Mark Liberman has a post at the Log in which he waxes wroth about what he calls a “bizarre meme” by which “every piece of linguistic research is spun as a challenge to ‘universal grammar’.” I wasn’t transfixed by it (my throwaway comment: “I, on the other hand, welcome the new wave of anti-‘universal grammar’ spinners”), but the dreaded name of Chomsky came up, and Dominik Lukeš wrote: “Something about what the statement ‘Chomsky was a massively gifted linguist’ by the other Mark P rubbed me the wrong way. I was trying to figure out in writing what the reason for my discomfort might be but it got a bit long and a bit too off topic, so I wrote a separate blog post about it.” I urge anyone interested in modern linguistics to read his post; not only does he explain (as his post title says) “Why Chomsky doesn’t count as a gifted linguist,” but he goes on to ask “So who deserves the label ‘gifted linguist’ defined as somebody who repeatedly elucidates legitimate language phenomena in a way that is relevant across areas of inquiry?” He discusses the work of MAK Halliday, Roman Jakobson, Charles Fillmore, William Labov, his “personal favorite linguist” Michael Hoey, and William Croft, whose Radical Construction Grammar is “probably the most interesting and innovative view of language that has come about since de Saussure.” For anyone who, like me, hasn’t been keeping up with the field for a while, it’s a great source for further exploration.
And our own gifted linguist, marie-lucie, has an excellent comment from which I extract this eye-opening passage:
I recently attended a presentation which centered on some syntactic structures in a language I know quite well, or rather, on translations into that language of complex English sentences, for which the consultant had obviously tried to please the linguist by coming up with sentences that were quite ungrammatical in her language – while she would have been quite capable of describing the (odd) situations presented if she had responded naturally with the (differently structured) resources of her own language.
This type of problem is one that linguists should always be aware of: a “wonderful” consultant who can always be counted on to come up with a translation may be linguistically imaginative rather than displaying models of her native grammatical competence. The modalities of thus adapting to the English structures could be a valid subject of study, if recognized by the linguist, but it is very misleading to describe such adaptations as spontaneous utterances typical of the structure of the language. Sentences thus obtained, which have no parallel in those naturally occurring in spontaneous utterances or in texts, should be very suspicious, especially if some of the features are quite at odds with those independently described in works on the same language.
By the way, there’s been an interesting and irritating discussion going on at the Log about the meaning of most: interesting because it turns out there are two very different understandings of the word (some, like me, think it means ‘more than half’; a lot of people, far more than I would have guessed, think it means ‘way more than half, an overwhelming majority’), and irritating because the “way more than half” group doesn’t seem to want to believe the rest of us are telling the truth (“And, so, while it’s a little sketchy to take 51.4% and call it ‘most’, doing so serves the argumentative ends of the writer”; my response: “It is not ‘sketchy’ if that’s what it means to you!”). I haven’t blogged about it because there doesn’t seem to be much to say except “This is what it means to me!” “Well, this is what it means to me!” But if you want to follow it, here are the posts: Most, Most examples, Most and many.
Update. See now this Log post, in which Mark Liberman quotes from publications that “provide a variety of (mostly perceptual) evidence for the view that most really does mean ‘more than half’, while offering a greater variety of theories about the strategies that (different sorts of) people use to determine whether this is true in particular cases.” If you’re interested in the topic, don’t miss it.