to humanity the patterned structures from the surrounding world, they introduced also the conveying mechanism that by necessity had to assume that world’s organizational form. Thus there is no need to posit a genetic or neural instinct to explain language’s underlying structure; one need only look to the patterns and symmetries of the surrounding world and realize that language has no choice but to be their mirror. And one need not confine language to the human species alone; any life-form perceptually open to the non-biological patterns of the surrounding environment would by necessity find itself relying upon the conveying mechanism of a deeply structural language. Biologically speaking, no alternative exists.


And so indeed, human language is framed by a universal grammar—far more universal than Chomsky ever managed to conceive.

Copyright © 2011 by Alan Griswold
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