Language is impossible

Noam Chomsky is arguably the world’s greatest linguist. He has done more to advance our understanding of human language than anyone alive today. He contends that the greatest challenge to understanding language is understanding its infinite creativity.

Knowing a language, says Chomsky, means being able to produce an infinite number of sentences never spoken before and to understand sentences never heard before.

It is a fact that you say sentences you have never said before with regularity. A surprising number of them have never been said before by anyone. Yet the people around you mostly understand when you say something never said before. That’s rather astounding, if you think about it.

I use this feature of language when I read to my granddaughter. To spice things up, I stop and ask her crazy questions. If there’s a bear in the story, I might ask: “Is the bear going to come in the house and climb in the freezer and go to sleep?” Even though she’s only 4, she immediately understands this question she’s never been asked before. I’ll bet no one has ever asked you that question. Yet you understand it. My granddaughter will simply answer no, or say I’m being silly, or tell me no more questions, just read the story. The never-asked-before question doesn’t throw off her 4-year-old brain, not even a teeny, tiny bit. (That last sentence has probably never been written before.)

Knowing a language means being able to produce an infinite number of sentences never spoken before and to understand sentences never heard before.

We take the God-given and breathtaking creativity of language in stride. We don’t even notice it. But those working on artificial intelligence (AI) notice because it’s a huge problem for them. To be realistic, a robot would have to regularly produce never-said-before sentences and understand them when others said them.

I’m going to go out on a limb and make a prediction. AI won’t reach that level, ever. Well, at least not for a very long time and certainly not without a revolution in computer technology. I’ll make a shorter term prediction. No publisher will use computer translation for its best selling novels in any of our lifetimes. The human translators they hire will use computers to help them. AI isn’t even close to good enough to translate artistic or elegant prose, let alone poetry.

God is the ultimate creator, but he gave us some of his ability to create. Everyday, you exercise that creativity effortlessly when you speak. Every person does, even the uneducated and illiterate. In fact, we can’t stop being creative with language. That’s one part of what it means to be made in the image of God.

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