Talking Is Throwing Fictional Worlds at One Another

A few years ago, David Adger was in his office at Queen Mary University of London, where he is a professor of linguistics, when the phone rang. It was a British TV company that wanted him to invent a language for monsters with no lips, just big teeth, in a new fantasy series, Beowulf. Adger loved the idea and concocted a wonderfully weird and complex language called Ur-Hag Hesh. Although he made it up for monsters, Adger says, “I used my knowledge of the linguistics of natural human languages as a blueprint.”

Adger’s knowledge of human languages runs deep. For decades he has ventured beyond the classroom to study languages in Kenya, India, the Himalayas, and the Scottish Highlands. In the linguistic world where a debate still sizzles over whether the world’s languages are generated by individual cultures or built on a similar foundation, Adger stands firmly on the latter side. Languages do not vary randomly, he says. “They have a design, a structure, a pattern, in common.” Despite that seeming constraint, Adger argues in his new book, Language Unlimited, that the sentences we make are infinite in faculty, form, and expression. Language “is the engine of imagination,” he writes. You can dive into the intellectual core of his thesis in the accompanying article, “This Simple Structure Unites All Human Languages,” in this week’s issue.

In conversation Adger is a generous explainer, self-deprecating and assertive, funny and passionate. I’ve read casually over the years about the controversy over Noam Chomsky’s “universal grammar,” and was anxious to get Adger’s take, which he offered with easygoing acumen. We talked about the brilliance of and how difficult it is to penetrate another person’s mind. I asked him to crystallize the argument of his new book for me, and he didn’t hesitate. “It’s an argument about our creative use of language,” he said. “We have a specialized kind of mental technology that neither animals nor computers have. That’s the capacity to combine individual bits of language, and then out of that build larger meanings.”

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