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Kingdom of Speech: But is Everett wrong about Piraha?

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Noel Rude, a specialist in native American languages Nez Perce, Sahaptin, Klamath, wrote to offer some thoughts on Tom Wolfe’s takedown of Noam Chomsky’s language theories in The Kingdom of Speech. Chomsky’s theories dominated linguistics for decades. His progressive politics, which were, strictly speaking, irrelevant to his work are often considered to play a role in his prominence.

Along the way, he clashed with linguist Daniel Everett who had, with an inexcusable lack of political correctness, found an apparent exception to Chomsky’s theories in a remote Brazilian language, Piraha.

Wolfe chronicles the conflict from both sides, making clear that current theories about the origin of human language are not useful.

Here is the perspective of Noel Rude, an ID-friendly linguist (a specialist in native American languages):

It’s been a bit since Tom Wolfe’s delightful book debuted, so maybe a few negative observations won’t detract. Wolfe, as I’ve said, describes the reaction of the literati to the present stand-off between Noam Chomsky and his most vociferous critics. In the Sixties and Seventies it was de rigueur to say that we are all alike–Noam Chomsky’s universal grammar fit that bill. Now it is politically correct to say that the only thing we share is that we differ–which is essentially what Daniel L. Everett claims.

Wolfe compares Chomsky to Charles Darwin and Everett to Alfred Russel Wallace. The comparison is apt. Chomsky is no field worker whereas Everett exudes the aura.

But Wallace, as Wolfe shows, had second thoughts about a materialistic theory of evolution whereas Darwin never did. Chomsky and Everett, on the other hand, each have had second thoughts.

Chomsky started out a Darwin doubter (see Chomsky 1959, 1966, 1968; Denton 2016) but now embraces Darwinian gradualism (see Berwick & Chomsky 2016). Daniel L. Everett has moved from Christian missionary to full blown atheist.

Chomsky emphasized the unique creativity of all human languages. For him language is innate (biologically so if questioned on the matter). There is, therefore, a universal grammar. Children learn to speak regardless of “the poverty of the stimulus.” Steven Pinker agreed, but challenged Chomsky on Darwin. Now, sadly, Chomsky agrees with Pinker.


There is no language that cannot distinguish cause from effect, temporal relationships, volitional agents, consciousness, intention and purpose–even though elite materialists demean all this as merely “subjective” and not part of the reality they envision.


One of the impressions, I’m afraid, that Wolfe’s book might leave is that Everett is right about language. Pirahã really is a primitive language lacking recursion, and if one language out of thousands lacks recursion then Chomsky must have been wrong. Language is not innate–it’s just another human invention. Nothing to see here. Linguistics is of no interest to ID.

I checked with an Amazonian linguist, one well within the Darwinian “cog-ling” camp and no supporter of Chomsky. He says that Everett is wrong about Pirahã.

Pirahã has more phonemes than Hawaiian. Unlike Hawaiian, it also has complex lexical tones some of which may be grammatical. The grammar is already complex:

There are, yes, primitive cultures lacking vocabulary we consider essential. Sometimes even numbers are unnamed (though these cultures generally count on their fingers). A few decades ago R. M. W. Dixon (1972, 1977, etc.) introduced linguists to such languages and their exotic grammars. We were all impressed.

There is no language that cannot distinguish cause from effect, temporal relationships, volitional agents, consciousness, intention and purpose–even though elite materialists demean all this as merely “subjective” and not part of the reality they envision.

One might conclude from Wolfe’s book that linguistics has failed to discover much at all. Chomsky strove for a theory of universal syntax that did not appeal to function, but other than acknowledging the fact that all languages are structured hierarchically, many now think the enterprise failed. But this does not mean there are no universals of grammar. There are many.

There are absolute universals, implicational universals, universal tendencies, and so on. Linguistics is like biology. There is no comprehensive “theory” of biology. Biology is more observational than theoretical. And structure is linked to function much as in the typological-functional (now called “cognitive”) school of linguistics.

Nevertheless, Chomsky was right that grammar is instinctive. Children seem programmed to learn it. It is, in fact, children who create grammar.

In learning a language, adults typically focus on words and miss the grammar. Little children do not parrot what they hear. They say, “Daddy goed store.” They grasp for grammatical regularities and learn later to incorporate irregularities. We are programmed to speak just as we are programmed to walk. We are empowered to invent and create and advance technology. We are not programmed to invent and create—hence “primitive” cultures with sophisticated grammars.

Whence then this language facility? Likely, let me suggest, all the following:

1. Grammar is biologically innate
2. Grammar adapts to reality
3. Grammar is Platonic

The study of stroke victims proves that the brain is involved. Cross-language studies reveal how grammar adapts to the environment. And if you are a mathematical realist, then why wouldn’t the mind of a child be attuned to logic that is “out there”? Maybe Michael Denton,’s “laws of biology?” Rupert Sheldrake’s “morphic resonances” perhaps also play a role. Adults have conscious access to vocabulary, and know when a foreigner gets pronunciation and grammar wrong, but adults mostly do not have conscious access to their grammars. Only little children have that.

Language is not the mind–it is the principle code the mind uses. It is a window into the soul.

[*Noel Rude’s notes below]

See also: Andrew Ferguson reviews Wolfe’s Kingdom of Speech at Commentary

Daniel Everett finally speaks for himself, just wants academic freedom

Can we talk? Language as the business end of consciousness

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* Noel Rude’s notes:

Berwick, Robert C., Angela D. Friederici, Noam Chomsky, and Johan J.
Bolhuis. 2013. Evolution, brain, and the nature of language. Trends in
Cognitive Sciences 17 (2): 89-98.

Berwick, Robert C., and Noam Chomsky. 2016. Why Only Us: Language and
Evolution. The MIT Press.

Bethell, Tom. 2016. Darwin’s House of Cards: A Journalist’s Odyssey
Through the Darwin Debates. Seattle: Discovery Institute.

Chomsky, Noam. 1959. Reviews: Verbal behavior by B. F. Skinner. Language
35 (1): 26–58.

Chomsky, Noam. 1966. Cartesian Linguistics: A Chapter in the History of
Rationalist Thought. New York: Harper and Row.

Chomsky, Noam. 1968. Language and Mind. New York: Harcourt, Brace &

Chomsky, Noam, and Marcel-Paul Schützenberger. 1963. The Algebraic Theory
of Context-Free Languages. In P. Braffort and D. Hirschberg, eds., Computer
Programming and Formal Systems, pp. 118–161. Amsterdam: North-Holland.
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Denton, Michael J. 1998. Nature’s Destiny: How the laws of biology reveal
purpose in the universe. New York: Free Press.

Denton, Michael J. 2016. Evolution: Still a Theory in Crisis. Seattle:
Discovery Institute Press.

Dixon, R. M. W. 1972. The Dyirbal Language of North Queensland. Cambridge
Studies in Linguistics, 9. Cambridge University Press.

Dixon, R. M. W. 1977. A Grammar of Yidiny. Cambridge Studies in
Linguistics, 19. Cambridge University Press.

Pinker, Steven. 1994. The Language Instinct: How the Mind Creates
Language. William Morrow & Company.

Pinker, Steven. 2003. The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature.
Reprint edition. Penguin Books.

Sheldrake, Rupert. 1995. Seven Experiments That Could Change the World: a
do-it-yourself guide to revolutionary science. New York: Riverhead Books.

Wolfe, Tom. 2016. The Kingdom of Speech. New York: Little, Brown and

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