Thursday, September 15, 2016

McWhorter on Wolf on Chomsky and Everett: What color are the thoughts of a 12-tone squid sleeping furiously?

Dan Everett says that John McWhorter's review of Tom Wolf's The Kingdom of Speech is the best review of the book to date. I'll take Dan's word for it. The book, as you may know, pits Everett against Chomsky in the Intellectual Cage Match of the Century.

Here's McWhorter getting started on Chomskyian linguistic theory:
For example, in English we say, What do you want? But Chomskyan theory suggests that when our brains first assemble such a sentence, it structures it as You want what? This hardly seems implausible, since what is the object of want and objects usually come after their verb in English (I kick the ball). Besides, we can even actually say, "You want what?" depending on the tone we intend.

Thus, Chomskyan syntax has it that — in English, although obviously not in all other languages — there is a special rule for a word like what, which moves it from after want to the beginning of the sentence.

So far, fine. But from one academic generation to the next, this method of parsing language has mission-crept into a strangely complicated business, increasingly unrelated to what either laypeople or intellectuals outside of linguistics would think of as human language. It is truly one of the oddest schools of thought I am familiar with in any discipline; it intrigues me from afar, like giant squid and 12-tone classical music.
Yes! I like the slippage "from one academic generation to the next," which I've observed in literary theory. And McWhorter has a word on that as well:
And as to whether the density of the jargon (which I have spared the reader) is deliberately fashioned for an air of profundity, the charge is as unnecessary as it is against the lingo of literary criticism. The jargon accreted gradually and imperceptibly over decades, and is readily comprehensible to practitioners.
This McWhorter, he's a level-headed guy. On Dan Everett:
Everett agrees that there is some kind of genetic specification for language in a general sense — there’s a reason chimpanzees do not talk and do not even use sign language on a primitive level unless painstakingly taught to by humans. But he dismisses the idea that it calls for quietly shifting subjects, verbs bouncing around, or exercising the mental muscles that perform math and create computer programs. Language is just saying what you are: "Our identities and our cultural cloaks," as Everett has put it. For those dedicated to Chomsky’s syntactical tree diagrams, this could only sound simplistic, uninformed, and even dangerous — distracting the public from science with feel-good pablum.
FWIW McWhorter thinks the syntacticians may have a point:
Wolfe describes how three die-hard Chomskyans penned an almost obsessively detailed rebuttal to Everett’s claims about Pirahã in linguistics’ flagship journal Language, making them seem like hapless, sputtering refugees from The Revenge of the Nerds. The truth is that even someone more inclined to Everett's claims than the Chomskyans' – e.g., me — who slogged through that rebuttal plus the response from Everett and a riposte from the syntacticians, ends up unexpectedly finding the syntacticians largely convincing. It seems quite plausible that Pirahã is not as quirky a human language as Everett proposed.
The whole thing is worth reading.

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