Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Here we go again (and again, and again)

God there’s a lot of junk out there. And by ‘junk’ I don’t just mean poorly done and pointless, for even shoddy aimless research can enlighten inadvertently. What I mean is stuff that looks serious and is taken seriously by the scientific punditry but is so completely ignorant and off base that it makes you dumber if you read it. I say this to warn you not to read this review of a book by one Vyvyan Evans called The Language Myth. The review is by one Alun Anderson (what’s with this weird spelling? Vyviyan? Alun? Though maybe someone called ‘Norbert’ is in no position to asperse). As I have not read the book, I will just comment on the review. For Mr. Evan’s sake, I hope that Mr. Anderson has failed to understand what Mr. Evans actually wrote. If he got Evans right, then the book is likely a waste of time. But, as I said, I have not read it (and I am not sure that I will) so I will concentrate on the review. 

The review has that breathless “excited” quality that all tracts heralding an impending conceptual “revolution” trade in: [1]

After reading The Language Myth, it certainly looks as if a major shift is in progress, one that will open people’s minds to liberating new ways of thinking about language.

What’s the novelty? Well, you can guess: the Chomsky-Fodor-Pinker (Andersen’s triad, presumably following Evans) view that language is an “instinct” is just plain wrong, a “myth” that has swept the popular imagination (were it so!).[2] The myth, it is claimed, is based on the “way that children effortlessly learn language just by listening to the adults around them, without being aware explicitly of the governing grammatical rules.” This observation led Chomsky (and Pinker (his publicist (boy I’m sure that will go down great with Steve!)) and Fodor, another dupe) to argue that there is “a module in the mind… waiting to be activated…when an infant encounters language. The rules behind language being built into the genes.” This is not any particular grammar, but a “universal grammar, capable of generating the rules of any of the 7000 or so languages that a child might be exposed to, however different they might appear.”[3]

That’s the myth. As I assume that Andersen does not challenge the above description concerning the ease with which kids acquire a natural language (though I cannot be sure, maybe he does), I assume that the “myth” that needs exposure concerns the existence of an innate capacity, highly developed (indeed likely unique) to humans, that underlies their linguistic proclivities.

Now read a certain way, this is not necessarily a bad précis of the modern Chomsky version of GG.  Human children bring to the task of acquiring and deploying a language special species-specific skills that enable them to do what other clever animals cannot, i.e. acquire and use a natural language. There are arguments to the effect that some (or much) of this capacity is linguistic specific (though how much is currently a topic of debate), but given the obvious difference between human capacities wrt language and that of anything else we know of, the supposition that there is something special about us when it comes to language is hardly one of those going-out-on-a-long-thin-limb sort of assumptions. Indeed, I would go further, everyone assumes something analogous for the obvious fact remains that nothing does language like humans do, and on the pretty standard assumption, that what we are mentally capable of has something to do with our mental capacities, the fact that we can do language easily and nothing else does it at all implies that we have some mental capacities that other animals (and plants and rocks) do not. This is not an exciting view. And to say that humans have a language acquisition device is, at least minimally, to observe that this fact is obvious and needs explaining.

There are, of course, more interesting conclusions that one can draw and that have been drawn: e.g. that the mental capacities are in part sui generis, both wrt humans and to language, that the special capacity we have is qualitative not merely quantitative, that this capacity is dissociable from other cognitive capacities, etc.  Each of these further claims comes with substantial discussion and evidence, none of which Mr. Anderson seems aware of.  Or at least he doesn’t mention or address it. Why, because he thinks that Mr Evans has provided simple straightforward evidence demonstrating how nutty this nativist viewpoint is. What’s that evidence?

A key criticism is that the more languages are studied, the more their diversity becomes apparent and an underlying universal grammar less probable.

Spot the flaw (duh!). Once again the absence of Greenberg universals is used to dismiss Chomsky universals.[4] We’ve seen this before (right Mr. Everett?). And we will see it again (and, if past is prologue, again and again and again, sadly). But, to repeat (and repeat and repeat), these are very (very very) different things. A rich innate language specific mental module is consistent with a great deal of variation in the surface properties of individual languages. UG does not imply the existence of universal manifest patterns in every language. It does not even imply that all Gs must contain (some of) the same rules (e.g. there is no requirement that every language have focus movement or aux inversion or any other rule). Chomsky universals are about types of Gs (the kinds of rules/principles that they have) and to overthrow it requires showing more than some Gs have rules that others don’t or some surface patterns that others don’t.

Truth be told, however, the distinction between the two conceptions is probably not one that would concern Mr Andersen. Why not? Because he seems to know nothing at all about any work in the tradition that he sees as ready to collapse. He seems to believe that the mere existence of “free word order languages,” languages that “build sentences out of prefixes and suffixes to create giant words,” or languages that “appear not to have nouns and verbs” would be news to linguists very snugly in the Chomsky GG tradition (as if languages like Walpiri, Mohawk, Navaho and Salish were never studied and analyzed within the Chomsky GG tradition).  I’m pretty sure that the existence of the work of Ken Hale, Mark Baker, Lisa Mathewson, Julie Legate, Henry Davis, Masha Polinsky, Ben Bruening (among many many others) and the many GG inspired analyses of the Gs of these languages they have offered would be news to Mr. Andersen, something that the editors of New Scientist might have thought of before asking him to review Mr. Evans book.

But this is not all. Mr. Andersen also appears to think that genes require invariant expression, so that change and variation are inconsistent with information being genetically coded. In additiona, it seems that he believes that language change is incompatible with the claim that “grammar is laid out in the genes.” For Mr. Andersen the simple existence of language change and creolization are sufficient reason for denying that humans have a special biologically rooted affinity for language. If only we in the Chomsky tradition had realized that languages differed and changed we would never have gone down the ill-conceived nativist path we’ve taken. We would not have been seduced by the Chomsky-Fodor-Pinker myths. As I write, scales are falling from my eyes! Revolution indeed! 

And last but not least: nativists cannot say how languages carry meaning. Here Mr. Andersen is finally onto something. The problem is that he appears not to realize that nobody understands how this is done. Where meaning comes from, how symbols come to have significance is a real pisser of a problem, but, as they say, it is, at least for now, everyone’s problem. What we can say is that embedding the problem into a larger Chomsky like set of considerations has allowed some progress on some features of it (e.g. antecedence and scope have been illuminated, though what ‘dog’ and ‘know’ and ‘give’ and ‘London’ and ‘house’ mean is still pretty murky (a sign of this is that in your favorite semantic theory the meaning of a word like ‘life’ is ‘life¢’)).[5]

Mr Andersen does give us a hint of what the new age that Mr. Evans is heralding will look like. It will be firmly anchored in “embodied” cognition and empiricism (“arising directly in and from experience”) and mirror neurons (“the same bit of the brain lights up when we see or do hammering”). Yup, that’s the brave new world out there. If you ever thought that Greg Hickok’s evisceration of this mental detritus was overkill, read this junk and the send Greg a thank-you note (I’m sure he will also accept Starbuck’s or Amazon gift cards). Sadly, we will need many Greg like efforts again and again for this kind of junk seems to be both very attractive and impervious to criticism.

Let me make one more point and end. What we see in this review is the resurgence of Empiricism (E). Yes, I know you were expecting me to say this and I didn’t want to disappoint. But it’s true. It lies behind the apparent inability of so many to understand the distinction between Chomsky and Greenberg Universals. Confusing the two lies at the heart of the review (and of the similarly pundit popular work by Everett) and it is easily explained once one appreciates its E roots. What are these?

Es are comfortable with generalizations based on patterns in the data. I’ve discussed this before (here). If you believe that all generalizations are based on patterns manifest in the data then the idea that something can be a universal (e.g. structure dependence) but leaves no imprint in the (positive) linguistic data makes little sense. So, universals like ‘if L is OV then it will be OP,’ or ‘all languages distinguish Ns from Vs’ will leave induction friendly footprints in the linguistic data and are ok for Es (recall, everyone, including Es accept the idea that one needs to generalize). But other generalizations like ‘all languages obey islands,’ or ‘rules must be structure dependent,’ or ‘anaphors cannot be c-commanded by their antecedents,’ may leave little direct evidence in the positive data of a particular language (especially of one restricts data to what is expressed in naturalistic linguistic environments (viz. assumes that negative data is not relevant)). If you are an E, the only legit generalizations (aka Universals) are of the first kind. That’s why an E will find the Chomsky conception of universals close to incomprehensible, and, not surprisingly, will tend to confuse Chomsky and Greenberg universals (more accurately, will not be able to distinguish them), as in fact happens again and again and again. So if you are an E, stop it! It’s mentally stifling, and it leads to the kind of junk thinking this review embodies.

I will end here. To repeat, I have no idea if Mr. Andersen has correctly conveyed the content of Mr. Evan’s book (and I really do hope that he got it all wrong and that Mr. Evans is about to sue for liable as one can do in the UK with its unbelievably lax freedom of speech provisions).  I do know, however, that Mr. Andersen doesn’t know anything about Chomsky or Pinker or Fodor or GG or any work that has been done in the last 65 years.  Asking him to review a book on linguistics is like asking Sampson (my deceased ex-pet Porty) to review a book on animal cognition (actually, Sampson would have made fewer obviously clueless remarks). 

What’s sad is that this kind of junk finds its way into things like New Scientist. This is a venue that the scientifically interested look at to find out what’s happening in other scientific domains. I have in fact done so myself in the past. But, from now on I will be much more wary, for if this is what I find when an area I know something about is discussed, it leads me to think that New Scientist is quite untrustworthy. And that’s too bad. I really respect good popularization. It’s really hard to do it well (thx Mr. Pinker for the Language Instinct) and it is important. Sadly, it can also be done very badly. If you are looking for an excellent case study in how bad very bad can be, I know of no better example than Mr. Andersen’s review of Mr. Evan’s book.

[1] The excitement seems to be spreading. CUP sent me this message from David Crystal "...Evans builds a compelling case that will be difficult to refute." Sounds like Andersen, which if correct does not bode well for Evans, though to repeat I have not yet read the book.
[2] The idea that language is an instinct is most clearly Pinker’s conceit. I don’t actually ever recall Chomsky or Fodor using this terms in describing FL/UG or LoT. And I think I know why. It has misleading connotations. Here’s the lexical entry for the word via Google:
An innate typically fixed pattern of behavior in animals in response toe certain stimuli
This definition does not really cover what GGers of the Chomsky stripe or LoTers of the Fodor variety have meant. First, no “fixed pattern of behavior” follows from their discussions. Remember the competence/performance distinction. Well the innate structures of FoL primarily relate to competence, not performance (i.e. what you know not what you do). Second, I’m not sure how to understand “fixed.” FL/UG constrains the class of possible Gs (some rules ok, others not), but it does not require that any given G have any particular shape (there is no requirement that rule X be included in every G). 
            What’s right about ‘instinct’ is that it is not learned, need not be conscious and is triggered by input. However, the shades of meaning the word carries can be very misleading and though I can see good advertising reasons for why Pinker used the word in his title, I can also see reasons for avoiding it.
[3] This 7k number keeps coming up. But there is no reason to think that there are 7k languages, at least if one counts these via the Gs that generate them. As Richie Kayne once said, and I completely agree, there is either one language or at least 7.125 billion (as of 2013), one for each person.  Moreover, there is no reason to believe that the set of possible languages, again if G individuated is not several orders greater. 
[4] I should have said “possible” absence of Greenberg universals. As you out there know, there appear to be some interesting Greenberg universals worth explaining, and many Chomsky inspired linguists like Cinque, Roberts, Kayne, Baker (and many others) are in the business of trying to account for them. I would be surprised if Mr Andersen knows anything about this. The blooming buzzing confusion that is the 7000 languages is enough for him. I wonder if the diversity of life or various kinds of stuff in the world would lead Andersen to conclude that there is no universal genetic code or that the periodic table is ripe for dissolution. Consistency would suggest that he would, but consistency is only the hobgoblin of petty minds, no doubt leaving Mr Andersen an exit strategy.
[5] John burgess, who is today visiting UMD and giving a talk and whose wonderful papers I’ve just started reading puts it succinctly: “There is nothing that could be called a body of accepted scientific conclusions about meaning… that workers… can draw upon and apply to their concerns” (In his “Quine, analyticity, and philosophy of mathematics”).


  1. Haven't read it either yet but plan to. Adam Schembri, no fan of gg but a researcher on sign language, pointed out a number of egregious errors of fact and interpretation in the book in a Facebook discussion recently. Ans I remember having dinner with Evans a long time ago and trying to explain the difference between surface universals and UG and him not getting it. We ended up talking about cinservativity if determiners, and he didn't think that was either important or a discovery.

  2. When you say liable don't you mean libel?

    Personally I am enjoying The Language Myth and find its refutation of Pinker convincing. Chomsky may be a different matter, as you say he does not speak in terms of "instinct".