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  • Which Came First, the Story or its Grammar?
  • Denis Dutton

As Noam Chomsky tells the tale, lying beneath the astonishing linguistic abilities of homo sapiens is a universal grammar. For the Chomskyans, however, the mechanism by which grammar evolved remains a major problem, not to say mystery. Chomsky himself prefers agnosticism on the question: the deep generative structures of language are somehow just there. Followers such as Steven Pinker and Paul Bloom boldly and speculatively tackle the question, insisting on evolutionary scenarios—most importantly, competition between groups—that make possible the evolution of human language. Much of the argument and debate in contemporary linguistics revolves around this evolutionary process and potential mechanisms for it.

Stand back a bit and open your nostrils, and there’s a whiff of implausibility about it all. The mechanisms and scenarios that account for a blinking reflex or mother love are one thing. But an evolutionary mechanism for grammar? We can perhaps imagine the primal scene in which some hunter-gatherer band clobbers another and runs off with all their food or women because it can speak and therefore more effectively plan and cooperate. But it’s more vexing to entertain a situation for the adaptive advantage of the First Grammatical Person. Who’d recognize the primal grammatical sentence? You can be a thoroughgoing Darwinian with Chomskyan sympathies (as I am) and still be vexed by the question.

One man who has examined both the challenge and the evidence and come to a conclusion is Mark Turner. In the last chapter of The Literary Mind (Oxford University Press, $25.00), he mounts an argument that it is not grammar which inhabits the deepest region of the [End Page 261] mind’s linguistic capacities, but parable and the ability to tell stories. It’s the climactic moment in a book which intends to transform our whole outlook not so much on literature, but on how we think. Turner’s thesis is radical: the capacity to tell stories, and to project them on new contexts as parables, is the fundamental and essential tool of human reason.

Turner challenges an idea presupposed by most of Western philosophy: that at the heart of language and communication lies an impulse to produce descriptions that are either true or false. The basic unit of speech—or so many philosophers seem to assume—is the simple declarative sentence which, true or false, refers to some state of affairs. For Turner this is but a partial truth. For simple declarative sentences—The moon shines on the lake, a mother feeds her baby, the winds rustles the trees, I pour milk into my coffee—are each a tiny story event. The will to construct narratives, to build larger and larger stories from smaller ones, is virtually continuous in conscious thinking: “Narrative imagining—story—is the fundamental instrument of thought. Rational capacities depend on it. It is our chief means of looking into the future, of predicting, of planning, and of explaining. It is a literary capacity indispensable to human cognition generally.”

He begins with an episode from The Thousand and One Nights. It is told as a cautionary tale to Shahrazad by her father after she has explained to him her plan to charm and ultimately to reform the murderous King Shahriyar. A clever but rather arrogant donkey lives in comfortable indolence on a farm. His friend the ox, who toils daily pulling the plough, complains of his life of heavy labor. The donkey advises the ox of a solution to his problem: “When you go out into the field and the ploughman places the yoke on your neck, pretend to be ill and drop down on your belly. Do not rise even if they beat you, and refuse food for days.” The ox plays the part as advised, but the farmer had overheard the conversation between the two animals. So he tells the ploughman, “Take the donkey and use him to pull the plough.”

The meaning of the father’s story-within-a-story, that Shahrazad’s clever plan may backfire, is clear to Shahrazad herself and to readers of The Thousand and One Nights. Anyone can project the story on her situation...

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pp. 261-269
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