Several people have sent me links to Tom Bartlett’s Chronicle Review piece on Daniel Everett’s attempt to demolish Noam Chomsky’s hegemonic linguistic theory and the messy academic battle that has ensued. I wrote about Everett here, and anyone who’s been reading LH for a while will know that I root for anyone going up against Chomsky and his minions, but I must confess that my acquaintance with the current state of linguistics is so scanty that I do not have an informed opinion on the details of the argument. I have seen it said that Everett is attacking a long-abandoned form of the theory, that nobody any longer believes what Chomsky used to say about recursion, etc. But I will quote a section that illustrates why I despise what Chomsky has done to a once collegial field:
Critics haven’t just accused Everett of inaccurate analysis. He’s the sole authority on a language that he says changes everything. If he wanted to, they suggest, he could lie about his findings without getting caught. Some were willing to declare him essentially a fraud. That’s what one of the authors of the 2009 paper, Andrew Nevins, now at University College London, seems to believe. When I requested an interview with Nevins, his reply read, “I may be being glib, but it seems you’ve already analyzed this kind of case!” Below his message was a link to an article I had written about a Dutch social psychologist who had admitted to fabricating results, including creating data from studies that were never conducted. In another e-mail, after declining to expand on his apparent accusation, Nevins wrote that the “world does not need another article about Dan Everett.”
In 2007, Everett heard reports of a letter signed by Cilene Rodrigues, who is Brazilian, and who co-wrote the paper with Pesetsky and Nevins, that accuses him of racism. According to Everett, he got a call from a source informing him that Rodrigues, an honorary research fellow at University College London, had sent a letter to the organization in Brazil that grants permission for researchers to visit indigenous groups like the Pirahã. He then discovered that the organization, called FUNAI, the National Indian Foundation, would no longer grant him permission to visit the Pirahã, whom he had known for most of his adult life and who remain the focus of his research.
He still hasn’t been able to return.
Chomsky has remained magisterially in the background and refused to comment, but his minions are behaving in a way more appropriate to a down-and-dirty political campaign than to an academic disagreement. In a sense, the facts of the language are irrelevant; the way the dispute is carried on speaks volumes.
Update. See now Geoff Pullum’s excellent summary of the case.