Friday, June 29, 2007

"Thus I refute Chomsky."

I just wanted to write that headline. Props to Dr. Johnson. It's not actually me refuting Chomsky, and no-one, at this point, is entirely certain that there is a refutation going on. But this article from the New Yorker, referenced in Jerry Pournelle's mail, seems to point that way.

“When I went back and read the stuff Sapir wrote in the twenties, I just realized, hey, this really is a tradition that we lost,” Everett said. “People believe they’ve actually studied a language when they have given it a Chomskyan formalism. And you may have given us absolutely no insight whatsoever into that language as a separate language.”

Everett began to question the first principle of Chomskyan linguistics: that infants could not learn language if the principles of grammar had not been pre-installed in the brain. Babies are bathed in language from the moment they acquire the capacity to hear in the womb, Everett reasoned, and parents and caregivers expend great energy teaching children how to say words and assemble them into sentences—a process that lasts years. Was it really true that language, as Chomsky asserted, simply “grows like any other body organ”? Everett did not deny the existence of a biological endowment for language—humans couldn’t talk if they did not possess the requisite neurological architecture to do so. But, convinced that culture plays a far greater role than Chomsky’s theory accounted for, he decided that he needed to “take a radical reëxamination of my whole approach to the problem.”
It would be such fun to learn that Chomsky, revered as a scientist of linguistics in Academe, and as a sage of politics by the Left, had been wrong in both places! That his linguistics was really, from the article, "something that looks like science." As opposed to being actually, you know, science. The Ptolomaic epicycles looked like science, once. But if indeed there is a natural language, spoken by actual human beings, that does not conform to Chomsky's theories of "deep structure," then might not that invalidate all his other pronouncements? Ah, the weeping in Bezerkeley. Though it's certainly possible to be right about one thing, and wrong about another.

Still, this tribe may be evidence that Sapir and Whorf (and Jack Vance) had something going on. I guess where I'm going with this is that I'm looking to be able to say, "Noam Chomsky, you nut! You had people fooled for a while, thinking you were a smart guy! You fooled people into thinking you were a genius of linguistics, and bootstrapped that reputation into people thinking you were a deep thinker in other fields! But we're on to you now."

There's another whole post in the Pirahã attitude toward time. If I have time, I'll get to it. If thinking about that post comes back into experience.


Adrian said...

thanks, very interesting article, i forwarded it to a bunch of people! (including students of a couple people mentioned in the article; the only one I know is my fellow montrealer Pinker, who is a great guy, fwiw)
as for Whorf, he just hasn't been the same since Jadzia died.
oh, and I was the one who posted the musicovery link over in the althouse comments a while back, glad you like it!

Hector Owen said...

Thanks for the musicovery link. I've changed the post. I thought Pinker's comments in the article very reasonable, so I'm glad to hear that you approve of him. I'll be curious to see how this plays out, if this seeming exception to Chomsky's Grand Theory will bring it down.

Happy Canada Day!