Thursday, October 18, 2012

‘I’ before ‘E’: hello

The management has kindly invited me to post, from time to time, on matters related to the faculty of language. Complaining has been encouraged. But where to start?

I do think that the I-language/E-language distinction is insufficiently appreciated. OK, that’s understatement. I think that failure to appreciate this distinction fosters many diseases that currently plague the field: a tendency to ignore the strongest evidence against empiricist conceptions of language acquisition; confusion about the data adduced in “poverty of stimulus” arguments; related confusion about what the asterisk means in examples like ‘*I might been have there’; extensional conceptions of meaning; the practice of representing intensions—and worse, intentions—with sets of possible worlds; misguided conceptions of how grammatical competence is related to comprehension; misunderstandings of how “algorithmic” levels of description (as in Marr-style theories of vision) are related to “functional” and “implementational” levels. The list could, and probably will, go on.

Eventually, I may get around to complaining about something other than failures to appreciate the I-language/E-language distinction. But at least for a while, I’ll focus on one big idea that many people profess to accept: when kids acquire a language, they don’t simply acquire an infinite set of word strings, whatever that would mean; rather, each kid acquires at least one generative procedure that somehow connects (boundlessly many) meanings of some kind with (boundlessly many) articulations of some kind.

In saying that this is a big idea, I don’t mean that it is surprising, much less that it ought to be controversial. On the contrary, I think that in retrospect, it ought to seem nearly truistic. But sometimes, a near truism can be theoretically fruitful by drawing attention to phenomena that call for explanation, and suggesting a useful conception of the basic target(s) of inquiry. (Think about the claim that heritable variation in fitness leads to evolution, and its relation to the bolder idea that all life on earth descended from a common source.) It may be obvious that in acquiring a language, a child acquires a procedure that somehow generates articulation-meaning pairs. But the literature suggests that the implications of this obvious point have not been absorbed. Or so I’ll be saying, more than twice, in the weeks ahead.

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