Readers will recall Tom Wolfe’s The Kingdom of Speech, a defense of the fundamental difference between language as we know it and the squawks, moos, and gibbers we hear outside. Wolfe defended linguist Daniel Everett against the Colossus of MIT, Noam Chomsky.
Now Everett himself offers some thoughts at Aeon:
In 2005, I published a paper in the journal Current Anthropology, arguing that Pirahã – an Amazonian language unrelated to any living language – lacked several kinds of words and grammatical constructions that many researchers would have expected to find in all languages. I made it clear that this absence was not due to any inherent cognitive limitation on the part of its speakers, but due to cultural values, one in particular that I termed the ‘immediacy of experience principle’.
Although I realised that what I had written might be controversial, I was unprepared for the sheer number of academic papers, books and ad hominem attacks on me that have raged now for more than a decade provoked by that article. According to the different extremes in this debate, I am either an irrelevant, mistaken charlatan (Chomsky, in the Brazilian newspaper Folha de São Paulo, February 2009) or an ‘instant folk hero’ who knocked all the wind from Chomsky’s work on universal grammar as no one before had ever done (Wolfe, in Harper’s Magazine, August 2016).
It is likely that initially my work was picked up by the media because it was considered a problem for the core ideas of a man whom The New York Times sensationalistically labelled ‘the most important intellectual alive’, ie Chomsky. Looking back now, it is astounding that the point that has so inflamed my academic critics was my claim that the Pirahãs lacked subordinate clauses. More.
Unlike us media blowhards, Judith Curry did not sign up for this. All she wanted to do was to be free to follow where the science leads. And, because the science leads away from Michael E Mann and his cartoon climatology, she has been subject to a vile campaign of character assassination by him and his creepy little coterie. Were she to demand the same right he asserts – to sue over insults – Mann would be in deep water. Fortunately, unlike him, she understands the concepts of free speech and open debate.
Everett probably did not sign up for persecution at the hands of Chomsky devotees either, especially because most of them were probably motivated not by arid controversies in linguistics* but by Chomsky’s lifelong involvement in progressive politics. Or as Everett puts it, “Thousands know Chomsky not because of his linguistic work but because of his political writings. For some, his intellectual authority on politics is believed to derive ultimately from his brilliance in inventing a theory in linguistics that is intellectually on a par with Albert Einstein’s theory of relativity.”
Chomsky’s theory of language, as will be evident to the reader of Everett’s piece, is on a par with Darwinism. A theory about nothing but itself about how things happen. We could leave it out and nothing would change except the air would be cleaner. Not that Everett says this, of course.
Indeed, as a gentleman, Everett attempts to defend Chomsky from his greatest enemy (himself), but is quite unable to defend him from his friends.
We must hope that science, in general, can be defended from them.
* Note: Does anyone really believe that the use of subordinate clauses is the distinctive feature of human intelligence or language?
See also: In Spanish paper, Tom Wolfe calls “Theory of Evolution” a fairy tale?
Andrew Ferguson reviews Wolfe’s Kingdom of Speech at Commentary
Tenured professor calls it quits (Barry Arrington on Judith Curry).
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