Sunday, May 17, 2015

The Language Myth - Preliminary Thoughts

I started reading The Language Myth: Why Language Is Not an Instinct by Vyvyan Evans. This book argues that Noam Chomsky is wrong about the basic nature of language. The book has sparked controversy and there have probably been published more words in blogs and tweets in response than are contained in the actual book.

I'm two chapters in, but before I begin posting my review, I wanted to do a post on academic sub-culture, specifically the one I was trained in. I did my (not quite completed) PhD in linguistics at SUNY Buffalo in 1998-2004. The students only half-jokingly called it Berkeley East because, at the time, about half the faculty had been trained at Berkeley (and several others were closely affiliated in research), and Berkeley is one of the great strong-holds of anti-Chomsky sentiment. Buffalo was clearly a "functionalist" school (though no one ever really knew what that meant, functionalism never really being a field, more a culture).

In any case, we were clearly, undeniably, virulently, anti-Chomsky. And that's the culture I want to describe to provide some sense of how different the associations are with the name "Chomsky" for me (and I suspect Evans), than for non linguists, and for non-Chomskyan linguists.

So what was it like to be a grad student in a functionalist linguistics department, with respect to Noam Chomsky?

[SPOILER ALERT - inflammatory language below. Most of this post is intended to represent a thought climate within functionalist linguistics, not factual evidence]

I never quite drank the functionalist Kool-Aid (nor the Chomskyean Kool-Aid either, to be clear); nonetheless I remain endowed with a healthy dose of Chomsky skepticism.

Here is how I remember the general critique of Chomsky echoed in the halls of SUNY Buffalo linguistics (this is my memory of ten+ years ago, not intended to be a technical critique; this is meant to give the impression of what the culture of a functionalist department felt like).

The Presence of Chomsky

  • First, we didn't talk about Chomsky much, he was peripheral. What little we said about him was typically mocking and belittling (grad students, ya know).
  • The syntax courses, however, were designed to teach Chomsky's theories for half a semester, then each instructor was given the second half to teach whatever alternative theory they wanted. For my Syntax I course, we used one of Andrew Radford's Minimalism textbooks (then RRG for the second half). For my Syntax II, we used Elizabeth Cowper's GB textbook (then what Matthew Dryer called "Basic Theory", which I always preferred above all else).
  • We had a summer reading group for years. One summer we read Chomsky’s The Minimalist Program because we felt responsible for understanding the paradigm (we wanted to try to understand the *other*). The group included two senior faculty, both with serious syntax background. 

The Perception of Chomsky 
(amongst my cohort, this is what my professors and fellow grad students, and I, thought about the guy. Whether we were accurate or not is another thing)

  • Noam Chomsky is a likable man, for those who get to meet him in person.
  • Chomsky did linguistics a great service by taking linguistics in the general direction of hard science.
  • Chomsky's ideas have never been accepted by a majority of linguists, if you include semanticists, discourse, sociolinguistics, international linguists, psycholinguists, anthropological linguists, historical linguists, field linguists, philologists, etc. Outside of American syntacticians, Chomsky is a footnote, a non factor.
  • Many of his fiercest critics were former students or colleagues.
  • Chomsky radically changes his theories every ten years or so, simply ignoring his previous claims when they're proved wrong.
  • Chomsky has never made a serious attempt to understand other theories or engage in linguistic debate; he lives in a cocoon.
  • He bases major theoretical mechanisms on scant evidence, often obsessing over a single sentence in a language he himself has never studied, based only on evidence from an obscure source (like a grad student thesis).
  • He condescendingly dismisses most linguistic evidence (like spoken data) with the unfounded distinction between narrow syntax and broad syntax. This allows him to cherry pick data that suits him, and ignore data that refutes his claims.
  • When critiques are presented by serious linguists with evidence, the evidence is discarded as *irrelevant*, the linguists are derided as foolish amateurs, and the critiques are dismissed as naive. But rarely are the points taken as serious debate.
  • Chomsky only debates internal mechanisms of his own theories; anyone who argues using mechanisms outside of those Chomsky-internals is derided as ignorant. In other words, there is only one theoretical mechanism, only one set of theoretical terms and artifacts; only these will be recognized as *legitimate* linguistics. Anything else is ignored. 
  • Chomsky doesn't engage with the wider linguistics community. 
  • Chomsky expects to be taken seriously in a way that he himself would never allow anyone else to be taken seriously: lacking substantial evidence, lacking external coherence, and lacking anything approximating collegiality.
  • Oh, and Chomsky himself hasn't done serious linguistic analysis since the 80s. He has devoted most of the last 30 years to stabbing at political windmills. At most, he spends maybe 10% of his time on linguistics. 

That’s the image of the man as I recall from the view of a functionalist department devoted to descriptive linguistics. Let the verbal assaults begin!!!

UPDATE (May 5): This post prompted a spirited Reddit discussion, well word reading.


Bob Futrelle said...

Your bulleted list is spot-on.

- Bob Futrelle
Retired CS Prof (Northeastern)
Hard at work on NLP software
inspired by CxG.

Dominik Lukeš said...

Thanks for this great summary. I couldn't put it better myself (in fact, I didn't:

I particularly appreciate the challenge of thinking of this as an expression of tribal belonging - which I share - albeit at a distance. I would say many of the things you list would be fairly easy to test empirically but it is always important not to fall into the trap of confusing perspective for fact.

But if you look at the body of linguistic inquiry (no pun intended) I really do think Chomsky's contribution can be classified as a footnote - although I've never heard it put quite so starkly before. Although I was quite dismissive of UG here:

Which is why I can't bring myself to actually reading Vyv's book. Or why I was never particularly excited about this recursion business with Piraha. I just don't think, it is particularly needed. Arguing with a footnote. Philosophers and psychologists will eventually catch up with the rest of linguistics and the general public is too busy with not misusing 'literally'.

The point I'd like to pick you up on is 'nobody knowing what functionalism is'. I'd say that there are many people who can cogently define functionalism and there are many variations/schools. In fact, these schools constitute the 'rest' (ie most) of linguistics. Which is why functionalism may seem more like a culture. But in fact, if you strip some of the UG veneer off Pinker, he's writing in good old functionalist style. That's partly because functionalism is so firmly rooted in the past so constitutes a sort of lingual franca of linguistics whereas GB and minimalism require specialist training to enter into conversation with.

Matías Guzmán Naranjo said...

I'm pretty much on the same camp as Evans (although I do like and do stuff like HPSG), but I must say that book was a bore. I really couldn't finish it.

Chris said...

Thanks for the comments. I'm finding the Reddit discussion pretty vibrant (though it's petering out).

Chris said...

Dominik, so far the book is fairly lightweight. Since we're actual linguists to begin with, frankly there's nothing new here. He makes some passing references to mirror neurons (probably shouldn't have), but it definitely not for anyone ready to fight over details. It's Gladwell-esque.

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