Sunday, August 9, 2015

Universals again

I am on vacation and had hoped not to post anything for two weeks. But just as I was settling into a nice comfortable relaxing sojourn I get this in my inbox. It reports on a universal that Ted Gibson discovered that states that words that semantically go together are more often than not linearly close to one another. The answer, it seems, is that this makes it easier to understand what is being said and easier to express what you have in mind, or so the scientists tell us. My daughter and sister-in-law read this and were surprised to find that this kind of thing passes for insight, but it seems that it does. More interesting still, is the desire to see this surprising new finding as bearing on Chomsky's claims about universal grammar. It seems that we finally have evidence that languages have something in common, namely the tendency to put things that semantically go together linearly close to one another. Finally a real universal.

The astute reader will note that once again universal here is understood in Greenberg's terms, not Chomsky's. Happily, Ted Gibson notes as much (to, what I take to be the apparent disappointment of the interviewer) when asked how this stuff bears on Chomsky's claims (here). As he notes, it is largely at right angles to the relevant issues concerning Chomsky universals.

I now think that there is really no way to flush this misconception out of the intellectual cogno-sphere. For reasons that completely elude me, people refuse to think about Universals in anything but Grennbergian terms. I suspect that this is partly due to strong desire to find that Chomsky is wrong. And given that his big claim concerns universal grammar and given that it is not that hard to find that languages robustly differ in their surface properties, it seems pretty easy to show that Chomsky's claims were not only wrong, but obviously so. This fits well into a certain kind of political agenda: not only is Chomsky a political naif, but he is also a scientific one. If only he had bothered looking at the facts rather than remain blinkered by his many preconceptions. Of course, if Chomsky universals are not Greenberg universals then this simple minded dismissal collapses. That's one reason why, IMO, the confusion will be with us for a long time. It's a confusion that pays dividends.

There are several others as well. You all already know that I believe that Empiricism cannot help confusing the two kinds of universals, as Greenberg universals are the only kinds that the Eishly inclined can feel comfortable with. But this may be too fancy an account for why this stuff gets such widespread coverage in the popular press. For the latter, I think the simple desire to sink Chomsky suffices.

At any rate, for those that care, it's hard to believe that anyone will find this "discovery" surprising. Who would have thought that keeping semantically significant units close to one another could be useful. Sure surprised me.


  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

  2. Here is the link to the paper itself:

  3. I encountered this too. It's like doing a statistical analysis of a large number of games of checkers, and determining that the game had evolved to minimize the difference between board positions. To make the game easier to play, of course.

  4. It's not a new discovery (and if you read the article carefully, you'll see it's not presented as one, though that's the first thing to get lost in the media frenzy of course!). It is a quantitative confirmation of an observation that dates back to the early 20th c if not before — for instance, you can find the same observation in the first of Behaghel's Laws.