The sword of reason is being wielded with a mighty wielding over at Language Log. First Bill Poser whacks Steven Pinker for including an alleged family tree entitled “The Ancestry of Modern English” in his book Words and Rules; in the tree:

Indo-European is shown as a daughter of Eurasiatic and a sister of Uralic and Altaic. No other subgroups of Eurasiatic are shown. Eurasiatic in turn is shown as a subgroup of Nostratic, with Dravidian and Afro-Asiatic as the other subgroups. Nostratic in turn is shown as a sister of Sino-Tibetan and New Guinea, with the parent labelled with a question mark.

Not only is this completely loony, there’s no reason for it to even be there:

The chapter is devoted to showing that rules are not restricted to English but are found in a variety of other languages. The approach that Pinker takes is to start with languages closely related to English and show how remoter and remoter languages also have rules. All that really matters is that his examples not be closely related. He could have made the same point just as well without any discussion of remote genetic relationships.

Next, Mark Liberman quotes Rivka at Respectful of Otters giving Camille Paglia hell for not thinking clearly about the difference between the students she remembers from her college days and those she teaches now, and adds sagely “I try to be suspicious of generational generalizations based on nothing but my own personal observation, because of the sampling bias that Rivka describes, as well as the mythologizing effects of selective memory.” Finally, Geoffrey K. Pullum lets loose on the know-nothingism that forces John Kerry to try to conceal the fact that he’s fluent in French. Go get ‘em, Loggers!


  1. Steven Pinker, bless his soul, reminds me of the Belle’s spouse from “A Modern Belle” (Harper’s New Monthly Magazine, vol. 6 (April 1853), p. 707 [from the "Editor's Drawer" section]):
    “She falls in love with a fellow,
    Who swells with a foreign air;
    He marries her for her money,
    She marries him for his — hair!”
    i attended a guest lecture of his up in University of Chicago. for the first time ever, i found myself arguing with someone i actually agreed with. he made, in general, good sense, but didn’t do a very good job of providing convincing evidence.
    lovely curls though. :)

  2. Michael Farris says:

    How the mighty have fallen, next thing you know, Pinker will be shilling Basque codes or something.

  3. Interest in and patience with long, complex books and poems have alarmingly diminished…
    My theory is that Ms. Paglia grew bitter (er, more bitter) after running into a stack of Sexual Personae on the clearance bin of a secondhand bookshop.

  4. I can understand this stuff coming from geneticists like Cavalli-Sforza but I’m really surprised about Pinker. I wonder if there are any other examples in his work of shaky, unexamined assumptions being presented as facts ?

  5. Great find!
    “Luxuriant hair is always pleasing, possibly because it shows not only current health but a record of health in the years before.”
    Steven Pinker, LFHCfS
    Psychology Department
    Harvard University
    Cambridge, Massachusetts
    (Submitted by acclamation, and then cheerfully acknowledged by Dr. Pinker)

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