The Economist, while not a linguistics journal, does far better with language stories than the NY Times (which I have repeatedly lambasted in this space). Case in point: their Jan. 8 article on David Gil, a researcher at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig (no credit given to the writer, unfortunately). The Times dealt with the issue last May, and I had to whack them again for their sloppiness; the Economist may not settle the question, but they report on Gil’s theories with intelligence and a basic grasp of what’s involved:
Dr Gil has been studying Riau for the past 12 years. Initially, he says, he struggled with the language, despite being fluent in standard Indonesian. However, a breakthrough came when he realised that what he had been thinking of as different parts of speech were, in fact, grammatically the same. For example, the phrase “the chicken is eating” translates into colloquial Riau as “ayam makan”. Literally, this is “chicken eat”. But the same pair of words also have meanings as diverse as “the chicken is making somebody eat”, or “somebody is eating where the chicken is”. There are, he says, no modifiers that distinguish the tenses of verbs. Nor are there modifiers for nouns that distinguish the definite from the indefinite (“the”, as opposed to “a”). Indeed, there are no features in Riau Indonesian that distinguish nouns from verbs. These categories, he says, are imposed because the languages that western linguists are familiar with have them.
This sort of observation flies in the face of conventional wisdom about what language is. Most linguists are influenced by the work of Noam Chomsky—in particular, his theory of “deep grammar”. According to Dr Chomsky, people are born with a sort of linguistic template in their brains. This is a set of rules that allows children to learn a language quickly, but also imposes constraints and structure on what is learnt. Evidence in support of this theory includes the tendency of children to make systematic mistakes which indicate a tendency to impose rules on what turn out to be grammatical exceptions (eg, “I dided it” instead of “I did it”). There is also the ability of the children of migrant workers to invent new languages known as creoles out of the grammatically incoherent pidgin spoken by their parents. Exactly what the deep grammar consists of is still not clear, but a basic distinction between nouns and verbs would probably be one of its minimum requirements.
Dr Gil contends, however, that there is a risk of unconscious bias leading to the conclusion that a particular sort of grammar exists in an unfamiliar language. That is because it is easier for linguists to discover extra features in foreign languages—for example tones that change the meaning of words, which are common in Indonesian but do not exist in European languages—than to realise that elements which are taken for granted in a linguist’s native language may be absent from another. Despite the best intentions, he says, there is a tendency to fit languages into a mould. And since most linguists are westerners, that mould is usually an Indo-European language from the West.
It need not, however, be a modern language. Dr Gil’s point about bias is well illustrated by the history of the study of the world’s most widely spoken tongue. Many of the people who developed modern linguistics had had an education in Latin and Greek. As a consequence, English was often described until well into the 20th century as having six different noun cases, because Latin has six….
The difficulty is compounded if a linguist is not fluent in the language he is studying. The process of linguistic fieldwork is a painstaking one, fraught with pitfalls. Its mainstay is the use of “informants” who tell linguists, in interviews and on paper, about their language. Unfortunately, these informants tend to be better-educated than their fellows, and are often fluent in more than one language. This, in conjunction with the comparatively formal setting of an interview (even if it is done in as basic a location as possible), can systematically distort the results. While such interviews are an unavoidable, and essential, part of the process, Dr Gil has also resorted to various ruses in his attempts to elicit linguistic information. In one of them, he would sit by the ferry terminal on Batam, an Indonesian island near Singapore, with sketches of fish doing different things. He then struck up conversations with shoeshine boys hanging around the dock, hoping that the boys would describe what the fish were doing in a relaxed, colloquial manner.
The experiment, though, was not entirely successful: when the boys realised his intention, they began to speak more formally. This experience, says Dr Gil, illustrates the difficulties of collecting authentic information about the ways in which people speak. But those differences, whether or not they reflect the absence of a Chomskian deep grammar, might be relevant not just to language, but to the very way in which people think.
The story goes on to describe an intriguing experiment Gil, in collaboration with Lera Boroditsky, a researcher at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, is carrying out to test Sapir-Whorf; I’ll be interested to see what they come up with. (Via Eamonn Fitzgerald’s Rainy Day.)
Update. Mark Liberman has an interesting take on this over at Language Log.