In the evolang paper I linked to here, Chomsky mentions two basic features of natural language. The first is the distinctive nature of natural language (NL) “atoms” (roughly words or morphemes). The second is the generative procedure. He extensively discusses an evolutionary scenario for the second, but only briefly mentions the first and says the following (1-2):
The atomic elements pose deep mysteries. The minimal meaning-bearing elements of human languages – word-like, but not words -- are radically different from anything known in animal communication systems. Their origin is entirely obscure, posing a very serious problem for the evolution of human cognitive capacities, language in particular (my emphasis NH). There are insights about these topics tracing back to the pre-Socratics, developed further by prominent philosophers of the early modern scientific revolution and the Enlightenment, and further in more recent years, though they remain insufficiently explored. In fact the problem, which is severe, is insufficiently recognized and understood. Careful examination shows that widely held doctrines about the nature of these elements are untenable, crucially, the widely-held referentialist doctrine that words pick out extra-mental objects. There is a great deal to say about these very important questions, but I’ll put them aside – noting again, however, that the problems posed for evolution of human cognition are severe, far more so than generally acknowledged.
What sort of problem do they pose? Well, as we see below, Chomsky argues that human linguistic atoms (roughly words) have qualitatively different properties from units/atoms used in animal communication systems. If he is right, then looking at the latter to inform us concerning properties of the former is a mugs game, not unlike looking for insight concerning the origins of hierarchical recursion one finds in NLs by looking at animal communication systems.
Furthermore, these differences if they exist (and they do, see below), are important for from the department of “you can’t make this s*!t up” comes research like this motivated by the idea that we can gain insight into human language by studying grunts. How exactly? Well, the motivating conceit is that a grunt language will help us “understand how languages are created –how linguistic conventions (e.g. words) come to be established” (3). And this is itself based on the belief that grunts are an appropriate comparison class for words (you can hear the ape calls reverberating in the background).
This assumption is a very crude version of what Lenneberg dubbed “the continuity theory of language development” (here p. 228): the idea that human language “must have descended from primitive animal forms of communication, and the study of the latter is likely to disclose” something about the former. It’s a short step from the continuity thesis to grunts. And it’s already been taken, as you can see.
So what’s wrong with this? Well lots really, but the main problem is that once again (see here to understand the “again”) there is no good description of what the evolved object’s basic properties (i.e. what “words” in NL are really like). There is no description of the object to be studied, no characterization of the evolved capacity. Why not?
I suspect that one reason is a tacit belief that we already know what meaning consists in: words denote things and meaning resides in this denotation relation between words and the objects they refer to. If this is right, then it is understandable why some might conclude that studying how grunts might refer to things in a given context would shed light on how meaningful NL words might have arisen in the species from earlier grunts.
Chomsky (ahem) critically examines (‘excoriates’ might be a better term) this view, what he dubs the “Referentialist Doctrine” (RD), here. In what follows, I want to outline some of his arguments in service of another point Chomsky makes (one, btw, very reminiscent of the one that the late Wittgenstein makes in the first 100 or so entries of the Investigations), namely that though RD is far off the mark when it comes to NL words, it’s not a bad description of animal articulations. If this is correct, then we have almost nothing to learn about NL words by studying what happens in animal communication. Why? Because the underlying assumption, the continuity thesis, is simply false for this domain of EVOLANG. Let’s consider the arguments.
First, what is RD? It’s the view that linguistic meaning originates in a basic capacity that words have (all kinds of words, not just nominals) of standing for mind independent objects. Thus the basic semantic relation is word to object. This basic semantic relation between words and things causally undergirds acts of denoting on the part of humans. Thus, the human capacity to speak about the world and to use language as a social tool (i.e. to communicate) supervenes on the semantic capacity that words have to denote mind independent things. Or put more succinctly: denotation licenses denoting. This is the position that Chomsky wants to discredit. He argues for the opposite view: that whatever sense we can make of denotation (and he hints that it is not much) piggy backs on acts of denoting, which are themselves heavily dependent on richly structured minds. Thus, the word-object-in-the-world relation is, at best, a derivative notion of little (if any) significance in understanding how NL words function.
How does Chomsky argue his position? First, he agrees that speakers do refer: “That acts of referring take place is uncontroversial.” However, he denies that this implies that acts of referring supervene on a more primitive denotation relation that holds between words and the things that acts of referring pick out. Or as Chomsky puts it, the fact that people refer using words
…leave[s] open the status of the relation of denotation; that is, the question whether there is a relevant relation between the internal symbol used to refer and some mind-independent entity that is picked out by the expression that is used to denote: an object, a thing, individuated without recourse to mental acts.
Or, put another way: that people denote using words is a fact. That this activity requires a primitive denotation relation between words and things “individuated without recourse to mental acts” is a theory to explain this fact, and the theory, Chomsky argues, is farfetched and generates unwelcome paradoxes.
He deploys several lines of argument to reach this conclusion, the most interesting, IMO, being the analogy with the other side of words, their link to specific articulations (e.g. word-sound relation). The RD licenses the following analogy in the sound domain: Just as human acts of denoting supervene on the relation between an internal mental symbol (e.g. kitten) and real world kittens so too human word articulations rest on the relation between internal phonetic symbols (e.g. [ki’n] for kitten) and physical sounds in the world. However, it is clear in the word-sound case that this has things exactly backwards. As Chomsky puts it:
Take the word kitten and the corresponding phonetic symbol [ki’n], the latter an internal object, an element of I-language, in the mind. We can carry out actions in which we use [ki’n] to produce a sound S (or counterparts in other modalities), the act of pronunciation. The sound S is a specific event in the mind-independent world, and there is a derivative relation between the internal symbol [ki’n] and S insofar as we use [ki’n] to pronounce S. There is however no relevant direct relation between [ki’n] and S, and it would be idle to try to construct some mind-independent entity to which [ki’n] corresponds even for a single individual, let alone a community of users.
Anyone who has tried to map spectrograms to words has a good feel for what Chomsky is talking about here. It’s hard enough to do this for a single individual on a single day in a single set of trials, let alone a bunch of people of different sizes, on different days and on different occasions. No two people (or one person on different occasions) seem to pronounce any word in the same way, if “same way” means “producing identical spectrograms.” But the latter are the measurable physical “things” out there in the world “individuated without recourse to mental acts”. If this is correct, then, as Chomsky says, “there is no relevant direct relation” between mental sound symbols and their physical products. There is at most an indirect relation, one mediated by an act of articulation (viz. this sound symbol was used to produce that sound).
The analogy leads to a conclusion that Chomsky draws:
Acoustic and articulatory phonetics are devoted to discovering how internal symbols provide ways to produce and interpret sounds, no simple task as we all know. And there is no reason to suspect that it would be an easier task to discover how internal systems are used to talk or think about aspects of the world. Quite the contrary.
IMO, this is a very powerful argument. If RD is good for meaning, then it should be good for sound. Conversely, if RD is a bad model for sound, why should we take it to be a good one for meaning? Inquiring minds want to know. To my knowledge, nobody has offered a good counter-argument to Chomsky’s word-sound analogy. However, I am not entirely up on this literature, so please feel free to correct me.
Chomsky also offers a host of more familiar arguments against RD. He points to the many paradoxes that Referentialism seems to generate. For example, If ‘London’ refers to the space-time located burgh then were it to move (like Venice did (see here for a more elaborate discussion of this same point)) will the meaning of London changed? And if so how can we say things like I visited London the year after it was destroyed by flood and it was rebuilt three miles inland. Chomsky observes that this conundrum (and many others see note 4) disappear if RD is abandoned and meaning is treated the way we treat the word-sound relation; a secondary very indirect relation.
Chomsky also hints at one reason why RD is still so popular, but here I may be putting words into his mouth (not unlike putting one’s head in a lion’s jaws, I should add). There is a long tradition linking RD to some rather crude kinds of associationism, wherein learning word meaning is based on, “ostention, instruction, and habit formation.” It is not hard to see how these operations rely on an RD picture; semantics becoming the poster child for environmental approaches to language acquisition (i.e. theories which take mental architecture as a faithful representation of environmental structure). The opposite conception, in which meaning is embedded in a rich innate system of concepts, is largely antithetical to this associationist picture. It strikes me as entirely plausible that RD derives some (much?) of its intuitive appeal by being yet another projection of the Empiricist conception of mind. If this is the case, then it is, IMO, another argument against RD.
Chomsky ends his little paper with a nice observation. He notes that whereas RD provides a poor account of human word competence, it seems to describe what happens in animals pretty well. Here’s what he says:
It appears to be the case that animal communication systems are based on a one-one relation between mind/brain processes and “an aspect of the environment to which these processes adapt the animal's behavior.” (Gallistell 1991).
This observation seconds one that Charles Hockett made a long time ago here (pp. 569ff). Hockett noted many differences between human language and animal communication systems. In particular, the latter are quite tightly tied to the here and now in ways that the former are not. Animals communicate about things proximate in place/time/desire. They “discuss” the four Fs (i.e. food, flight, fight, and sex) and virtually nothing else. Very few movie reviews it seems. Humans discuss everything, with the transmission of true (or even useful) information being a minor feature of our communicative proclivities if what I hear around me is any indication. At any rate, human words are far more open-textured than animal “words” and can be arbitrarily remote from the events and objects that they are used to depict. In other words, when we look we find that there is a strong discontinuity between the kind of semantic relations we find in animal communication systems and those we find in human language. And if this is so (as it strongly appears to be), then evolutionary accounts based on the assumption that human powers in these domains are continuous with those found in other animals are barking (grunting?) up the wrong bushes. If so, at least as regards our words and theirs and our combinatorics and theirs, continuity theories of evolution are very likely incorrect, a conclusion that Lenneberg came to about 50 years ago.
Let me end with two more observations.
First, as Chomsky’s two papers illustrate, linguists bring something very important to any EVOLANG discussion. We understand how complex language is. Indeed, it is so complex that language as such cannot really be the object of any serious study. In this way “language” is like “life.” Biologists don’t study life for it is too big and complex. They study things like energy production within the cell, how bodies remove waste, how nutrients are absorbed, how oxygen is delivered to cells, … Life is the sum of these particular studies. So too language. It is the name we give to a whole complex of things; syntactic structure, compositionality, phonological structure… To a linguist ‘language’ is just too vague to be an object of study.
And this has consequences for EVOLANG. We need to specify the linguistic feature under study in order to study its evolution. Chomsky has argued that once we do this we find that two salient features of language (viz. its combinatoric properties and how words operate) look unlike anything we find in other parts of the animal world. And if this is true, it strongly suggests that continuity accounts of these features are almost certain to be incorrect. The only option is to embrace the discontinuity and look for other kinds of accounts. Given the tight connection between continuity theses and mechanisms of Natural Selection, this suggests that for these features, Natural Selection will play a secondary explanatory role (if any at all).
Second, it is time that linguists and philosophers examine the centrality of RD to actual linguistic semantic practice. Some have already started doing this (e.g. Paul Elbourne here and much of what Paul Pietroski has been writing for the last 10 years see e.g. here). At any rate, if you are like me in finding Chomsky’s criticisms of RD fairly persuasive, then it is time to decouple the empirical work in linguistic semantics from the referentialist verbiage that it often comes wrapped in. I suspect that large parts of the practice can be salvaged in more internalist terms. And if they cannot be, then that would be worth knowing for it would point to places where some version of RD might be correct. At any rate, simply assuming without argument that RD is correct is long past its sell-by date.
To end: Chomsky’s paper on RD fits nicely with his earlier paper on EVOLANG. Both are short. Both are readable. Both argue against widely held views. In other words, both are lots of fun. Read them.
 Thx to David Poeppel for bringing this gem to my attention. Remember my old adage that things not worth doing are not worth doing well? Well apply adage here.
 That words in NL are very different from what a natural reading of RD might suggest is not a new position, at least in the philo of language. It is well known that the Later Wittgenstein held this, but so did Waismann (here) (in his discussions of “open-texture”) and so did, most recently, Dummett. Within linguistics Hockett famously distinguished how human and animal “language” differs, many of his observations being pertinent here. I say a little about this below.
 Note, that a relatively standard objection to RD is that basing meaning on a reference relation “individuated without recourse to mental acts” makes it hard to link meaning to understanding (and, hence, to communication). Dummett presents a recent version of this critique, but it echoes earlier objections in e.g. the later Wittgenstein. In this regard, Chomsky’s is hardly an isolated voice, despite the many differences he has with these authors on other matters.
 Chomsky discusses other well known paradoxes. Pierre makes an appearance as does Paderewski and the ship of Theseus. Indeed, even the starship Enterprise’s transporter seems to walk on stage for a bit.
 It is also often claimed that without RD there can be no account of how language is used for communication. I have no idea what the connection between RD and communication is supposed to be, however. Dummett has some useful discussion on this issue, as does the late Wittgenstein (boy does this sound pretentious, but so be it). At any rate, the idea that the capacity to communicate relies on RD is a common one, and it is also one that Chomsky discusses briefly in his paper.
 It also describes Wittgentstein’s ‘slab’ language pretty well in the Investigations. Here Wittgenstein tries to create a language that closely mirrors RD doctrine. He tries to show how stilted an un-language like this slab language is. In other words, his point is that RD in action results in nothing we would recognize as natural language. Put another way, RD distorts the distinctive features of natural language words and makes it harder to understand how they do what they do.
 This is worth emphasizing: Natural Selection is one mechanism of evolution. There are others. It is a mechanism that seems to like long stretches of time to work its magic. And it is a mechanism that sees differences as differences in degree rather than differences in kind. This is why continuity theses favor Natural Selection style explanations of evolution.