Linguist Noel Rude on Tom Wolfe:
Just read Tom Wolfe’s The Origins of Speech: In the beginning was Chomsky. It was so interesting and so well written I couldn’t put it down.
Michael Denton, you might remember, enlisted Noam Chomsky in his recent critique of Darwin, even as now Tom Wolfe sees Daniel L. Everett as demolishing Chomsky. American linguistics–which in the 20 th century pretty much meant world linguistics– was dominated on the one side by structuralism and on the other by functionalism (the terms generally have mutated into cognitive; linguistics). Denton shows biology to have been similarly split in the 19th
And, as Denton also reminds us, the biological functionalists supported Darwin whereas the structuralists doubted this new messiah. Noam Chomsky, on the structuralist side of the linguistic divide, famously took on B. F. Skinner in a devastating review of Verbal behavior.
Skinner had remade man and his language in the image of what is now Microsoft’s “Cortina” and Amazon’s “Aleksa”. Chomsky would have none of it.
But Tom Wolfe paints Chomsky as a charlatan and worse. I won’t comment on Chomsky’s intent, except to say that his far left extremist politics merit opprobrium and his reputation among linguists is as in Levine and Postal (2004). Nevertheless Chomsky’s critique of Skinner was brilliant, timely and liberating. Chomsky saw no place for natural selection in linguistics. His 1966 Cartesian Linguistics is a classic.
Chomsky argued that language is unpredictable, novel, and not just learned behavior such as, say, knitting or juggling. It is instinctive and acquired by children however meagre the stimuli.
This suggests that we should expect to find universals of language and not simply endless variation.
What could be wrong with that?
What was wrong is that Chomsky’s universal grammar was all structure and no function. His autonomous syntax did not survive the scrutiny of field linguists– and this long before Daniel Everett discovered the first primitive language.
There was the rodeo rider Ken Hale, for example. Hale was a remarkable field worker– perhaps the best ever– and himself a Chomskian credentialed in the hallowed halls of MIT. He had demolished Chomsky by the early Eighties when he classified languages as “configurational” (those that fit Chomsky’s theory) and “nonconfigurational” (those that did not). Talmy Givón, in his 1979 “On Understanding Grammar” had already laid out a devastating and unassailable critique. The Chomskians were concerned almost exclusively with sentence grammar and ignored coherence-which is where most of grammar lies (see Douglas Axe on coherence in Undeniable). And so by 1995 Chomsky was in full retreat mode. His Minimalist Program provided theory so minimal it’s hardly remarkable.
What’s the new rule? Merge. It’s a process of bifurcation, which actually isn’t a bad idea.
Information begins not with one element but– minimally– with two. “Ruth arrived” is informational, but neither word uttered alone is. But, you say, we often utter one word alone.
Yes, but only if the context lets you supply the other element or elements. I don’t criticize Chomsky’s minimalism. I just think it is only a small part of the big picture.
Now suppose that Everett is right– that the Pirahã cannot say, “I want to go,” but must instead say, “I want, I go.” All this means is that their recursion is semantic and not via an autonomous syntax. The structure is semantic and not syntactic. So what!
How does this refute innateness any more than blind cave fish prove that eyes are not innate in fish?
Remember– linguistic function in all languages consists of
Lexical meaning (words have meaning apart from information)
Clausal information (the minimal unit of linguistic information is the clause)
Discourse coherence (where the bulk of grammar lies)
The primary categories on the clausal level are semantic– semantic roles– volitional agency and receptive consciousness. Language equips us to talk about the things our intellectual betters deny exist (consciousness, free will, cause and effect, the flow of time…).
If the intellectual elites deny it you can pretty well bet that it is a pivotal category of human language.
The linguistic functionalists and structuralists made many discoveries in the last 60 years– a vast amount of discoveries– yet at the same time the functionalists are the ones who reawakened the Darwinian dog that had barked little since the ban in 1873 (Société de Linguistique de Paris).
The functionalists found functional universals, yet many functionalists now deny that universals exist. Methinks it’s their Darwinism that leads them to this conclusion– that as brains got
incrementally larger via natural selection, language came on incrementally but not necessarily uniquely- think chimps (and forget parrots). And if we cannot locate a primordial missing link, maybe we can find a primitive language lurking in the woodwork somewhere. Methinks also it’s political correctness. The mood now is that no white man can or should tell the native anything about his language. The mood sixty years ago was that we are all the same. The mood now is that the only thing we share is that we don’t share anything.
I don’t say that Daniel Everett is so motivated. Just that this is the mood among the literati.
Wonder if Tom Wolfe will touch on this aspect of the story in his forthcoming book? I’m sure he’s read about the linguistic wars. So maybe.
No, Chomsky was right in the beginning. But he would not deviate from his aversion to functionalism and soon became irrelevant among those who actually do linguistics.
David Perlmutter, another linguistic prodigy, came out of MIT also and was an early critic- thus Perlmutter (2010:xxiii-xxiv):
Virtually no one who has thought seriously about language and its structure has been able to avoid using the terms “subject” and “object.” This is a remarkable fact–that perceptive and knowledgeable observers have been willing to talk about “subjects” and “objects” in very disparate languages and feel reasonably confident that they knew what they were talking about. It is all the more remarkable, then, that in the intellectual traditions represented by the frameworks of ‘Government and Binding,’ ‘Principles and Parameters,’ and the ‘Minimalist Program,’ the notions play no (recognized) role at all. That tradition has always insisted that talk of “subjects” and “objects” is either illicit or casual, and that reference to such terms is to be cashed out in terms of more primitive notions (phrase-structural measures of prominence, featural properties of heads, the theory of A-movement, and so on).
Subjects and objects imply cause and effect– ugh! Surely there’s something deeper than that.
A pox on both their houses!
A pox on the stubborn structuralists! A pox on the furtive functionalists! Figuratively, not literally, of course. Together they have confused the broader world on the most important thing we possess besides our souls, and maybe indeed confusion regarding our souls, for from whence comes language but from the soul? And whence intelligent design but from mind which most assuredly cannot be a stimulus-response mechanism. Language is creative, unexpected, novel.
It is creative as man and the Designer are creative.
When we look at design in nature we compute probabilistic resources, thus leaving atheists a way out via a mythical Many Worlds. But when we look at the source of design we find the soul which, if it isn’t a mechanism, it’s an absolute refutation of materialism.
Axe, Douglas. 2016. Undeniable: How Biology Confirms Our Intuition That Life Is Designed. New York: HarperOne.
Chomsky, Noam. 1959. Reviews: Verbal behavior by B. F. Skinner. Language 35 (1): 26–58. http://chomsky.info/1967____/
Chomsky, Noam. 1966. Cartesian Linguistics: A Chapter in the History of Rationalist Thought. New York: Harper and Row.
Chomsky, Noam. 1995. The Minimalist Program. Cambridge, Massachusetts: The MIT Press.
Denton, Michael J. 2016. Evolution: Still a Theory in Crisis. Seattle: Discovery Institute Press.3
Givón, Talmy. 1979. On Understanding Grammar. New York: Academic Press.
Hale, Kenneth Locke. 1982. Preliminary remarks on configurationality. In James Pustejovsky
Peter Sells, editors, Proceedings of the North Eastern Linguistic Society 12: 86–96.
Harris, Randy Allen. 1993. The Linguistic Wars. Oxford University Press.
Levine, Robert D., Paul M. Postal. 2004. A Corrupted Linguistics. In Peter Collier David Horowitz, eds., The Anti-Chomsky Reader. New York: Encounter Books, 203-231.
Perlmutter, David M. 2010. My Path in Linguistics. Pages xvii-xxxvii in Donna B. Gerdts, John C. Moore, and Maria Polinsky, editors. Hypothesis A / Hypothesis B: Linguistic Explorations in Honor of David M. Perlmutter. The MIT Press.
Wolfe, Tom. 2016. The Origins of Speech: In the beginning was Chomsky. Harpers, August, pages 24-40.