Thursday, December 11, 2014

Natural causes of language: Frames, biases, and cultural transmission

From the blurb:
Because bits of language are always parts of systems, we also need to show how it is that items of knowledge and behavior become structured wholes. The book argues that to achieve this, we need to see how causal processes apply in multiple frames or 'time scales' simultaneously, and we need to understand and address each and all of these frames in our work on language. This forces us to confront implications that are not always comfortable: for example, that "a language" is not a real thing but a convenient fiction, that language-internal and language-external processes have a lot in common, and that tree diagrams are poor conceptual tools for understanding the history of languages. 
The book is available as a free download or you can pay for a hard copy. 

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Languages – entities such as English, Basque, or Mandarin, that are conceived of as quasi-permanent and fixed in nature – are convenient fictions. Think of them as turbulent fluids having multiple viscosities more or less arranged in layers. At the bottom we have a layer that is almost but not completely solid. It is fluid, but it moves very slowly. You might call it langue. At the top we have layer that his quite viscious, always in motion. You might call it parole. I don't know how many layers there are in between, and I don't think they're cleanly separated.
This is, of course, quite different from the Chomskyian view in any of its various incarnations. But could we have gotten to this realization without having gone through the Chomsky-revolution? Abstractly considered, sure we could have. But concretely, we didn't.

Chomsky gave us a new way of thinking about language. He didn't make it up out of whole cloth. He was building on previous work. But he pulled it together, but it in a box, wrapped it, and put a pretty bow on it. It proved highly attractive and brought lots of invetigators into linguistics. At least part of the process that led to our current position is one of adapting to the repeated failures of the Chomsky program. Chomsky gave us a telescope and told us what we were to see through it. But we managed to figure out that what we see doesn't work like Chomsky says it does.

And now we're building other instruments based on other principles.

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