With comments by linguist Noel Rude. From Arika Okrent at Aeon, summarizing the story told in Tom Wolfe’s Kingdom of Speech, of how linguist Daniel Everett challenged grey eminence Noam Chomsky’s theory of universal grammar:
The crucial hypothesis is that its core, essential feature is recursion, the capacity to embed phrases within phrases ad infinitum, and so express complex relations between ideas (such as ‘Tom says that Dan claims that Noam believes that…’). More.
But Everett found that the Amazonian language Piraha did not have recursion, and felt the wrath of the Chomskyites.
Chomsky and his supporters replied that
… even if Pirahã has no recursion, it matters not one bit for the theory of universal grammar. The capacity is intrinsic, even if it’s not always exploited. As Chomsky and his colleagues put it in a co-authored paper, ‘our language faculty provides us with a toolkit for building languages, but not all languages use all the tools’. This looks suspiciously like defiance of a central feature of the scientific archetype, one first put forward by the philosopher Karl Popper: theories are not scientific unless they have the potential to be falsified. If you claim that recursion is the essential feature of language, and if the existence of a recursionless language does not debunk your claim, then what could possibly invalidate it?
In an interview with Edge.org in 2007, Everett said he emailed Chomsky: ‘What is a single prediction that universal grammar makes that I could falsify? How could I test it?’ According to Everett, Chomsky replied to say that universal grammar doesn’t make any predictions; it’s a field of study, like biology.
Why does this remind one of so many pronouncements of Darwinism (for example, the “survival of the fittest” tautology)?
Maybe linguistics can provide insights without being a science. She writes,
What we have is a field with a big, exciting idea at its heart – that there is an innate universal feature of human language – but a major part of it is unfalsifiable and it’s so abstract and dependent on theoretical apparatus that it might be impossible to explain.
Noel Rude writes to say,
The author doesn’t fault Wolfe for disrespecting Darwin, nor praise Everett for abandoning his faith.
Every academic discipline covets the mantel of “science”, yet nothing ever quite matches up to physics vis-à-vis Popper’s criteria. Years back we called it “physics envy”.
Much as physicists theorize about natural laws governing inanimate nature, theoretical linguists theorize about abstract constraints that lie at the base of the human capacity for language. The proving ground for linguistic theory should be human languages, yet theorists now say that linguistic
constraints need not constrain all languages. And so refutation is out the window because theoreticians have learned to make no predictions that must be universally true.
The real demarcation, let me suggest, is between technology and government-funded “science”. If we really want to travel to Pluto and send back photographs, we can do it. We cannot, however, understand the argument against Darwin. The author of this article quotes Everett regarding the Pirahã – “they have no craving for truth as a transcendental reality”.
Wow! They’d be right at home in today’s faculty lounge.
See also: Linguist Noel Rude on Wolfe’s Kingdom of Speech
Daniel Everett defends himself
One Reply to “From Aeon: Is the study of language a science?”
In Kingdom of Speech, Wolf notes that Chomski explained that members of this very small tribe, when taught Portuguese, are able to use recursion without difficulty. This small tribe has a very unique and difficult language and all assume that it is the most primitive. No one considers that they may have been a group that broke away from a more “civilized” people and went off to form their own distinct life style.