I have talked about the acquisition of language from a Chomskian perspective in a previous post. Here I want to discuss few Quranic verses that shed light on this subject.
Allah taught us the language system
Allah taught Adam the unique generative power of language. The art of simple computational mechanism to merge names of things into an infinite construct of original thoughts and the ability to communicate it is something that puzzled scholars because no other animals have this power. In Chapter 2 verses 31 of the Quran, Allah says:
And He taught Adam the names - all of them. Then He showed them to the angels and said, “Inform Me of the names of these, if you are truthful.”
In the commentary to this verse, Ibn Kathir mentioned that Allah taught Adam the names of objects and their attributes and actions. So, this linguistic advantage made Adam excel even over angels who lacked this unique generative power. Through this power - which was a total blessing and teaching of Allah- we now can assign the name say ‘cow’ to the four-legged animal and use this handy name ‘cow’ to generate infinitely novel statements. Then we give a different name ‘horse’ to yet another four-legged animal, but we use ‘horse’ very differently compared to ‘cow’.
Imagine if we lacked this knowledge of assigning names to objects and concepts. In such situation, we would need to describe ‘cow’ every time by saying ‘the four-legged animal that eats grass and produces milk and has horns..’. The task would get more complicated when we want to describe intangible concepts like ‘fear’, ‘shyness’, ‘courage’, and ‘hunger’. It is a total blessing of Allah that He saved us enormous trouble and we can encompass big chunks of description with a single word like ‘cow’, ‘horse’, ‘Adam’, ‘Muhammad’, ‘Makkah’, ‘Egypt’, ‘plate’. This teaching of language went further to include attributes and actions as well, like ‘run’, ‘eat’, ‘sleep’ and so on. All these linguistic computational tools are inbuilt in our mind, and a 3-year-old child uses it without a problem. In the above verse, the word ‘all of them’ signifies that Allah taught Adam names of everything: big or small, names or attributes or actions and even non-tangible concepts.
external interface of the language system
From the verse 55:4 we know that Allah has taught the human being the ability to express himself through language. This is done through the interface of the internal generative computational tool (i.e., the language faculty) with the sensory-motor system, as Chomsky always points out. This interface has been a very vital tool for mankind. Because of these senses, a human being can read and listen to the Quran. Read the first four verses again from Chapter ar-Rahman (55)
The Most Merciful taught the Qur’an, Created man, [And] taught him eloquence.
No animal can efficiently express the internal thoughts into infinite novel eloquent statements as we humans do.
Pen as a pedagogical tool
The first verses that were revealed to the Prophet Muhammad -peace be upon him- are the following 96:1-5
Recite in the name of your Lord who created - Created man from a clinging substance. Recite, and your Lord is the most Generous - Who taught by the pen - Taught man that which he knew not.
The blessings of Allah to humankind never stopped at teaching the language system; rather it extended to the art of encoding these complex system into written form to be transmitted to future generations. Human civilization progressed through use and re-use of knowledge that is codified in books and written canons.
hearing, vision and intellect
Read verse 16:78:
And Allah has extracted you from the wombs of your mothers not knowing a thing, and He made for you hearing and vision and intellect that perhaps you would be grateful.
We can construct quite a good concept of the language faculty in us by combining the verse above with some of the earlier verses. First, Allah has designed in us the capacity to assign names to objects. This is the core computational power of generating languages. Then as we grow up, we do not need to develop this core system, because it is already there and in full function. What we
learn as we grow is world experience through our interface with the world, i.e., hearing and vision. These ‘doors’ enable external information to enter into our cognitive system. This system is a beautiful and mysterious capacity of ours, and the interplay between these three systems (i.e., senses, cognitive and language) is the core essence of human being.
What remain then is exactly what the above verse points out:
perhaps you would be grateful. Alas, modern man enjoys these faculties, yet at the end attributes these bounties to nature and forgets about a supreme creator.
To speak is human
Read verses 51:22-23
And in the heaven is your provision and whatever you are promised. Then by the Lord of the heaven and earth, indeed, it is truth - just as [sure as] it is that you are speaking.
In this verse, Allah wanted us to believe in an unseen truth, that is that our provision is in the heaven. To convince us further He compared the truthfulness of this unseen truth, with a seen truth that no two human being would disagree: that is our language faculty and the ability to speak. This indeed is a very strong case for promoting language to be a uniquely human faculty and that it is not subject to any doubts.