David Pesetsky, eloquent as always, says the following in remarks that I lift from the comments section here:
We are not talking about instances of honorable disagreement over high-level scientific hunches and interests. We are talking about a plague of work that also violates the most minimal standards of factual accuracy and logical thinking at every level of discussion — low-level as well as high-level. This is a point that has surfaced in some of Norbert's columns, but I think has not been sufficiently stressed. The work that's getting tagged here with the j-word doesn't merely fail to appreciate, say, the subtle logic of Poverty of the Stimulus arguments, but also screws up simple facts about the languages it mentions, misrepresents the literature, fails to support claims with argument, and worse — yet gets published in a high-profile (usually field-external) venue and blurbed by the press. I don't think there's a slippery slope to worry about. The line seems quite clear, and if we care about the future of our field, we can't afford to pretend otherwise.
That said, it's not clear how best to fight the plague, nor how to restore the health of the field in its wake. The real cure is education. The public does not have to know or care about the details of the latest research, but they should at least know that words and sentences have structure, know the difference between letters and sounds (how many times have undergraduate intro students told me "Chinese is not a phonetic language"?), that language acquisition is an intricate puzzle, and that there are smart people called linguists who study this stuff for a living. They don't, which is why they are easy prey for linguistic nutsiness. Sadly, "public" in this case includes not only the average person on the street but also our colleagues in other fields. And we're not likely to see linguistics in every high school (where it truly belongs) any time soon. Which brings us back to the discussion in progress on this blog, but hopefully with the notion of a slippery slope put to rest. I can be sympathetic to Dan's worries, but I think they are the least of our problems at the moment.
I agree almost completely with David P’s remarks (though I personally do not find the logic of PoS arguments particularly “subtle”). Oddly however, I find myself more sanguine than David P concerning how to rectify matters. It may take a little time (ok, maybe a lot of time) and a little work (ok, maybe a lot of work), but I think that the path forward is pretty clear and the goal attainable, at least in large part. But before I provide suggestions, let me start with a bit of diagnosis.
There are three different “publics” that need addressing in different ways. There is the general public (GP), the wider scientific public (WSP) and what we might term the “near abroad” (NA), linguistics’ scientific neighbors (e.g. psych, neuro, computational).
The general public could care less about our parochial disagreements or the filigree details of our latest proposals, as David P notes above. However, IMO, they are actually quite open to the big general GG ideas. GP is fine with the idea that kids come pre-packaged with all sorts of cognitive stuff that makes them little geniuses (The Onion provides great evidence for this here). Certainly people like Liz Spelke are big hits in the popular press and she is a pretty heavy nativist. So, as far as GP is concerned, nativism of the GG variety is not considered conceptually out of bounds. Indeed, what parent (well at least one that is not a psychologist) watching a child spring into language could doubt that the process is backed by a heavy dose of innate knowledge.
Moreover, the GP is fascinated by language and its peculiarities. This is most evident in the fascination with words, but it is far more general. The GP loves the idea that languages show all sorts of quirks and that there are things that are perfectly coherent conceptually that are nonetheless very hard to say. I speak from personal experience here. Try ‘wanna’ contraction out on friends and neighbors or ‘fanfuckintastic.’ The GP eats this stuff up.
So, there is no natural hostility towards big GG conclusions or the kind of detailed work we like to play with. However, there is a third factor that may put GP off. In a word, ‘Chomsky,’ but not because of his scientific views. It’s just a fact that Chomsky is primarily known to GP as a political figure, and not a popular one with many. Given that many don’t like the views he defends (and this is especially true for many public intellectuals) many are predisposed not to like any of his views, including his scientific linguistic ones. Nor is this a problem merely with the GP. The GSP is similarly inclined to be wary of any views associated with Chomsky if they don’t like his political views (and there are many people like this out there). I personally do not think that there is much that we can do about this (save observe that the two are quite separate, as Chomsky himself often stresses), but it is worth keeping in mind when strategizing.
What more can we cay about the GSP? They too are receptive enough, especially if GG ideas can be associated with a non-Chomsky personality, like, for example, Steven Pinker. The great success of The Language Instinct demonstrated, at least to me, that the wider public, both GP and WSP, are perfectly happy to jump on the language nativist bandwagon and consider and be amazed and entertained by the flora and fauna of language structure.
If this is right, then there is no predisposition in the wider public to dislike our findings or our basic research. Quite the contrary. The question then is how to package our stuff for this audience. There is one great model for how to do this that we can steal from another area. Stephen Jay Gould was a master at combining Animal Planet cuteness with evolutionary instruction. Pinker did a very credible imitation of this for language and linguistics in his book, as did Ray Jackendoff in his short and useful Patterns book. However, we linguists tend not to do this much, or at least not enough. It would be nice, very nice, if the Language Log did more of this kind of thing (e.g. combine some neat facts from language X and show how they bear on how linguistic minds are structured), or if this could appear in some other venue with a wide-ish scientific and lay readership. This sort of pop science writing could and should be completely “positive,” no vigorous criticism of junk views required or desired. Just show off what we do so that a non-expert could follow it. The GP and WSP would lap this stuff up if done right.
It is worth observing that there is currently an LSA initiative to support a pop science writer to produce these kinds of articles for dissemination to the general public. I am delighted to report that UMD is helping with this money-wise. I think that every department should participate, so please encourage yours to donate what it can to this worthy effort.
Ok, this brings us to the “near abroad,” the NAs. This is the most hostile audience for the kinds of things we have done and discovered. IMO, you may have guessed, this is because these areas are still hotbeds of vulgar empiricism. They just know that the kind of nativism that our results support must be false so there is no reason to take what we do seriously. It is important to appreciate how little of the “debate” with the NA is substantive. The problem with much of the language work in this area is that it is, at best, at right angles to what we are interested in (at worst it is, well, to use David P’s polite locution, “j-word”). So, for example, the work on language acquisition forever shies away from the hard problems where PoS issues gain traction. There is never much of a discussion on how, e.g., ECP effects or island effects or fixed subject effects are “acquired.” There is endless discussion on word learning (a great topic, but not one where there is an obvious dearth of data). The problem then is not that we present one set of solutions to a problem and they another. The problem is that the problems that we give solutions to are not even addressed by them, ever! This would not be so bad were this recognized. But it is not. Despite offering solutions to problems that are entirely different from the ones we identify, the NAs regularly and confidently assure themselves and the world at large that the problems they are “solving” also crack those we are interested in. This is just plain false, and the only way to deal with it is to demonstrate this again and again and again. Pointed criticism, now a lost art among linguists it seems, needs to be directed against this stuff in order to expose its weakness and draw the opposition into the field of debate. We cannot overpower them politically. But we can do so intellectually, and it can have an effect over time. Forcing people to defend the indefensible is a good way of discrediting their views. This worked before, and with patience, it can work again. At any rate, this stuff is not going away. There seems to be an inexhaustible market for this stuff among the NAs (for the latest coming attractions see here) and it gains credibility when it is not rebutted.
The NA attitudes noted above also serve to underwrite other more severe kinds of junk, and here I mean stuff like Evans and Everett within linguistics. How so? Well, there they are a ready audience for the kind of “GG (viz. Chomsky) has failed” message that they love to traffic in. The NAs need GG to be a failed program. If it is, there is no reason to pay attention. There is thus a ready market for the real junk stuff and so its eternal recurrence is hardly a surprise. The fact that it is scientifically disreputable in the ways that David P has noted does not stop it from functioning in a way congenial to a large class of scholars. And this is why it seeps consistently into the NA literature and mind set. To NAs, it’s comforting to hear that there are no universals, that linguistic data is suspect, and that we can reduce all of syntax to some nebulous conception of information structure because then it can be safely ignored with a good conscience.
So how to deal with the NA? If the diagnosis above is right, namely that is based on a deep commitment to Empiricism and Associationism, the only way to deal with this is frontal attack. These ideas need to be discredited. They need to be exposed as hopeless for dealing with he problems we have identified. Note that this does not mean that we need reject the technology they deploy. There is nothing inherently wrong with stats and probabilities and fretting over experimental design details. However, too often this technology is coupled with a very impoverished theory of mind (and science). Linguistics is one of the poster children for demonstrating how sterile the Empiricist-Associationist axis is. This point, it appears, cannot be repeated enough. We need to engage in the polemics that Chomsky and Fodor and Bever and Gleitman and many others perfected in the early days of GG.
Nor is this only to advance the big picture ideas that I favor, I should add. GG’s impressive empirical results rely on a picture like this being more or less correct. GG has built a large empirical body of doctrine which relies on the adequacy of certain technical tools. This work has demonstrated that syntactic structure matters. When details are considered, it is not a staggering leap to the obvious conclusion that children come packed with lots of innate knowledge that makes it possible for them to acquire their native Gs. Indeed, it is not hard to produce arguments suggesting that a chunk of this knowledge is domain specific. Our best empirical work presupposes that something along these lines is correct. We debate details (hence local skepticism is almost always warranted) but we all accept an overarching framework at odds with the accepted wisdom of (much of) the NAs, so this framework needs to be vigorously defended and its opposite vigorously criticized.
Will such criticism work? Frankly, I don’t see why not. It did once before, after all. More recently, those who have followed the debate about Bayes in the psych journals over the last couple of years will have noticed that frontal attack invites defense and public airing of contentious issues. IMO, this debate has been very fruitful. I think the same airing would be effective more widely. It is only to our advantage to provoke a response from the NA. It’s far better than being ignored or it being taken for granted that GG is effectively dead.
 Actually, this is not quite true. The kind of data that Chomsky mentions every now and then concerning lexical meaning is very subtle. But this is not the kind of data that psychologists or machine learning theorists or neuro types worry about. They worry about how we categorize hit as a transitive verb. There are hard issues here, but the absence of relevant data is not obviously one of these. The contrast with, e.g. Principle C effects, is clear.
 I am told that Frontiers is not the worst journal in psycho so this is not being done at some backwater venue. Nope. It’s the best and the brightest that gobble this stuff up.
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Insofar as you and I differ on these topics, I find myself in the uncommon position of hoping that you are right and I am wrong. The thing is, my worry is not so much about our ability to make our work exciting and compelling for GP and GSP. It is incredibly important, just as you say, to do a lot of this, and to do it well — and yes, it works. So we are in complete agreement on that.ReplyDelete
The problem that concerns me the most is the fact that, for all that GP and GSP finds our exciting discoveries exciting, they are incapable of distinguishing them from their opposites.
We teach them: Children are born knowing many of the facts of language, including intricate sound systems and hierarchically organized structures, because of [insert Poverty of Stimulus argument here]. We have discovered deep universals among the world's languages — isn't this cool! Language acquisition studies show that children know things not evident in the data — isn't it great that kids are such geniuses!
Response: Wow! Fantastic! How interesting!
Then someone else with a PhD declares: Children are born knowing nothing about language, but use incredibly sophisticated learning algorithms to deduce the facts of language from the data, which is why languages are astonishingly diverse — for example, there are languages with the most amazing-sounding words for the most amazing things, and all sorts of weird word orders, isn't this cool! Language acquisition studies show that children learn everything by trial and error prompted by a desire to communicate — isn't it great that kids are such geniuses!
Response: Wow! Fantastic! How interesting!
What the GP and GSP lacks almost completely is the ability to say "wait a minute, what about ..." in response to any presentation of either sort. Not that their ability to say "what about" in other scientific contexts is particularly impressive, perhaps, but it's way beyond zero. In linguistics, it's exactly zero. If there were a flat earth faction in astrophysics or geology, some significant subset of GP and GSP could rattle off problems for their theory that they learned in elementary school — and ask "so what do you say about them?" Likewise, if someone argues that there are no cells in our body, or atoms in seemingly solid matter. Lots of people would say "what about ..." and demand to hear a convincing answer. Every educated person learned an awful lot about a few sciences such as biology and chemistry/physics in elementary school and high school. No matter how little it might seem from the perspective of what we think they should have learned, and how much justifiable hand-wringing we might engage in about the public's ignorance of those fields, it's still vastly more than they learned about language — which is nothing at all.
The college freshman who declare that "Chinese is not a phonetic language" would not enter college declaring "dogs are not a cellular organism" or "Mars is a flat planet". If you think there's such as a non-phonetic language (confusing writing systems with phonetics), why shouldn't you believe someone with a PhD who tells you that Russian or some language you never heard of has no phrase structure? You don't even know what phrase structure is or how you detect it in the first place. If there's no knowledge in your head about the field, you have no tools to distinguish exciting research from exciting nonsense.
And of course, NA either falls together with GP and GSP on this because of the same kind of ignorance, sometimes willful in this case, for the reasons you give.
I don't want to be an incorrigible pessimist. I'm not. But I do think we somehow have to get the field into pre-university education, or the uphill battle will forever be uphill, no matter how much excitement we generate about our discoveries among GP, GSP and NA.
I am amazed that I am less pessimistic than you are. This may be a first. As you note, linguistics is not a science taught in High School, but something that people come to late, if at all. However, some misconceptions are easy to fix (your Chinese case comes to mind) as they rest on easily fixable confusions between alphabets and phonemes. This is not unlike people that think that dolphins are fish or that pandas and koalas are bears. In both the Chinese case and the animal cases this is understandable and remedial. So, I stick to my story that only effort stands between their ignorance and enlightenment.Delete
At least we can agree on one thing: we both hope you are wrong.
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Sure, if random energetic collective effort by good linguists manages to give everyone the equivalent of Ling 101, we're going to be in great shape in combating j-linguistics. But in other fields, it seems, they've found that the right answer is that you actually need the intro course, preferably before you make it to university. And I really do fear that the same is true for our field.Delete
That doesn't mean give up fighting the uphill fight, because we have to do the best we can for our field at all times, not wait for the perfect world. And I do indeed hope I'm wrong!
I must say that I agree with David Pesetsky in his pessimism here, but also --- crucially --- in his diagnosis of the problem: that the GP/GSP/NA are unable to tell serious linguistics from nonsense, it all seems equally exciting for them.Delete
I'm not sure that I agree (i.e. I don't). What the GP likes is scientific entertainment. This is why Pinker did so well. He was amusing as well as being informative. It's worth recalling that he sold very very well, both among the GP and the GSP. I see no reason why this was just a one off thing.Delete
The GSP also reverberate to controversy. This is what the Piraha debate locked into. But, this controversy would have gained no following had Chomsky not been involved. The whole God-that-failed trope that both the NEw Yorker and the Chronicle played up was the story. The Piraha were the excuse for this story, not the main event.
So, I disagree. The GP and GSP are ready for nativist stories about language which are comprehensible to them. This means learning from Pinker (Neil Smith does this very well too) to tell our stories in an accessible manner. It will sell if done right.
This leaves the NAs, and what works for the GP and GSA won't necessarily work on them. And here there is no substitute for head on critique. this also worked once. Associationsim once did not get the free ride that it enjoys now. It was not the default assumption and defending it proved to be very hard. We need to recapture that state of affairs, and if we do, things will look better for linguistics.
Norbert, I think you're missing the point on which Asya's agreeing with me. We all agree that "GP and GSP are ready for nativist stories about language which are comprehensible to them" — absolutely no disagreement there. And no disagreement about the need to provide that kind of information, well and often.Delete
The problem is that GP and GSP are equally ready for the diametric opposite, because the absence of basic linguistics education leaves them no nose for what's plausible or not in the most basic matters. This helps explain why it's entertainment value and mythic narratives that carry the day, and why there's no skeptical resistance of the sort that would come from people armed with even a basic Ling 101 education. If you disagree with that, let's hear how.
I don't think that the problem with GP and GSP is their ignorance, or not only this. Of course, if they already knew linguistics they would not be susceptible to misinformation, or at least not as much. But, the USA is a good example that high school training is not a remedy against sceintific ignorance. High school physics, chemistry and biology has not stopped many from believing in global warming for example. Indeed, ghosts, the paranormal in general and miracles are standard fare. So, the idea that if only we got them when young is going to solve the problem strikes me as fanciful.Delete
Moreover, much who linguists want to influence is not the GP, but the GSP. They are already ready for what we have to offer if only SciAm kinds of articles advertising what we do was generally available. To my knowledge, there is not much of this. But when it comes out, it is well received. There is no problem for the GSP in assuming that humans are built for language just like bees are built to dance or salmon to swim back to their birthplace. And people, including the GSP are pre-disposed to find language interesting. However, we are not good at telling our stories to non-professionals. And this, I believe, is more of a problem than tyne lack of high school exposure.
So, I agree that basic ling 101 would be nice in the general public, but that teaching the GP and GSP this info does not require early intervention. It requires more creativity on our part and a willingness to address this audience intelligently and respectfully. So yes, I disagree with you that this is harder to teach them than anything else is. TIll I see a better effort, I will assume that with regard to the GP and GSP the problem is on our end, not theirs.
Sure, it's a matter of degree. Some people do believe in ghosts and doubt global warming. But still, a sizable number of people don't and don't — and are rightly skeptical of those who do and do. And if confronted with an article claiming that there's a tribe in Antarctica without blood vessels, or a place in France where gravity works backwards, a sizable number of people will at least say "wait a minute, didn't I learn in high school that ...." and "but then shouldn't it be the case that..." In linguistics, we're nowhere near that. I think you underestimate how wonderful life will be when/if we get there.Delete
Well, say you are right. What follows? Don't strut our stuff intelligently till high school changes? I sssume we agree that this is not a good idea. Put mote effort into HS ed? Sure. But these are not incompatible. Right now a practical step would be to support the LSA initiative. And, whenever possible, explain what we do in a cohetent friendly way. This can do wonders.Delete
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"Well, say you are right. What follows? Don't strut our stuff intelligently till high school changes?"Delete
Not at all — reread what I wrote, which was: #1 - Strut our stuff intelligently, energetically, and consistently, for exactly the reasons you give. AND #2 - remember that there is another important task to accomplish that will make our stuff-strutting stick in a way it has not so far. We could not agree more on #1. I'm surprised you resist #2, since it seemed to me like a very friendly amendment to the point you were making, but ok. Thanks for the conversation.
Completely accept the friendly ammendment. The more penetration the better.Delete
"The more penetration the better." - Before you so penetrate you may want to make sure however that what you say is not as riddled with mistakes as certain "Mythical myths". A few of those mistakes are corrected in the below - you're welcome, David A.Delete
When will you get quotes right? HCF don't say `the core property of FLN is recursion' they say `A core property of FLN is recursion'. As important is the (recursive) mapping of these structures to the interfaces. If you guys can't even get the fundamental scholarly apparatus right, what is the point in engaging with you? The rest is equally shoddy, illogical and badly argued. (and I told you I objected to the title of that New Scientist piece, so what do you mean that you have to wonder `why Adger didn't object to the use of the term' in your footnote 4. You actually don't have to wonder. I have to wonder why you wrote that though!)Delete
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A priceless quote from the Behme & Evans reply: "Legions of minimalists invaded Evans’ Facebook page and imposed a fruitless debate about the exact wording of Chomskyan texts on him."Delete
Fruitless only because Evans refused to even engage with the fact that the sole source of one of his core "myths" was a passage from Chomsky in which he was claimed to have asserted P, but whose entire point was to assert "not P". Even when the actual passage was scanned and posted for all to read. The exchange makes for quite astonishing reading.
(P = "it is possible to extract all the extant linguistic universals by studying a single language, for instance, English")
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"FLN includes the core grammatical computations that we suggest are limited to recursion".Delete
"The core recursive aspect of FLN currently appears to lack any analog in animal communication and possibly other domains as well. "
from Hauser Chomsky and Fitch (2002)
The context of the quote where they say "A core property of FLN is recursion" is this: "All approaches agree that a core property of FLN is recursion,". It seems to me that at this point they are talking about uncontroversial views that others hold, rather than putting forward their own, controversial view.
@Alex - not sure what you're getting at. I was just reading through the review, and came across their quote, and it seemed wrong to me, as that's not what is claimed in the paper, as far as I understand it. I went and looked, and it was wrong - and in a material way. As I've said before, the fundamental hypothesis is not just Merge, it's Merge plus mapping to the interfaces (which is where much of the explanatory work is). As David pointed out there was a rash of Evans misquoting, and now I see Behme and Evans misquoting, and I just think to myself, why don't they get their basics right? Maybe it is just a mistake, but if so, it's a mistake that's used for a particular rhetorical purpose in their paper (about Piraha). Anyway, back to some actual linguistics (while stuck on a train outside Stevenage!)Delete
Christina, I note that in the meantime you have preferred to leave unaddressed the quite serious flaws I pointed out in your published work (and not for instance in blogs to twitter feeds). To recap, in a scholarly article about minimalism and its critics, two at of five of your references to replies by proponents of minimalism to criticisms were flawed in a very serious way and (at least) one immediately relevant reference was ignored. Yet you felt confident to write that these replies were "spirited" and that "convincing refutations [were] still elusive" without further evidence or argument. I would be willing to cut you some slack and blame the editors of the journal for a bad handling of your manuscript if you tell me this is what happened, but if this was nothing of the sort, then I think you should come clear: did you actually read any of these replies? if so how could you make such glaring mistakes?Delete
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@Alex: Here is the relevant quote from HCF 2002:Delete
"In fact, we propose in this hypothesis that FLN comprises only the core computational mechanisms of recursion as they appear in narrow syntax and the mappings to the interfaces. " (pg. 1573).
I'm not sure how anyone can read the paper and think honestly that they said FLN is only recursion. Though, people seem to have done exactly that. "Mappings to the interface" is a pretty non-trivial chunk, IMHO.
Thank you for all of this constructive criticism. I take it that according to you on the generativist view recursion is NOT the/a core property of FLN. Can you please confirm that this is the case? Can you also please list all core properties of FLN so we avoid future misunderstandings.Delete
David A.: either you defend a type of logic I am unaware of [then maybe refer me to it so I can educate myself] or you use the term 'illogical' incorrectly. What we wrote may have been wrong but it is not illogical. You also may note that while we think your arguments are seriously flawed we have not called them shoddy. I would expect someone with your purported high moral standards to refrain from using this kind of language.
David P.: If memory serves right I attempted to answer the challenges you [pl] had posed and was told several times in a quite rude manner that I was derailing the discussion. [You felt entitled to make the judgment re what was relevant while being a guest on someone else's wall. In my books that is rude] Chomsky has made the claims Vyv referred to in print and it does not help your case that he also made claims that seem to say the opposite. There are far more serious misrepresentations of fact in SoL - the world still waits for your review/criticism of it...
Olivier: It seems you and I disagree on matters of fact. You seem to think the arguments proposed in the challenges to LLJ are good arguments. I do not think they are. It seems the editors of the journal agreed with my view. So maybe we should agree to disagree about the merits of the paper you claim I have ignored. [I read it and found nothing that challenged the conclusions of the final LLJ paper - so I saw no need to reference it]
No, no, this is not at all what we are disagreeing about (and I doubt you coud seriously fail to see it). Whether or not you agree that these papers contain good arguments is irrelevant (especially irrelevant since you described yourself as "have[ing] no stake in in one theory being right and another wrong" and being interested in "argumentative strategies", but it would be irrelevant no matter what).Delete
What I repeatedly pointed out is that you failed to appropriately cite the relevant articles: you cited, as putative reply to an article X, articles which were replies to something else and (at least) three of the actual replies to X, you ignored. Worse, in dismissing the answers to X, you managed to negatively evaluate papers without even citing them. This is an egregious and blatant scholarly mistake, whether or not you think the replies are good.
"I saw no need to reference it" is a thing to marvel: when you claim to evaluate papers, especially if you do so negatively, you don't get to choose which paper you reference. What do you think of "Behme's thesis on Cartesian linguistics is unconvincing and spirited, see " where 1 is your reply to Adger? And "I read it and found nothing that challenged the conclusions of the final LLJ paper" is just about incredible: if by the last paper of LLJ you mean NLLT 19, then this is (yet another) paper you didn't even quote! How can you write with a straight face that replies to X are unconvincing by quoting replies to Y and justify your outright omission of actual replies to X by saying they don't reply adequately to Z (how could they, by the way, unless you believe in time-travel?), which you don't even mention? Again, what do you think of "Behme's review of Science of language, I saw no need to reference, because it is unconvincing and spirited and because it does not challenge the conclusions of (Adger,2015)."
So you made a glaring mistake (you clarified in your last answer that the editors were not the one who introduced the mistake), and neither the referee(s) nor the editors caught it. This happens, no worries, certainly happened to me. But you still have to own it. Minimally, E.Reuland and I.Roberts are due an apology for the inappropriate reference to their work and ideally, you should try to have it published in the same venue as your original work. And perhaps you should reflect for a minute about scholarly standards and the fact that a random guy who reads linguistics papers in his spare time found a serious mistake on the second page of one of your scholarly work.
Olivier, how could editors 'introduce the mistake' of me not quoting a paper you seem to think is essential? Your analogy [comparing 2 papers of roughly equal length on roughly the same topics to a several 100-page book vs. a 17-page paper on an entirely different topic] is so grotesque that you cannot possibly expect a serious reply to it.Delete
Now if you are so concerned about correct citing practices and given what a small light I am compared to Chomsky I recommend a much better use of your time would be interrogating him about where his sources are for the 'common argument' of language evolution [Norbert seemed unable to apply the sources]. Chomsky is known to reply to every e-mail, so he certainly will answer you [though I would not recommend you accuse him of 'outright omission'].
For the last time: none of the papers you focus on address the problems with minimalism I have dealt with in that article. The papers I listed were 'spirited defences'. This does not mean there are no other spirited defences [that also do not address these problems]. Now we are discussing a much more important issue here, namely what the core properties of FLN are. Unless you have an answer to that question I will invoke the Hornstein privilege and not reply to you again.
apply should read supply - apologies to Norbert.Delete
Christina, by illogical, I mean lacking clear, sound reasoning. E.g the complete mess that's made of the argument about anatomical specialisation where you seem to fail to get modus ponens: Evans claims P: if UG exists then there should be anatomical specialisation for it. But P is illogical, as I said, because the conclusion does not follow from the premise).Delete
By `shoddy', I mean without due care to scholarly standards (e.g. getting the quotes wrong, continually going on about my claims about minimalism which I didn't even mention in my review, suggesting by implication that I wrote the review because I'm unable to address the challenges raised in various articles, suggesting I was trying to `educate' Evans rather than simply correct the errors for everyone, etc).
It's true that you don't, in your article use words like shoddy or illogical, but what is much worse in my book is your continual imputations about what my motives are, most egregiously in your footnote where you write `one has to wonder even more why Adger did not object to the use of the term `innate language instinct' in reference to his own work.' We discussed this on this very blog, so you actually don't have to wonder. I told you. You have read Grice, I guess, and are aware of what inferences are pragmatically licensed by such language. I find that whole aspect of your article quite unpleasant.
"Olivier, how could editors 'introduce the mistake' of me not quoting a paper you seem to think is essential?" Journals sometimes require the list of references as a separate file and then take it upon themselves as part of the general editing and formatting work to include citations, and it (of course) sometimes happens that they make mistake in doing so and that papers that the author intended to quote ends up being omitted.Delete
"For the last time: none of the papers you focus on address the problems with minimalism I have dealt with in that article." Incredible! Now you manage to misquote your own article: when you are quoting (and failing to quote) these papers in your article, you are doing so as replies to other papers you quote, not as replies to your own critique, so (again) whether they address the problems of minimalism you mention in your article is irrelevant. Again (and again): you quoted a paper X, you said that replies to X where spirited and unconvincing, yet you failed to appropriately quote the replies to X. This is a serious scholarly mistake, you should admit it and you owe an apology (at least) to E.Reuland and I.Roberts. Or you should come upfront and declare that you are not interested in following one of the most basic standard of scholarship: that of appropriately quoting relevant work.
"Now we are discussing a much more important issue here, namely what the core properties of FLN are."
Discussing important scientific issues is productively done only with people who follow basic standards of scholarship in documenting and evaluating claims. Show me you can do this with your published work by acknowledging the mistake and I'll provide an answer to what are the core properties of the faculty of language in the narrow sense according to minimalism. I don't see why you need me this to do so, but I will do it nevertheless (preferably then at a different venue, because I don't see that Norbert Hornstein's blog exists for us to discuss this issue).
David A.: you write: "E.g the complete mess that's made of the argument about anatomical specialisation where you seem to fail to get modus ponens: Evans claims P: if UG exists then there should be anatomical specialisation for it. But P is illogical, as I said..."Delete
Frankly, we would have loved to talk about actual biological organs but you never described one. If you consider what Vyv said in his book and what we say in our reply to you as illogical [vs. false] please tell us if this is also illogical:
"The nativist claim is that all natural languages share core features that reflect the biology of homo sapiens. Knowing a language, like having a heart, is a reflection of our biological endowment. Just as humans have internal organs with characteristic traits, they speak languages with characteristic traits" [Pietroski & Crain 2005: 164]
If languages are like the nervous system [as you claim in your article] why would Pietroski and Crain liken them to the heart? If what Vyv wrote is illogical, why do you not seem to think what Pietroski and Crain wrote is illogical? How are non-generativists supposed to know which of the many non-compatible claims found in the literature represent your commitment? Will you provide now some details about the biology of language? And what are the core properties of FLN? Is recursion among them?
Regarding the footnote: we offered you an opportunity to come clean about the allegation you made [that Vyv misrepresents generativists]. Instead of apologizing to Vyv who did not misrepresent because there are actually quite a few generativists who use the term 'language instinct', especially informally, but also in academic publications, you resorted to semantic implication. You blew me off when I asked why you did not use some different line to tweet about your paper [congratulations on that paper BTW] - so we continue to wonder about that...
Briefly, as I'm off to the sunny beaches of Majorca: the Crain/Pietroski quote, of course, isn't an if...then statement, unlike the claim from Evan's I was discussing, so logic is indeed irrelevant.Delete
Core claims: I think there's good evidence that human beings (i.e. biological creatures) have a capacity to pair up articulatory actions and some aspects of meaning across an unbounded domain in a systematic way, and I think that a recursive generative system is a good way of modelling that, from which it follows that that system is a model of something biological. More specifically, I think that there’s good evidence that the particular recursive function that models these mental (hence brain related) capacities is one that achieves the linking via hierarchical structures that involve localised dependencies between bits of the structure, and moreover, that these structures are linked via a causal (though not fully determined) set of information changing processes to the articulatory mental systems and those involved in certain aspects of thought. I understand that people can follow other ideas - you can deny the pairing is well-defined (which is, I think, what Cognitive Grammar does), or you can say that it can be dealt with via a non-generative system (which, I think, is what certain varieties of Construction Grammar do). These are perfectly reasonable approaches to follow (though my own hunch is that you still need a generative system to effect the pairing, and I think that the pairing is important). How is this system biologically implemented? I really don’t know (do you know how addition or long term memory is biologically implemented?), but there is some interesting evidence for at least the hierarchical aspects of it in David Poeppel’s recent work (see the interesting video here (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lIqO4wz3VCs), arguing that the relevant systems are about temporal aspects of the brain’s rhythms.
On the footnote: to be honest, I think I just clicked on the `tweet’ button on the New Scientists page and added a comment, and the title came up when I clicked the tweet button. I guess I could have edited it, but that would have been a bit odd, since that was the title that the New Scientist published it under.
And for the record, bare plural subjects in English usually have a generic interpretation admitting of exceptions. It wasn’t a resort to semantic implications, it was stating what the meaning of bare plurals is.
ok, off on holiday.
There's no need to rush with a reply, David A. - whenever you're back. Maybe in the meantime someone can confirm what you list ARE the core commitments of minimalists? They sound rather vague to me so some specificity would be appreciatedDelete
A few comments below.
1. Here is the entire paragraph you wrote re biological organs:
"Evans’ book and article both claim that a consequence of this idea is that language should be anatomically lumped together in a single bit of our brains. But there's no logic to this. After all, the nervous system is a distinct part of human beings’ anatomy in just the same sense that language is thought by linguists to be a distinct part of the human mind, but the nervous system is hardly localized. When I stub my toe, I feel it in my toe, not in my brain, but without my brain, I wouldn't do much feeling at all! That's a straightforward misunderstanding of what it means to be a biological system."
First, you provide no citation where Vyv actually says what you attribute to him [but I notice that you talk about bits of brain structure above] - so maybe you can give a page reference now? Second, your analogy seems rather misleading. What you describe is exactly the kind of stimulus-response reaction Chomsky points out cannot account for the creativity of language. So just why do you think you stumping your toe and feeling pain via the nervous system is a better analogy than other analogies? Third, you sketch ONE biological system. But that Vyv has sketched ANOTHER biological system does not imply he straightforwardly misunderstands what it means to be a biological system. You say you find what we wrote about your 5 page paper unpleasant. Maybe you could reflect on how Vyv might have felt about the activities initiated on this blog concerning his work? You have quite happily participated in that witch-hunt and passages of your own paper are quite condescending. One is the above, another is: at the end of a 6 line paragraph about what you call Evan's proposal you say: "... but it's hardly an actual proposal" and there are more.
As for the 'language instinct' issue: you say now is that your sentence is compatible with some generativists using the term while others do not. If this is the case 2 questions arise:  why is it problematic that Vyv uses the term and  what makes your view privileged over that of those generativists who use the term? Incidentally I believe that you did not think much about tweeting your paper under that title because you do not really think the term is as problematic as you claim in the attack on Vyv. Be that as it may, using so much space in your reply about what really is a non-issue indicates that you are not able to address the substantial criticism in Vyv's book...
Let me add that I know that there are excellent efforts to get linguistics into high schools and middle schools, including great efforts at your own universitry and mine. The trick will be making this stick. Imagine if every high school student had even a semester of intro linguistics, alongside chemistry, biology and English. How much easier our own lives would be, and how much more sophisticated the puiblic discourse about language,ReplyDelete
Here's an item that I find interesting:ReplyDelete
The disturbing bit is the apparent idea expressed by some of the commentators that classic formal semantics is not 'empirical'; obviously, it's better if you can back up informal intuition collection with experiments (especially in cases where the intuitions are conflicting), but that certainly doesn't mean that the classic approach isn't also empirical.
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I think that there are two additional issues that haven't yet been explored.ReplyDelete
The first is the fairly widespread belief that language is a 'human invention'. Even Chomsky himself (CIL Geneva) quoted Ian Tattersall as dating " ... the invention ... of language" to some particular date. If language really had been invented by humans, then of course its rules could be comprehensively spelled out by other humans – like the rules of chess, or American Football. Of all the concepts underpinning generative linguistic research, I suspect that the most controversial might be that one’s internal language is “not … available to conscious introspection”. (Lerdahl and Jackendoff, 1996).
The second problem is a consequence of the first. The posts here all seem to assume that critics have never read the technical literature. It might be healthier to assume that most of them have at least read a bit of it. If you start off from the assumption that language is a human invention, then you inevitably believe that the processes that generate language are also available to conscious introspection. So, encountering something as incomprehensible as the ECP as the solution to a problem they didn't know they had, perhaps encourages people to suspect that they are seeing ‘kidology’, to use an outdated expression.
The same kind of scepticism is applied to a lot of other areas. Evolutionary theory is under constant attack – not (I mean) from fundamentalists, but from people operating from what Dawkins calls ‘personal incredulity’: how could something as wonderful as [insert interesting biological observation] have just EVOLVED.
Sciences like physics have put themselves outside this kind of scepticism by generating stunningly accurate predictions (Higgs on the boson) or unarguable practical results (relativity in the calibration of GPS system, quantum in almost any device you currently own).
Linguistics is nowhere near that. Even worse: the people who are generating the language technology (POS tagging, machine translation etc.) are working in computational linguistics and, as Steven Abney has observed, the people who do computational linguistics aren’t linguists. And they aren’t using linguistic analysis in their programs. Up till now at least.
I doubt that the lack of introspective availability is the real problem for this would also apply to other findings in the cognitive sciences. People have no trouble assuming that junior comes equipped with all sorts if innate knowledge that guides/undergirds growth of cognition. So why language?Delete
Second, you set the bar way too high. There is NO science that meets the current standards of physics. So, if this is your benchmark, then there is actually only one science and even within physics 6 sigma results are far and few.
As for the personal incredulity argument: sorry, but this is not the problem. Evo Lang arguments have not delivered the goods that someone like me is looking for. The problem is not that it couldn't, but that it hasn't. SO until it has, I see no reason to believe that it must. This is especially true given the current extension of the Modern Synthesis to include other kinds of evolutionary factors.
Linguistics is not physics. However, it's results compare favorably, I believe, with those of mid 16th century physics. That's not bad IMO. Is this enough? Of course not. Is it nothing? No. I have no problem with skepticism. I do have a problem with nihilism. How about you John?
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I'm not clear what you disagree with in my post. Could you clarify? (I don't think I'm a nihilist, and I do think some aspects of language acquisition are native, BTW)ReplyDelete
I guess I disagree with what I took your analysis of the problem to be. The GP thinks many things. There are surely a myriad of reasons for why people don't believe this or that. But I suspect that the lack of acceptance can be basically boiled down to two main factors. We have done a pretty bad job of communicating what we do and what we have found. And Chomsky is the leading figure of the discipline. These two factors, I believe, account for most of the attitudes.Delete
That said, were linguistics technologically central to things out there in the real world, this would make a difference. But, General Relativity was pretty well received before the GPS and quantum mechanics was a well respected theory before the xerox machine. Similarly, early physics had relatively few technological contributions to make. It actually failed to help with navigation as there were no astronomical markers of longitude. Here the tinkerers won (watches!). Still and all Newton and Galileo were big deals. So, yes, technology helps but is not dispositive.
That's what I was reacting to.
Actually, I think relativity's big moment came when Arthur Eddington did that study of the solar eclipse in May 1919, and showed that stars 'behind' the Sun could be observed from earth. That was counter-intuitive enough to be newsworthy - in fact it was front-page news all round the world. And the fact that it had been predicted by this almost-unbelievable theory was probably what cemented Einstein's public reputation as a 'genius'. The periodic table did something similar, predicting where currently unknown elements would be found. I think the public glee that surrounds the 'discovery' that Piraha 'doesn't have recursion' is the other side of that coin - the idea that this fearfully convoluted body of theory has made a single prediction - and it's wrong! (I hope I don't need to point out that I'm not ENDORSING this view, just speculating on the mystery of why anyone putting forward a 'Chomsky was wrong' claim can get worldwide newspaper coverage.)Delete
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Quick piece of affinity analysis using Amazon's proprietary algorithm:Delete
People who bought Evans' 'Language Myth' most often also bought Pinker's Language Instinct and a book by Tomasello (I don't know how the Amazon algorithm decides rankings, I'd assume the list runs from highest to lowest correlations - though Amazon itself picks out Pinker's book as the most likely pairing, when it's actually in 6th place on the list). Other popular 'also boughts' were a book by John McWhorter criticising the Sapir-Wharf hypothesis and one by Stanislas Dehaene. Most of the rest is general 'popular science' stuff, though David Crystal and Nick Enfield also make appearances, as does another Tomasello and one by Lakoff. No clue as to the political views of the buyers.
People who bought Everett's 'Language: The Cultural Tool' also bought the Language Instinct. Chomsky's 'On Language' makes an appearance, as does Lakoff again. A book titled "The Everyday Language of White Racism" makes the top six, suggesting that Everett's readers are at least not excessively right-wing.
I can see why it would be good for linguists if every high school student had taken an intro linguistics class, but it's a little less clear to me why it would be good for high school students. Of course, all else being equal it is better to know something than not to know it, but we can't teach every subject in high school. What would be the strategy for convincing the linguistically ignorant GP that their kids need to learn this stuff? The approach I'm familiar with is to point out that linguistics is a great way of giving kids hands-on experience with conducting a scientific investigation. However, this tends to make it sound as if the actual subject matter of the discipline isn't terribly important. And more or less every discipline that's suspected (rightly or wrongly) of being pointless has at one time used some version of this defense. Latin teaches precise logical thinking, etc. etc.ReplyDelete
Good question. I applaud, of course, my colleagues who've shown that linguistics is great for teaching basic scientific thinking in a simple and low-stress way. But I think the subject matter is hugely important in its own right. We are all human beings, and we spend most of our life talking or using our language faculty for internal speech. Shouldn't everyone know some basic facts about what this capacity is and how it works? I don't see why knowing about speech sounds, sentence and word structure, how languages change over time, or stages of language acquisition should be any less part of the equipment of an educated person than knowing about planets, or cells or trigonometry.Delete
After all, it's not like we linguists are studying something unimportant or obscure about a species we don't care about. And it's not like the subject doesn't matter to society at large. Imagine living in a world in which the population at large knows that we all speak a dialect and why — so the entire discourse surrounding non-prestige speech varieties is transformed into something moderately sensible. Or imagine living in a world where people who teach little children how to read understand the technology that they are teaching, and its relation to language. Furthermore, I cannot help but think that foreign-language learning and literature classes (a.k.a. "English" in US schools) can benefit when students (and their teachers) have at least a clue about what languages are and the nature of the resources that authors manipulate when they write.
We're so used to this stuff not being part of the school curriculum that it feels even to us like we need some special argument for adding it. But I think it's utterly bizarre (and socially harmful, and really sad) that it hasn't been part of the curriculum for ages already. Plus, if experience teaching undergrads is any guide, it's fun.
Just to add a few more examples to the list:Delete
- Some basic knowledge of articulatory phonetics obviously helps with pronunciation.
- Parents of bilingual children right now have few resources available except basic guide books, the quality of which ranges from great to downright dangerous (or so I've been told).
- Language is actually a great application area for simple programming problems. The students who get to take programming classes in high school often are bored to the death by the exercises, from "Hello World" to balancing a check book. Writing something like an Eliza-style chat bot is much more interesting, and a great opportunity to discuss why this chat bot will never be able to perform like humans.
- LanguageLog is full of examples of broken writing style prescriptions that nobody with the slightest knowledge of how language works would ever buy into.
- As David notes, language is a proxy battleground for social issues, from the low prestige of dialects to the English only movement. These conceptions of language constantly lead to social and politicial conflicts.
I don't know what the US high school curriculum looks like, but I had to go through one year of psychology and one year of philosophy. Neither was particularly useful or insightful, so if those two have a right to be in the curriculum, I don't see why linguistics should be excluded.
There are very many things that it would be quite nice for high school students to know, but there's only so much class time available. To be honest, the examples that you guys are giving strike me as stuff that only linguists and a few other oddballs care about. (Teaching kids to read may be one exception, but then, I've taken a few linguistics courses in my time, and I can't say it's given me the slightest clue how to go about doing that!)Delete
@Thomas: That the philosophy and psychology classes were neither useful nor insightful does not bode well. No doubt philosophers and psychologists can also imagine wonderfully useful and relevant high school philosophy and psychology classes. Getting these to actually happen is, of course, much more difficult, as it would also be in the case of linguistics.
Alex, you're really selling our field short here. If only linguists and a few oddballs care about these things, that's an effect, not a cause of the absence of linguistics from the school curriculum and public consciousness. People's interests vary, of course, but I see nothing more intrinsically oddballish about learning about formant transitions or Grimm's Law than learning about the asteroid belt or the Krebs cycle — topics that probably sounded quite oddballish once upon a time too. And I know from firsthand experience that many college freshman, yesterday's high school students, find linguistics utterly fascinating. Not everyone does — but not everyone is into the Krebs cycle either. As for finding time in the curriculum, I'm sure that could be figured out if there was a will. Wouldn't it be great if this were the main stumbling block.Delete
@David: I was thinking more of whether people care about the broader social issues that you referred to. Certainly, linguistics is (or would be) intrinsically interesting to many people, but we can't teach every intrinsically interesting subject in high school. If the argument is going to be that it deserves a place in the curriculum because of the various social issues you raised (irrational prejudices against non-standard dialects, etc.), then this is only going to work if a lot of people already care about those issues. Unfortunately, with regard to the issue of non-standard dialects, the people who currently care the most tend to be the least receptive to what linguists have to say on the matter.Delete
There's also the small problem of who would write the curriculum for such a course. Would you be so enthusiastic if it turned out that the acquisition section was designed by - say - Goldberg? I'd imagine that any use of 'linguistics' in a programming context would be more likely to involve almost-brute-force statistical methods like hidden Markov models and the like. After all, that's what the NLP community really uses.Delete
I am surprised that some of you here see a need to justify teaching linguistics: what's the point of it, you say, but what's the point of teaching literature? physics? chemistry? biology? any other subject?Delete
As for finding both time and justification, let me point out that we've had some basic linguistics (phonology, morphology, syntax) taught in the 4th and 5th grade in Russia. It wasn't always taught right and it was all quite basic but still.
Also, as for GP's interest in language matters, it's surely there, despite the generally profound ignorance of even the basics. I would know, I've taught some 1,000 of them in the last five years (GP, not undergrads).Delete
@John: I don't think that the current trench wars would factor much into curriculum design. Pretty much every subject except foreign languages that is taught in high school stays at the level of a very basic 101 intro class (looking back, I'm shocked how little we covered in 7 years of biology, 6 years of physics, and 3 years of chemistry). And at that very basic level there's very few disagreements.Delete
For the acquisition case you mention: everybody agrees that some aspects of language are innate, some are learned, and that's all you want the average person to know.
As for NLP: brute-force statistics would not be in the curriculum because students wouldn't understand the methods (e.g. Good Turing smoothing), just like nobody teaches statistical mechanics in high school You focus on very simple cases and what the broad generalizations are. For example, how does your smart phone predict the next word when you're typing a text message, and do humans do something similar? That requires only some basic talk about data structures (dictionaries as prefix trees) and transition probabilities (how likely is one word to follow a given word, which is an intuitive concept that doesn't need any formal probability theory). And that's about as far as I would go for computational linguistics, there's many topics that are a lot less complicated and more insightful, e.g. the ELIZA example I gave.
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@Asya: It seems to be very difficult to get this point across, but we (or at least me) were not trying to justify teaching linguistics in high school because we ourselves are terribly worried that it might not be justified. Rather, I was wondering if there are reasons for teaching it in high school that would persuade people other than linguists. So yes, teaching linguistics may be no less justified than teaching chemistry, but chemistry is already taught -- life is unfair like that. If we want things to change, we'll need to find reasons that are persuasive to non-linguists, who simply don't care at all about many of the issues that we perceive to be very important.Delete
@Alex, what persuades people that chemistry should be taught? If, say, we ask that it be thrown out and replaced by linguistics, do you think an average non-linguist/non-chemist would care one way or another? Let alone be able to put forward a cogent argument why chemistry is more important than linguistics?Delete
@Asya: Chemists don't need to persuade people that Chemistry should be taught because it already is. Thus, we have to make arguments and they don't. This is perhaps unfair, but that is the reality of the situation.Delete
Thomas you say "I don't think that the current trench wars would factor much into curriculum design."Delete
I am very surprised by this statement because it seems to imply that you'd be fine with using a book like Vyv Evans' 'The Language Myth' [seems to be written at the level of say 8 or maybe 10 graders]. Somehow I doubt that Asya or David A./P. or Norbert or maybe even you would be fine with that. And their [your?] reasons for rejecting this particular book seem to be coming exactly from the 'trench wars' [your term not mine] ...
Having said this, I am encouraged by the fact that at least in some places [very basic] linguistics is taught in schools. I hope it is a trend that'll catch on in Canada eventually...
@Christina: Still seizing every opportunity to drag people into your little vendetta, hmm? But no, I wouldn't want Evans' book to be used in a high school class, just like I wouldn't want Pinker's Language Instinct to be used for that. The questions these books tackle go way beyond what matters for the layman, and they omit many topics that do matter. Even most Ling 100 lecture notes are unsuitable since they focus a lot on theoretical linguistics at the expense of historical linguistics, computational linguistics, sociolinguistics, and applied linguistics, i.e. the parts that most non-linguists find much more exciting.Delete
Just how is expressing my surprise part of a 'vendetta', Thomas? And why would you so deliberately miss the point of my comment? It was not to suggest that 'The Language Myth' as is should be used as a textbook - obviously it was not written for that purpose. But I certainly could picture it as 'supplemental reading' for kids who want to get excited about your field, just as back in the 1980s Pinker's book could have served that purpose.Delete
Getting back to the curriculum to be: naively I assumed that any high school course on linguistics would start with the question "What is language?" Correct me if I am wrong, but I do not think one can answer that question without pointing out that there are very different opinions among linguists (e.g. not everyone agrees that language is a biological organ of the kind sketched by David A.). And, depending how one answers that question one will structure the course rather differently I imagine...
No, I wouldn't like "Language Myth" to be used as a textbook or supplementary writing, but not because of the ideas it advocates but because of the ways it advocates them.Delete
In 1944, Leonard Bloomfield published a wonderfully harsh review of a book intended to introduce linguistics to a popular audience. Here are its first two paragraphs. Depressing how little the world has changed, isn't it:Delete
"What would one say of a chemical textbook sponsored by an authority on the history of music and written by a man who had made extensive use of paints, drugs, and cosmetics, but had never troubled himself to acquire so much as the rudiments of chemistry? What publisher, indeed, would think of issuing such a book, what critic of seriously considering its merits? To a student of language it is shocking and humiliating to see how little of the results of linguistic science has reached even the upper levels of our culture. The methodical and cumulative study of language, dating from about the year 18oo, is approximately as old as that of chemistry. Its results have been plentiful and often unexpected. Here perhaps more than at any other point of attack, science has gained systematic and other than trivial knowledge about specifically human behavior-a notable result, since the study of language seemed at first to hold out no such promise.
"The book here under review intends to inform the general reader about language. Its author is evidently an educated man with some knowledge of several European languages. His book is recommended and prefaced by an eminent man of science (in another field, of course), it is being energetically distributed by a reputable publisher, and it has been praised by critics who know nothing about its subject. If one were willing to ignore the tiresome, sciolistically facetious, and repetitious style of this book, its total lack of clarity and structure, and the errors and misunderstandings in which it abounds, there would remain the fact that in the state of its information it lies some decades behind Whitney's excellent popular books, Language and the Study of Language (1867) and The Life and Growth of Language (1874)."
The book in question was The Loom of Language by Frederick Bodmer, intended as the second in a series of science books for the working man with alliterative titles — the first being Mathematics for the Million, which was something of a best-seller.
Loom of Language is every bit as bad as Bloomfield said. I know that because I read it (over and over, in fact) when I was in junior high school or maybe 9th grade. It is actually the book that got me interested in linguistics when I stumbled on it in the local public library, and somehow I ended up on the right side of the law. Would I recommend the book to others? Of course not But one thing led to another, and here I am as a linguist, and I owe it to all this awful but somehow inspiring book. So you never know.
Funny: one of my adult students gave me this book as a present and I thought about as much of it as Bloomfield... What a small world...Delete
Evidently Bodmer taught at MIT in the Dept of Modern Languages. Then he retired in 1955 ...Delete
Charles — Yes indeed. Morris Halle knew him.Delete
I wonder whether it might be relevant that there's some overlap between what we'd want to teach in linguistics classes in high school and what currently gets taught in English classes--at least, I assume that students in English classes are taught about parts of speech, maybe how to diagram sentences, distinguishing subjects from predicates, etc. I don't know how English teachers currently feel about the classes they need to take in order to be able to teach this material--I imagine that some of them love it, and others would rather be teaching literature, essay-writing techniques, etc.ReplyDelete
So I wonder whether it would be worth making a pitch along the lines of, "there's this terribly important material, having to do with the structure of language, which is already part of the curriculum--and what we want to do is make sure that that material, along with some related stuff, is taught by people who are passionate about it and specialized in it." No idea how to do that without starting a turf war with English teachers, but maybe the idea could be that English teachers who love linguistics can be linguistics teachers, and the ones who'd rather teach literature can be English teachers (who no longer need to make their students learn what a preposition is, and maybe some of them would welcome that). And some people could presumably do both.
I was actually under the impression that grammar isn't part of the US highschool curriculum anymore, at least I have heard complaints along these lines. If that is true, it is certainly an uphill battle: if the grammar of your own language isn't worth analyzing in the most basic terms, general linguistics has even less of a reason to be taught. But then politicians should show the consistency to also throw out calculus and analysis (which universities have to cover from square 1 anyways since students don't have sufficient background knowledge), all parts of biology that aren't basic anatomy and sex-ed, all of chemistry, physics that goes beyond basic mechanics, history before 1700 AD, and anything else that has little impact on daily life for most people. Heck, even spelling bees should be disbanded since they serve no purpose in a world of automatic spellcheckers.Delete
And looking at all of this more carefully got me in a really grumpy and defeatist mood so I'm just gonna switch into angry old-man mode and complain that schools have become daycare centers; their duty is to keep children relatively safe while their parents are busy working 10h shifts, actually preparing them for a life as mature, independent and self-sufficient adults is not a high priority, so all these arguments are pointless anyways. You might have some luck with schools in wealthy white districts, but if even CS hasn't made it into the mainstream curriculum yet, the odds of linguistics gaining some traction are zero.
Interesting discussion. Here in the UK there's been a fairly longstanding attempt to develop school level curriculum and associated examination in linguistics, mainly through the work of the Education Committee of the LAGB (with Dick Hudson doing a lot of the heavy lifting). That work has had some impact on, especially, the teaching of grammatical aspects of English at quite a young age. When I started teaching linguistics in the early 1990s, none of the beginning students knew even what a prepositional phrase was, but that's changed, and there' s at least some linguistics in the English Language A-level. This is a senior high school level qualification that is optional, but growing.Delete
We also have quite an active linguistics olympiad here, and at least in my University, we do quite a bit of outreach work in schools.
@Thomas: that's not exactly "an old-man mode", as I agree with you and I am neither ;)Delete
Yes, for most parents HS = daycare (or prison?) where children are to be kept out of trouble. What is taught to them is the least the parents' concerns.
@David Adger: it's great to know that there are some good examples for us to follow.
Did anybody else see the discussion of sentence diagramming in the NYT a couple of years ago? I don’t know if links to the pieces will work without a paid subscription, but I include them below in case they do.Delete
The author of the opinion piece, one Kitty Burns Florey, portrayed sentence diagramming as a lost art, and seemed to believe that it was done mostly by gut instinct, with the occasional consultation of somebody who is better at it than you are.
There were a couple of hundred commentaries from readers. Some readers agreed with Florey’s position that it was good for you (“like brocolli”), and helped you think clearly, while other people thought it was a big waste of time.
Nobody seemed to know that linguists continue to diagram sentences and even have theories about what different constituencies represent. A rather sad commentary on public awareness of linguistic science.
Thank you for the links to these articles, Peter (they do work!). Very sad reflection of the public's awareness indeed.Delete
One thing that jumped at me is Ms. Florey's complaint that "diagramming ... teaches us nothing about punctuation, and it can’t help with spelling". But it's never meant to! Punctuation in English, in particular, is not especially structure-related, certainly not as it is in Russian, for example.
But there is an important lesson here: arguments for teaching linguistics in HS or to GP that are based on immediate usefulness (like "helping you be a better writer" or "helping you learn foreign languages") more often than not backfire, and badly. It is perhaps the argument based on intrinsic value of understanding language as part of human mind, etc-etc... that would be a better approach.
Asya wrote: arguments for teaching linguistics in HS or to GP that are based on immediate usefulness (like "helping you be a better writer" or "helping you learn foreign languages") more often than not backfire, and badly. It is perhaps the argument based on intrinsic value of understanding language as part of human mind, etc-etc... that would be a better approach.Delete
I very much agree with this. It can not only backfire in the sense that students might feel short-changed if don't actually come away with the kind of immediately useful skills they thought they were being promised, but (based on my admittedly relatively limited teaching experience) it also backfires in the sense that students who have those sorts of goals in mind have trouble seeing what we're actually doing. So stating clearly that the goal of studying linguistics is *not* to help you be a better writer, for example, can help to direct students' attention towards the things we are actually trying to teach them about.
This kind of approach might seem worrying to the extent that we think that knowing something about linguistics can in fact make you a better writer. For all I know, this might indeed be the case. But even if it is, I don't think potential students of linguistics need any help in realizing this; the natural tendency is for them to overestimate this outcome. So I think the thing to do is to play down this outcome, not because it's not there, but in order to correct this overestimation. And similarly for helping you learn foreign languages, or any other of these connections that are all too easy to make.
I think that at bottom, what you don't want to do in a class is oversell. There are lots if reasons for taking linguistics. There is no reason why one set of interests are better motivators than others. But we do it because it is fun. And being fun is infectious and a good way of attracting a large audience. However, I've know English majors take it because they wanted to know how to diagram sentences for their own reasons and some take it because they are fascinated by the different ways you say things in different languages. We can cater to all types. What we should not do, because it is both often counterproductive and, more importantly because teachers should not lie/exaggerate, is oversell.Delete
When I was about 15-16 years old, we used a textbook in Dutch class with the marvelous title 'Je weet niet wat je weet' (You don't know what you know) which taught grammar from the point of view of simplified Aspects-style of theory. It was not a big part of the curriculum, but it was there.ReplyDelete
Since then, linguistics has basically disappeared from the programme, because most of the attention in Dutch class are about language proficiencies. In the 1990s, there was one more attempt to make linguistics part of the curriculum, but it failed, due to fierce opposition by people who thought that such things are useless.
I attended a symposium a few months ago in which linguists (of many different kinds of theoretical persuasion) and high school teachers met. One reason for this is that it is generally recognized that the current programme is in a crisis, partly because the proficiencies are defined in a crazy way. (An important part is argumentation, where they use definitions of argument styles that have nothing to do with anything anywhere in the world.)
It was agreed during this meeting that the new strategy should be to point out that linguistics can help improve proficiencies; you can only learn how to deal with language if one understands what you are doing, or what this tool is. That does not bring linguistics to the level of the sciences in school (physics is taught in its own right, not because it helps you deal with the natural world), but it would be to optimistic to think that all of a sudden the current generation of teachers would be able to teach linguistics at a serious level anyway.
Apropos of all this:Delete
The rest of the blog looks inspiring as well, I think (though I haven't read through everything). This is the person who published the article about high school linguistics in a recent issue of Language.
Seconding the recommendation to look at Suzanne Loosen's writing about her class!Delete
I've also met a couple of high school English teachers via friends-of-friends recently, and their ears tend to perk up when I mention linguistics activities for high schoolers, so I compiled a list of resources here allthingslinguistic.com/post/115887024603/linguistics-resources-for-high-school-teachers
I don't think it's a hard sell to get linguistics into English classrooms, more an issue of making resources available (Loosen mentions that the textbook Linguistics for Everyone is designed for this) -- there's still an idea that language arts classes should be doing something in the way of grammar, but what currently exists for grammar is a list of decontextualized factoids that both teachers and students find deathly dull. Linguistics as a replacement is both more engaging and more accurate.
-This is from Gretchen McCulloch, by the way -- I don't know why Blogger persists in calling me "unknown"
It's worth noting that Gretchen and others are now bringing in much more core linguistics into the Lexicon Valley column than most other "on language"-type columns---and, as part of Slate, presumably reaching many more non-specialist eyes than even Language Log.ReplyDelete
On top of this, we now also have an entire online magazine devoted to well-informed and widely accessible popular science writing in linguistics: Michael Erard's Schwa Fire.
So there's a start. But again, the O'Neil and Honda (and others) project of K-12 linguistics is essential, and deserves much more attention, input, and flat-out service from all of us in the field. And we can definitely use much more general-public-accessible work beyond even what has already come out.
It's oddly persistent, this weird notion that the core ideas of generative linguistics---especially syntax---are somehow inherently difficult to present in an interesting/engaging way.
I've never found that to be the case, which is why I'm still surprised that beyond Pinker (and Jackendoff and Baker, and a handful of others), there hasn't been much popular science writing in this particular vein of the field.