Thursday, December 5, 2013


It appears that all languages have the functional equivalent of ‘huh.’ Note, I said functional equivalent, for being a Canadian, I am not a huh-er but an eh-er (pronounced ‘Ay’). Still as reported in the NYTs, the LATimes and HuffPost, there is an article in the recent issues of PLOS1 by some Max Plankers (MP) from Nijmegen that survey 10 different kinds of languages and find (as the NYTs reports) “a remarkable similarity among the “Huhs?” All the words had a single syllable, and they were typically limited to a low-front vowel, something akin to an “ah” or an “eh”” (where this puts Canucks like me is unclear given that it’s quite definitely ‘Ay’ not ‘eh,’ but whatever, huh?, I mean Eh!). The MPs and the press report this as the discovery of yet another universal, this one based on its utility in communication (or as Herb Clark is quoted as putting matters: “You can’t have a conversation without the ability to make repairs. It is a universal need, no matter what kind of conversation you have.”). So another universal.

Of course, not my kind of universal, for, as I’ve pointed out before, a FL universal need not be manifest in every language (e.g. a language without movement will not display island effects) and something that shows up in every language need not be an FL universal.  Or, Chomsky Universals are not Greenberg Universals.

I would not have yet again belabored this point but for a paragraph in the NYT’s report by Dr Enfield, (one of the authors) who thinks that this is yet another “challenge to the dominant view that language is primarily a matter of inborn grammatical structure…”.[1] A position held by you-know-who.  Who with any knowledge of the issues would think that this fact, assuming that it is true, could pose any sort of challenge to the Chomsky conception of FL/UG? It can only arise from thinking that Chomsky’s universals are Greenberg’s universals. In other words, it can only arise as a supposition if you have no idea what you are talking about, and this, I am sad to report, is quite common when it comes to discussions of Chomsky, UG and language. Here is another instance of the same misunderstanding.

So, what to make of this research? For me, not much. I am quite sure that there are lots of Universals that have no etiology in FL/UG. I bet that every language has a word for ‘mom’ and ‘dad’ and I am pretty confident I know why. But, it makes a great story right? After all, isn’t any story about language that includes the claim that Chomsky is wrong worthwhile just for that reason?  It is for the NYTs.  Read the three press reports and you will notice that only the NYT decided to take the ‘Chomsky is wrong’ angle. This is missing from the LATimes and the HuffPost. In fact, as ‘Chomsky’ does not appear in the body of the paper in Plos1 (not even in the references), I surmise that the NYT chased Dr Enfield down to get this quote. I wonder why? It must be for balance: to make up for all those articles in the NYT stating that Chomsky is right. Yea, that’s it: ‘all the news that’s fit to print,’ or should it be ‘fair and balanced’? Nothing else makes sense, right?

[1] What ‘Huh?’ has to do with grammatical structure is beyond me, btw.

1 comment:

  1. As one of the authors I also preferred the LA Times article, as it provides more detail on data, methods, and mechanisms. It is also significantly longer of course so there's more room to be nuanced. Other significant write-ups were in The Atlantic, the New Statesman and Alva Noë's NPR blog — none of them mentioning the Chomsky tangent the NYT chose to highlight. Anyway, I think we are in full agreement that this is not *that* kind of universal. Interested readers can always read the actual paper of course to see what we did and didn't claim; or check out the FAQ we prepared in response to the worldwide media coverage.