Tom Wolfe vs. Chomsky.

I will stipulate up front that Tom Wolfe’s mannerisms can be annoying (especially if you read more than one of his books) and that no matter how much research he’s done, his view of linguistics is inevitably an outsider’s and will contain errors. Still, I was delighted to read Victor Mair’s Log post about Wolfe’s cover article in the August Harper’s, “The Origins of Speech: In the beginning was Chomsky.” The title caused me to fear the worst, but it turns out he (rightly, in my view) sees Chomsky’s revolution as a Bad Thing; here are a couple of snippets Mair quotes:

Only wearily could Chomsky endure traditional linguists who thought fieldwork was essential and wound up in primitive places, emerging from the tall grass zipping their pants up. They were like the ordinary flycatchers in Darwin’s day coming back from the middle of nowhere with their sacks full of little facts and buzzing about with their beloved multi-language fluency. But what difference did it make, knowing all those native tongues? Chomsky made it clear he was elevating linguistics to the altitude of Plato’s transcendent eternal universals. They, not sacks of scattered facts, were the ultimate reality, the only true objects of knowledge. Besides, he didn’t enjoy the outdoors, where “the field” was. He was relocating the field to Olympus. Not only that, he was giving linguists permission to stay air-conditioned. They wouldn’t have to leave the building at all, ever again … no more trekking off to interview boneheads in stench-humid huts. And here on Olympus, you had plumbing.

… …

In August of 2014, Chomsky teamed up with three colleagues, Johan J. Bolhuis, Robert C. Berwick, and Ian Tattersall, to publish an article for the journal PLoS Biology with the title “How Could Language Have Evolved?” After an invocation of the Strong Minimalist Thesis and the Hierarchical Syntactic Structure, Chomsky and his new trio declare, “It is uncontroversial that language has evolved, just like any other trait of living organisms.” Nothing else in the article is anywhere nearly so set in concrete. Chomsky et alii note it was commonly assumed that language was created primarily for communication … but … in fact communication is an all but irrelevant, by-the-way use of language … language is deeper than that; it is a “particular computational cognitive system, implemented neurally” … there is the proposition that Neanderthals could speak … but … there is no proof … we know anatomically that the Neanderthals’ hyoid bone in the throat, essential for Homo sapiens‘s speech, was in the right place … but …”hyoid morphology, like most other lines of evidence, is evidently no silver bullet for determining when human language originated” … Chomsky and the trio go over aspect after aspect of language … but … there is something wrong with every hypothesis … they try to be all-encompassing … but … in the end any attentive soul reading it realizes that all 5,000 words were summed up in the very first eleven words of the piece, which read: “The evolution of the faculty of language largely remains an enigma.”

The article is a teaser for Wolfe’s forthcoming book, The Kingdom of Speech, which I hope sells like hotcakes. The Log comment thread has the inevitable quota of indignant responses from Chomskyists as well as one from Dan Everett, who says “I think that the main takeaway from Wolfe’s article and perhaps the book is that this is the opinion of someone who has looked carefully at the field for years. Some mistakes are likely his fault. Others are the fault of the field for having been unsuccessful in making itself understandable to the public.”

Comments

  1. The Language Log post is here, to save anyone else the trouble of looking it up. I look forward to the book!

  2. Ken Miner says:

    Only wearily could Chomsky endure traditional linguists who thought fieldwork was essential and wound up in primitive places, emerging from the tall grass zipping their pants up

    Not an exaggeration. I earned my doctorate at Indiana in the early 70s under Andreas Koutsoudas, who actually ridiculed field linguists in the classroom: “you have to suffer,” they supposedly thought, whereas in reality “you can do linguistics in comfort, with dancing girls even, if you know what to look for.” (exact quotes, or nearly so). Serious Chomskyans believed linguistic data to be available to mere introspection, since universal grammar is represented in all languages, including English (which eventually became: especially English). I inveighed against this scorn for mere “hewers of wood and drawers of water” later in my own papers.

    However it cannot be denied that Chomsky gave linguistics a tremendous shot in the arm, and a great deal was discovered during the years of his influence, if for no other reason, because the field greatly expanded. As well as I can remember membership in the LSA (Linguistic Society of America) tripled in the 70s alone.

    As for Tom Wolfe, I can’t forget that he once regarded E. O. Wilson as “a new Darwin”. But maybe this book will be a useful popular corrective.

  3. Greg Pandatshang says:

    Does anyone like Chomsky? No one I pay attention to does anything but deride his linguistic views (with the occasional caveat that they appreciate his political views). And yet people always talk about the vast influence of Chomsky et al. on the field. Must be I’ve quietly segregated myself into a ghetto of anti-Chomskyanism.

  4. So you have, at least when you post here: this is a safe space for Chomsky-bashing, and so you get plenty of it. Although (as I’ve posted many times) I think Chomsky is a fine fellow who was very kind to me, spending an hour in 1-1 conversation when I was 17. I just think he is very probably wrong about linguistics.

  5. marie-lucie says:

    I am old enough to have been present at the frontier between the old and the new linguistics.

    Before Chomsky, modern (“structural”) linguistics was mostly focused on phonology (sound systems) and morphology (word formation), which are basically static components of any language. Syntax was mentioned, but was not too different from parsing. Chomsky shifted the focus to syntax as a dynamic element enabling creativity, and that was indeed a major improvement, giving new impetus to linguistic research. Unfortunately, the strong focus on English and the reliance on a specific abstract formalism (which turned out to need constant adjustments even to account for English data, let alone foreign ones) soon started to alienate other linguists (along with the open, often literally vocal disparagement of the work of others).

    The new theoretical emphasis also attracted a very different type of linguist. Before Chomsky, the only “armchair” linguists in America were historical ones, who had been pretty much pushed out of the picture. “Real” linguists had often started in anthropology and looked for new languages to learn, even in remote corners of the globe (or at least in neglected indigenous areas). But the new breed of Chomskyan disciples often disliked learning other languages or encountering other cultures and were happy to be able to rely on their own “native speaker intuition”, sprung from their own superior intellects!

  6. The Language Log post is here, to save anyone else the trouble of looking it up.

    Oops! Don’t know how that happened; I’ve added it to the post. Thanks!

  7. But the new breed of Chomskyan disciples often disliked learning other languages or encountering other cultures and were happy to be able to rely on their own “native speaker intuition”, sprung from their own superior intellects!

    So all those indignant linguists who are disdained that when one of the unwashed masses on learning their profession asks how many languages their know are just closeted Chomskyites?

  8. http://city-journal.org/html/tom-wolfe%E2%80%99s-california-13514.html

    Wolfe, the ballyhooed 60’s, Black Panther “community organizing” and American social demise…

  9. Ken Miner says:

    I do not dislike the present Chomsky. He gave a lecture last year, “Language and Philosophy” (I don’t remember where) of which the main thrust was to express what has become known as The New Mysterianism. He not only ceded that there are limits to what we as humans can grasp, but showed that this has always been known and that Hume, especially, was explicit about it. He made the important point that if human intelligence were really unlimited it would have no structure and thus be nothing. (I think that last idea is brilliant.)

    He also now thinks that language is not mainly for communication. Most of it is internal. He further thinks that this was true for hunter-gatherers. This internal procedure is not really language, though it is related to real language. So what the child learns is how to externalize its thought-language, which it acquires very early. Externalization is what, presumably, hunter-gatherers eventually did, whence the origin of language.The thought-language was due to a mutation, basically a re-wiring of the brain. Since it aided planning, it was selected for.

    Chomsky was careful to caution that this is all speculation.

  10. marie-lucie says:

    D.O. So all those indignant linguists who are disdained that when one of the unwashed masses on learning their profession asks how many languages their know are just closeted Chomskyites?

    I would not go that far.

    When I am asked this sort of question I reply “It depends what you mean by ‘know'” (or ‘speak’)”.

    Ken Miner: thank you for this report. He seems to have mellowed considerably in his approach.

  11. @Greg Pandatshang: Yes, Chomskian linguistics is still very much a thing, and dominant in a number of regions/departments.

    I’ll do some pro-generative advocacy here, even though my research interests are typically downplayed by Chomskians: generative linguistics isn’t just a preference for armchairs (and these days, perhaps unlike in the past, there is such a thing as serious generative inquiry of less-studied languages–though I’ve disagreed with certain universalistic analyses, but it’s not like there’s no analyses; they aren’t working only on English, and most of them will readily agree that the careful study of other languages is necessary even for their purposes); generative linguistics is a paradigm in the true Kuhnian sense, i.e. a model of how to do things. Like any paradigm, it has a bias towards what kind of question it finds interesting; as a model, it only really works for its own kind of question. But, assuming you’re intrigued, first and foremost, by the problem of understanding the grammatical machinery of the faculty of language, then generative methods have resulted in all sorts of interesting discoveries about non-obvious phenomena, like island effects or parasitic gaps.

    I have nothing but respect for the interests of generativists, though I don’t share them. My only problem is with them is…

    Okay, I can’t do this. Sorry. Begin rant.

    My only problem with generativists their cavalier, oftentimes even aggressive and humiliating attitude towards other questions about language, and to the methods that can investigate them. Like when Chomsky said that “at present there is not much in the way of a theory of sociolinguistics, of social uses of languages, as far as I am aware” (and those thousands of pages by Labov are what, exactly?! All those rs are measuring what??). The idea that, unless you’re studying the language capacity itself from an internal, rationalistic perspective using a generative-style abstract apparatus, what you’re doing is Not Linguistics. The idea that questions like, say, what can we learn from the evolution of language by the archaeology of hominid fossils, or what can we learn about language modules by measuring neuronal activity, are a priori dead-ends not worthy of further investigation. The attitude according to which, when Labov discovers the near-merge and proves it experimentally, solving at a stroke questions that puzzled philologists and historical linguists for centuries, what he did was some sort of lowly “mere empiricism” that shouldn’t count as real linguistics, because real linguistics is specifically about the natural, individual ability called “the faculty of language”, not about the persistent, enduring, social phenomenons called English, Spanish, Ainu etc.; and similarly when the comparative method successfully predicted features of Hittite before it was deciphered, or when the timeframe and vocabulary of Proto-Indo-European reconstructions were vindicated by archaeology, these results are not really science, according the the rationalist definition of science that Chomsky favors. That, when a fieldworker spend years completing the documentation trinity (descriptive grammar, dictionary, textual corpus) of a rare endangered language right before it disappears forever in a puff of irreversibility, what he did isn’t actually linguistics but mere “butterfly collecting” (and I blame the first wave of Chomskian rhetoric for a noticeable dent in the documentation of endangered languages in my area, mid-20th century). That when functionalists discover how functional pressures will, say, relate word length to frequency, or when a corpus linguist uses novel statistical methods to successfully identify unexpected gender bias in certain terms, or when typologists identify definite Greenbergian tendencies across world languages, or when a working group near here found out that prescriptively-favored nominal agreement is culturally associated, in Brazil, with “sounding gay”, in a way that’s completely unconscious to the speaker – what all those people are doing isn’t Linguistics, doesn’t merit attention (funding?), just isn’t worth it. And of course – insert disclaimer of personal bitterness, condensed from many a heated discussion – my current research topic, writing systems, is right out, given that (for nativists) written language isn’t even language to begin with, but merely a representation of speech, which itself is merely an externalization of a personal i-language, which itself is just an instance of Language, which is the only thing that matters – the only thing that should matter.

  12. Wolfe, although a Yalie through and through

    For the record, the boy from Richmond was an undergrad at Washington and Lee. A professor there directed him to graduate work at Yale (American Studies, not linguistics), which seems to have put him off academia in favor of journalism.

    I like him well enough, though I find I can’t read him more than once.

  13. J.W. Brewer says:

    Alas for leoboiko I think the prejudice against writing systems as relatively trivial and definitely external to the “real thing” about language is not a mere Chomskyan tic but an attitude spread across many factions of academic linguistics over the last century, maybe going back to circa Saussure? It’s understandable as an overreaction to a certain irksome prescriptivist assumption that the standard written form of a language is the platonic Real Thing, with the spoken form being an often error-ridden poor approximation. But it’s still an overreaction and thus imho unscientific.

    But two thumbs up for the rest of the rant!

  14. David Marjanović says:

    and similarly when the comparative method successfully predicted features of Hittite before it was deciphered, or when the timeframe and vocabulary of Proto-Indo-European reconstructions were vindicated by archaeology, these results are not really science, according the the rationalist definition of science that Chomsky favors.

    I have trouble even imagining such a definition.

    And I say this as a biologist – we got our grand unified theory of everything around the time Chomsky began to look for one in his field.

  15. Okay, I can’t do this. Sorry. Begin rant.

    Thank you for that rant; it did my soul good!

  16. George Grady says:

    He made the important point that if human intelligence were really unlimited it would have no structure and thus be nothing. (I think that last idea is brilliant.)

    Could you explain this? Why should something unlimited necessarily be structureless?

  17. 1-David: Just for the record I myself, here at Casa Hat, had said a year and a half ago that generativism isn’t science, so rest assured that your being a biologist has nothing to do with your perception of generativism!

    2-Tom Wolfe is in one sense too gentle with Chomsky: Fieldworkers weren’t the only linguists he scorned, he scorned any linguist whose work was data-based. Moreover, there is good evidence that he strongly encouraged such contemptuous attitudes among his students too.

    On the other he is too harsh, seemingly seing him as a cause rather than a symptom of the near-collapse of reality-based linguistics. I cannot help but note that many other fields have, like linguistics, moved away from close engagement with data and towards abstract ideas which are undemonstrable and unfalsifiable in nature.

    3-Chomsky et al.’s 2014 article sounds like the logical continuation of Hauser, Chomsky and Fitch 2002, an article on the origins of human language, which has been argued by Derek Bickerton to be a political compromise pure and simple (see his book ADAM’S TONGUE, pages 169-180).

  18. Ken Miner says:

    Why should something unlimited necessarily be structureless?

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3e3nne5-Irg

  19. JC, where did you post about your conversation with Chomsky at 17?

  20. He made the important point that if human intelligence were really unlimited it would have no structure and thus be nothing.

    This is, in an approximate formulation, a idea I know from Luhmann’s writings in the 1970s. It recurs in many of his works, and perhaps can also be found in other earlier writers, say Bateson or Parsons.

    Let’s define the complexity of a set of things (a “system”) to be the number of relations between those things. Maximum complexity is present when everything in the set has a relation with everything else. You could reasonably say that such a system has the maximum amount of structure, or unlimited order. But you could also reasonably say that it is chaotic, because there is no structure in the sense of a limiting, and limited, selection of relations that are essential to understanding the system. Everything iwould be essential.

    To understand something, it is necessary to have structure, i.e.something to focus on that is less than the whole (imagined) kaboodle. A “model”, for instance, a set of premisses etc. If intelligence were unlimited, it could have no (limiting) structure, and would be merely a one-to-one reproduction of the world in the world. It would be useless intelligence.

  21. Greg Pandatshang says:

    OT: how solid is the claim that the comparative method/laryngeal theory predicted features of Hittite? Do the Hittite data line up well with Saussure’s account of the coefficients sonantiques? I’ve read just a little bit about attested Hittite and found it a bit on the baffling side. The lists of PIE reconstructions that I have access to are, I assume, creating with input from Hittite, so I can’t assume they would have predicted Hittite features beforehand.

  22. J. W. Brewer says:

    OK, so I paid actual cash money for a hard copy of Harper’s at a newsstand and read the Wolfe piece on the train home. I must say that Wolfe’s prose style has not lost energy with the passage of the decades, and getting through sixteen pages of phrases like “loose louche lysergic life” was exhausting enough I’m not quite sure I’m ready for a book-length tour of duty. But excellent Chomsky-bashing and Chomsky-cult-bashing.

  23. @Greg Pandashang, strictly speaking the comparative method had no business predicting any features of Hittite, since it isn’t a theory. And the laryngeal theory is a theory about the phoneme inventory of PIE, and cannot be falsified by the existence of daughter languages without direct reflexes of laryngeal phonemes.

    That said, the laryngeal theory would be weakened (not falsified) if there were no direct reflexes in any daughter language, especially after the older Anatolian branch was added and its sound laws established. In that weak sense you can talk about ‘predicting’ that Hittite should have reflexes of one or more coefficients sonantiques, but nothing so specific as the actual reflex(es) and their distribution.

    (What would falsify the laryngeal theory would for instance be a finding that for most words there is no way to reconcile the facts from attested languages and figure out which specific laryngeals the protoform should have).

    And then, as Don Ringe likes to point out, you induce the protolanguages from the attested languages, so deducing facts about attested languages is circular reasoning. When Hittite was deciphered, strict application of the comparative method would have required you to put all old reconstructions in the shredder and start over, and see how the new PIE looked.

    (There’s a weaker sense of ‘predict’ where you go from an attested word in one language to a ‘most likely’ predecessor in a protolanguage and then look for the ‘most likely’ descendant in another language — but you can’t do that until you have solid theories about the sound laws for both. And finding something unexpected will not force you to throw out everything, though details may have to be adjusted).

    Anyway, to answer your second question, though someone with real knowledge might have to correct me: Saussure 1879 only tried to explain the (very common) type of root ablaut where long ā and ō alternate with schwa (in the reconstruction of that time), that is modern *-eh₂-/*-eh₃- — so when Hittite has paḫ- from PIE *peh₂-, it does line up.

    Modern reconstructions have laryngeals in many other positions, but as you surmise those were informed by Hittite and thus can’t be ‘confirmed’ by it, no matter how well the laryngeals line up.

  24. @Greg: “Predicted features of Hittite” is perhaps not how I would have put it. The model of PIE that existed before the decipherment of the Anatolian languages was in some parts vindicated and in other ways radically shaken by the facts observable in Anatolian; the discussion on how much it has been shaken is not over even today. And Saussure didn’t predict that a language will be discovered in Anatolia that has his coefficients sonantiques. I think the point is that he made assumptions about the existence of certain phonemes in PIE that then were corroborated by finding direct continuants in Hittite (as opposed to mere combinatory effects caused by their existence), i. e. that it was possible to use newly discovered material in order to decide between competing theories.

  25. Ian Press says:

    So good to read. Thank you in particular Ken Miner, Marie-Lucie, and John Cowan. I tried far too hard for far too long to get a handle on generative linguistics; much of it after the first few years didn’t make sense to me and occasionally I was just cut out of conversations by its proponents. The field of linguistics did certainly profit massively from Chomsky’s influence and I have enormous admiration for several of those convinced by Chomskyan Linguistics. But I don’t think its achievement matched the achievement of the late eighteenth to early twentieth centuries in the study of language and languages, and many people have plodded on in that tradition, with very great success. I value immensely the Dixons and the Trasks, and many others, and derive so much pleasure from continuing to learn as much as I can about as many languages as I can. And not just about languages…

  26. David Marjanović says:

    1-David: Just for the record I myself, here at Casa Hat, had said a year and a half ago that generativism isn’t science, so rest assured that your being a biologist has nothing to do with your perception of generativism!

    …There seems to be a misunderstanding here. I haven’t said anything on whether generativism is science or not; I tried to say that Chomsky’s definition of science seems to be very strange – if generating and testing hypotheses isn’t science, what is?

    Saussure 1879 only tried to explain the (very common) type of root ablaut where long ā and ō alternate with schwa (in the reconstruction of that time)

    AFAIK, he tried to unite most or all ablaut types as *e : *o : 0 (which was one of the types) by explaining the long vowels reconstructed in other types as *e or *o plus some vanished consonant. In the process, he got rid of verb and noun roots ending in vowels.

    The Anatolian languages show otherwise inexplicable consonants in pretty much exactly the positions where, in modern notation, *h₂ and *h₃ were reconstructed. *h₁ may be indirectly represented in some cases, as discussed here.

  27. Like when Chomsky said that “at present there is not much in the way of a theory of sociolinguistics, of social uses of languages, as far as I am aware” (and those thousands of pages by Labov are what, exactly?! All those rs are measuring what??).

    There’s a dog-whistle in there, and it’s “theory”. Chomsky doesn’t think anything counts as a theory unless it has what he calls “explanatory adequacy”; that is, it must account not only for what happens (“descriptive adequacy”) but for what does not happen. This is physics-envy, as simple physical theory like Newtonian mechanics do indeed have explanatory adequacy. But quantum mechanics has no theory of why there are exactly three families of leptons and not a fourth (the last I heard), and evolutionary biology certainly cannot explain why a given hypothetical organism that does not exist cannot exist (there are some partial cases, like the square-cube law and the rule against macroscopic wheels and axles).

  28. Athel Cornish-Bowden says:

    I think Chomsky is a fine fellow who was very kind to me, spending an hour in 1-1 conversation when I was 17.

    Alas, my only meeting with Chomsky was utterly underwhelming. It was in 1999, in Siena, where he was invited to give the keynote lecture at a big meeting, and I was invited for something quite different. The people who ran the dining facilities had strong views of status, and they put me, my wife and daughter (then 16) at one end of a table that could seat ten or so, and Chomsky at the other end. Unfortunately at that time I had no idea what Chomsky looked like, and didn’t know that I had been sharing a table with him until someone at another table called over and asked if I knew who had just left. I didn’t ask him anything about the appearance of language as a result of natural selection (probably the only subject we would have had in common other than politics), and I don’t think our conversation went beyond a request to pass the salt.

  29. George Grady says:

    To understand something, it is necessary to have structure, i.e.something to focus on that is less than the whole (imagined) kaboodle. A “model”, for instance, a set of premisses etc. If intelligence were unlimited, it could have no (limiting) structure, and would be merely a one-to-one reproduction of the world in the world. It would be useless intelligence.

    This seems to me to be defining “limited” as “having structure”, in which case it doesn’t seem all that interesting. I must be missing something.

  30. I’m not too fond of Tom Wolfe – I made the mistake of slogging my way through two of his books – but I’m tempted to read his take on the linguistics wars anyway…

    Leo Boiko: Extremely well put – both the rant and the “advocacy” are spot on.

  31. AFAIK, he tried to unite most or all ablaut types as *e : *o : 0 (which was one of the types) by explaining the long vowels reconstructed in other types as *e or *o plus some vanished consonant. In the process, he got rid of verb and noun roots ending in vowels.

    Not all — Saussure only posited the vowel-coloring laryngeals, what we now call *h₂ and *h₃. It was Möller who further extended the system with the lengthening-but-not-coloring *h₁ and thus did away with the need for vowel-final roots.

  32. The field of linguistics did certainly profit massively from Chomsky’s influence

    I disagree, unless you mean “profit” strictly in the financial sense.

  33. David Marjanović says:

    quantum mechanics has no theory of why there are exactly three families of leptons and not a fourth

    Correct.

    evolutionary biology certainly cannot explain why a given hypothetical organism that does not exist cannot exist

    The simple answer is that lots of organisms can exist. A quick look at extant or extinct biodiversity will provoke many sentiments like “who ordered those?!?”. 🙂

    Even so, many cannot exist because there’s nothing they could evolve from. Evolution is contingent; it can only work on what is there.

    the rule against macroscopic wheels and axles

    That, too, might just be contingent.

    It was Möller

    Oh! Thanks.

  34. Bathrobe says:

    So the prediction of features in Hittite can’t in any way be compared to the discovery of Neptune?

  35. vrai.cabecou says:

    “Does anyone like Chomsky?”

    In the new movie “Captain Fantastic,” a family celebrates “Noam Chomsky Day” in lieu of Christmas. (Pretty sure it’s not the linguistics part of his career being celebrated, though.)

  36. David Marjanović says:

    in lieu of Christmas

    Physics has been brought up, so I’m obliged to mention that Newton was born on December 25th (Julian calendar).

    Nature and Nature’s Law lay hid in night.
    God said: “Let Newton be!”
    And all was light –
    (Alexander Pope)

  37. @George Grady: This seems to me to be defining “limited” as “having structure”, in which case it doesn’t seem all that interesting. I must be missing something.

    You could also think of it as “structure” being defined as selection, i.e. of a set of things to be investigated or understood. Whatever a “structure” is in addition to being a selection, it is always a selection. Every selection is “limited”.

    This idea by itself is not all that interesting, in the sense that you could buy into it, then resell it for a quick profit. “Unlimited intelligence” – the context of this discussion – is not exactly a scientific concept anyway, in fact it reeks of metaphysics.

    But you countenanced the idea of unlimited intelligence to the extent necessary to then ask “what does it mean when Chomsky says that it is structureless” ? What I wrote about that was an attempt to show what is behind this particular conceptual argument, as I know it from Luhmann. The argument is anti-metaphysical, its purpose being to warn people off the notion of “unlimited intelligence”.

  38. @Bathrobe, there are both differences and parallels between the two discoveries.

    With Neptune, there was an unexplained phenomenon: Uranus didn’t move as predicted from the influence of the known planets. It was pretty certain that something was there to be found if you looked in the right place with the current instruments, but there were different theories about where to look, even with 20 years of observational data. And once it was found, everybody agreed that it was what they’d been looking for.

    With Hittite the unexplained phenomenon was the alternation between long vowels and schwa in ablaut, and Saussure’s coefficients sonantiques was just one theory among many (not a very popular one). Nobody was able to predict in advance that if you dug enough holes in Mesopotamia you’d be sure to find texts in a language with features that would corroborate one of the current theories — but you could predict that a feature to corroborate Saussure’s theory would look something like what was found in Hittite. It still took the better part of a century before most people in the field agreed that PIE probably had *h₂ and *h₃ for Hittite to descend from.

  39. @David: [Saussure] tried to unite most or all ablaut types […]

    @TR: Saussure only posited the vowel-coloring laryngeals, what we now call *h₂ and *h₃. It was Möller who further extended the system with the lengthening-but-not-coloring *h₁ and thus did away with the need for vowel-final roots.

    But as far as I can tell, neither had the idea that *-h₂e- and *-h₃e- would give the ablaut series with short -a- and -o-, and that together with *h₁e- they would explain vowel-initial roots.

    And yes, Hittite has *h₃ > but only in anlaut, so it doesn’t corroborate Saussure’s O.

  40. tangent says:

    What linguistics departments would be exemplars of “the near-collapse of reality-based linguistics”? And are we talking specifically about syntax? I have a hard time even imagining non-empirical phonology.

    The prototypical form of a syntax paper as I see them (which is not a random sampling of the field) is “The syntax of X in Language Y: confusion to that other theory”. There’s always data from one or more languages. Now, granted, syntacticians frequently tolerate data that’s just unattested statements of what some speaker said was valid and invalid. But that’s a far cry from being quite divorced from reality. And corpus methods are usually considered to win a conflict with “my speaker said” data (and that has its own pitfalls but that’s its own story).

    But the syntax papers I see are largely from or related to the UWashington department; others may differ.

  41. Thanks everyone and especially Hans and Lars for correcting my poor understanding of how Saussure relates to Hittite.

    @tangent:

    The prototypical form of a syntax paper as I see them (which is not a random sampling of the field) is “The syntax of X in Language Y: confusion to that other theory”.

    I corroborate the same subjective impression.

    Also, I’ve personally met hardcore generativists who have happily resorted to empirical methods (online polls) to settle disputes in intuition. I think the typical position is that empirical data is just too costly, a last-resort to be saved for the harder questions; most of the time the researcher’s intuition (or their informant’s judgment) is reliable enough for their purposes. See Sprouse et al. for a favourable measurement of reliability (but see Linzen / Oseki for some results suggesting that this kind of informal data is less reliable the less linguists there are working with the object language).

    Where I think generativists might escape reality a little bit is when they go out of their way to fit everything into some universal model. Consider Baker’s theory of universal lexical categories: all languages have the same exact classes, namely nouns, verbs, and adjectives, and he wrote a book with examples from countless languages, all proving he’s right. From where I stand, it seems to me that the theory comes a priori, and then he works hard to massage the data into it. Japanese has two morphologically and syntactically distinct kinds of adjectives; one (“na-adjectives”) behaves (morpho– and syntactically) a lot like non-inflected nouns, while the other (“i-adjectives”) behaves a lot like inflected verbs. Baker quietly brushes aside all the tests that would group na-adjectives with nouns and i-adjectives with verbs, and only presents the tests that group both together in his universal Adjective category, stating without further argument that his chosen tests are “all the ways that matter” (Croft has called this approach “methodological opportunism”). Incidentally, I have found counterexamples to many of Baker’s claims by piping the Japanese wikipedia to a bunch of shell scripts; but even if his tests were as good as he claims, the bigger problem is the biased selection of tests.

    I strongly suspect this kind of apriorism to be a general weakness in generative approaches to lesser-known languages; finding evidence to the neat universal model is considered to be more important than listening to the language in its own terms. But that’s still different from ignoring other languages altogether.

  42. From where I stand, it seems to me that the theory comes a priori, and then he works hard to massage the data into it.

    This is my impression of most if not all “theoretical linguistics,” but of course I am not an unbiased observer.

  43. Leo Boiko: Yes, where “a priori” means “in Latin (or English)”.

    David:

    It did not last: the Devil howling “Ho!
    Let Einstein be!” restored the status quo.
    (Sir John Squires)

    Stu and others: We run Turing tests on other human beings all the time, under the various names of IQ tests, job interviews, etc.

  44. Eskandar says:

    Although you might agree with the criticisms of Chomskyan linguistics, don’t mistake Wolfe’s piece for anything other than politically-motivated hatchet job. That’s made clear enough by his attacks on Vietnam war protesters and stale, trite jabs at PC language, if you didn’t already know what Wolfe’s beef with Chomsky was about. This isn’t really about linguistics for Wolfe, at least not as far as it has to do with Chomsky.

  45. J.W. Brewer says:

    It is easy enough to attack Chomsky’s politics w/o attacking his scholarly work, and one could even concede arguendo the presumed high quality of his scholarly work without undermining the force of the political critique, since the guy who is a genius in his ivory-tower specialty but a crackpot when he comments on other topics is a well-known social type. So digging deep into the substance of the scholarly controversies seems like a really unnecessary amount of work for Wolfe to have done unless he thought it had some independent interest.

  46. Eskandar says:

    Wolfe clearly did have independent interest in the field of linguistics, as he’s written an entire book on the subject and I don’t think his only motivation for that was to attack Chomsky. I just think that as far as his writing concerns Chomsky goes it’s motivated as much by politics as by journalistic interest; in other words, I think he was writing a book about linguistics and found a good opportunity therein to try to undermine Chomsky’s reputation (for political reasons), not that he set out to bash Chomsky and decided the best way to do that was to write a book on linguistics.

    I also think what Wolfe wanted to do here was to argue that Chomsky is not “a genius in his ivory-tower specialty but a crackpot when he comments on other topics” but a total fraud in all regards.

  47. I find it interesting that I’ve found several people professing all four possible combinations of opinions on Chomsky:

    11 A brilliant political analyst and the bestest genius linguist
    10 A brilliant political analyst, but a linguistic hack
    01 A base charlatan pundit, should have sticked to linguistics where’s he’s a genius
    00 A charlatan pundit and a linguistic hack.

    And, in every case, the holders of the opinions were completely convinced that what they were professing was something utterly self-evident, which only those blinded by ideology and prejudice could miss.

    At any rate, Wolfe’s political hostility towards Chomsky should not matter in our evaluation of his book about Chomskian linguistics; his arguments should be criticized on their own. What’s right right and what’s wrong wrong, regardless of the reason why it’s being stated.

  48. And an elephant’s faithful 100%.

  49. David Marjanović says:

    10 A brilliant political analyst, but a linguistic hack

    Compare Opinion 04: “Noam Chomsky should stick to politics, Roger Penrose should stick to interior decorating, and Andrew Lloyd Webber should stick to the ceiling if hurled aloft with sufficient force.”

    Wolfe’s beef with Chomsky

    When is this from? The 1980s?

  50. At any rate, Wolfe’s political hostility towards Chomsky should not matter in our evaluation of his book about Chomskian linguistics; his arguments should be criticized on their own. What’s right right and what’s wrong wrong, regardless of the reason why it’s being stated.

    Exactly.

  51. I have a couple of thoughts about Chomsky, and every time the topic flares up at LH I’m late to the discussion…

    Didn’t Ken Hale work closely with Chomsky at MIT? Hale, of course, was the field linguist par excellence, working with an astonishing range of languages, and although his work was generative-leaning, it was not so doctrinaire (and hence remains useful).
    Jessie Little Doe Baird, who spearheaded modern Wôpanâak (Wampanoag) language revival, obtained her M.A. under Hale, but she mentioned (in a documentary) that Chomsky enthusiastically supported and advocated for her acceptance to the MIT program.
    So the supposed hostility of the generativists to field linguistics and such is at least not as black and white as it has been portrayed.

    One bad indirect result of the generative program is the concept of the grammatical framework, spearheaded by a single authoritative figure. That applies even to explicitly anti-Chomskyan frameworks: Martinet’s French Functionalism, Givón’s Functional Grammar, or Van Valin’s RRG. All of these, in some degree, tether their usage to some authoritative ur-theory, though none have reached the cult status of Chomsky and his work. More recent scholars of the typological school, even respected and celebrated ones like Nichols or Haspelmath, don’t require loyalty.

    Optimality Theory is somewhere in-between. It shares with generativism the aggressive abstractions, the esoteric explanations, the underlying ideal internal language, and pressure to accept the package as a whole, that is, universal constraints along with the logical foundation. However, there is no OT Bible, no cult, and some people who I respect have found it occasionally useful.

  52. OT as we know it is just one possible optimality theory, you might say.

  53. beslayed says:

    To be honest, I don’t understand the anti-Chomskianism here. There are of course Chomskians who disparage any linguistics which isn’t explicitly Chomskian or involves examining areas which interact with language (e.g. sociolinguistics). By the same token, there are “traditional” linguists (e.g. historical linguists) who say “the whole Chomskian programme has not discovered anything of value”. I wouldn’t be interested in collaborating with either of these types.

    I’m a semi-Chomskian operating within a University department strongly slanted to Chomskian linguistics. Part of what I do involves syntax, and in that I’m generally Chomskian, but almost all of the work I do has a strong historical component and most of it involves formal semantics (on which Chomsky himself does not say a whole lot), and I collaborate with sociolinguists [which is to say I’m something like a historical semanticist whose interested in morphology].

    My stance is – lets say that Chomsky et al are completely and utterly wrong about how Language works. Even if that turns out to be the case, the industry of generative grammar has lead to heaps and heaps of research (including fieldwork &c.) investigating properties of languages which would not have been examined otherwise, and that is valuable and adds to our general knowledge of Language and languages.

    [For a strongly-Chomskian response to the Wolfe stuff, see Hornstein’s http://facultyoflanguage.blogspot.com/2016/07/the-sludge-at-bottom-of-barel.html ]

  54. Alon Lischinsky says:

    @beslayed:

    To be honest, I don’t understand the anti-Chomskianism here.

    You may want to start with previous discussions of the topic here and at the Log.

    My own personal reasons also have to do with the point that Michael Hoey makes in his excellent analysis of Chomsky’s argumentative style: “Chomsky is a skilled rhetorician whose chief rhetorical device is to make it difficult for the reader to support an alternative or opposing view to Chomsky’s own without looking foolish”, especially by hurling insults at potential dissenters (Hoey, M. 1984. Persuasive rhetoric in linguistics: A stylistic study of some features of the language of Noam Chomsky. Forum Linguisticum, 8(1): 20–30). I just can’t stand a bully.

  55. beslayed, I depend on you to provide the counterpoint in these Chomskyphobic realms, and I thank you for taking on the job!

  56. David Marjanović says:

    [For a strongly-Chomskian response to the Wolfe stuff, see Hornstein’s http://facultyoflanguage.blogspot.com/2016/07/the-sludge-at-bottom-of-barel.html ]

    I’ve now read it and commented on it. It’s a thorough but nasty criticism of Wolfe, his misunderstandings* and his presumed motivations. Some of the people cited in the post show up in the comments.

    * “Recursion is a feature of universal grammar” only means “all humans are capable of learning a grammar that contains recursion”, not “every human language must contain recursion”… I blame Chomsky for not simply saying what he means. If that is indeed what he means, because wouldn’t every feature found in any natural language then be a feature of universal grammar?

  57. nasty criticism

    Indeed. Talk about the pot calling the kettle black!

  58. Beslayed,
    First of all, I would draw the lines between Chomsky himself; between those more dogmatic followers of his who are even more rigid and dismissive than C. himself; and between those generativists (including “semi-Chomskians” such as yourself) who view generativism as useful, but are more flexible.
    I have negative impressions for all the often-stated reasons to the first two. As to the third, I would be curious to know what you consider a good, clear example of a generativist explanation of any particular syntactic phenomenon, which is a. testable/falsifiable, b. has been tested and has stood the test of time, c. can not be explained well without generativist tools, and preferably d. can be explained with (subjectively) a small amount of theoretical preparation.

  59. marie-lucie says:

    When I started my linguistics studies (at a time when Chomsky was beginning to be known), Chomskyan syntax was still very young and did not yet dominate the field. Disciples of Chomsky who went heavily into his brand of syntax from both intellectual inclination and personal suitability were very committed and tended to be rigid and dogmatic, more Chomskyan than Chomsky himself. As the brand became “the” syntactic theory, also swallowing phonology, and Chomskyan linguistics became obligatory training for all linguistics students, those students (and some of their teachers) were not *all* totally enthusiastic, and some of them later branched into other subfields. Beslayed seems to be one of those people, trained in the brand and accepting it in general but not fanatical about it.

  60. My experience and analysis jibe with marie-lucie’s.

  61. m.-l.,
    “Disciples of Chomsky who went heavily into his brand of syntax from both intellectual inclination and personal suitability…”—exactly! It’s nice to think that science is impersonal and objective, but here the direction of the discipline was controlled by some people’s personal intellectual strengths (something akin to mathematics), rather than by what was actually good for advancing the understanding of the discipline’s subject matter.

  62. marie-lucie says:

    Merci LH et Y!!

  63. I’ve seen the same documentary about Wampanoag that Y mentioned, and Chomsky did play a much different role than one might expect from the way he is normally discussed around here.

    I’ve always felt that Tom Wolfe wished to be the duc de Saint-Simon, obsessively chronicling which of Louis XIV’s courtiers possessed the hereditary right to have BOTH doors opened when they entered the king’s presence. He always looks at everything as a status hierarchy.

    The only one I know about is The Electric Koolaid Acid Test, in which Wolfe portrays Kesey as a kind of Sun-King surrounded by an adoring court. I’ve met people who were there, and they certainly didn’t see things that way. Also I think it’s pretty clear that the Pump House Gang fed him a line that he swallowed whole.

    His treatment of Yeager in The Right Stuff is along the same lines, and I wonder about it. I’ve read other histories of NASA in which Yeager is just a footnote and totally different people are the main characters. Katherine Johnson and Margaret Hamilton don’t get any mention from Wolfe, for example.

    Wolfe is an entertaining writer and he is good at noticing those little details, but I’d be dubious about taking anything he wrote as a historical account.

  64. I finally read the Wolfe article, and it’s disappointing. You don’t need to lionize Everett, or Pirahã, to knock down Chomsky.
    Moreover, Chomskyanity (couldn’t resist) is not just The Language Organ, and not just recursion. It’s UG; it’s the transformational framework and its successors; it’s binary features for phonology and everything else; it’s the conflation of observed productions and acceptably-judged productions; all of which, along with others, should have been stillborn, in my humble but very strongly held opinion.

  65. OK, “stillborn” is too strong. “Vigorously questioned”, rather.

  66. David Marjanović says:

    He always looks at everything as a status hierarchy.

    That’s horrible.

  67. Google’s one-line summary of tomwolfe.com is “Tom Wolfe has established himself as our prime fictional chronicler of America at its most outrageous and alive.” (The line apparently originally comes from a blurb of A Man in Full, which I think should be called A Man In Full.) Anyway, now that I know he’s fictional, much is explained.

  68. A Man in Full, which I think should be called A Man In Full

    Why? Prepositions aren’t supposed to be capitalized unless they’re the first word in a title.

  69. Yes, that’s the rule, but “in full” is basically a two-word adverb. The title as printed suggests that “Full” is a place, like “Our Man in Havana”.

  70. Even so. The only time you’d capitalize “in” is if it was part of a phrasal verb, like “Done In.”

  71. Pedant. 🙂

  72. A title in which I glory!

  73. @maidhc: ” He always looks at everything as a status hierarchy.”

    I’d say he chooses to look into those domains were status hierarchies can plausibly be discerned.

  74. David Marjanović says:

    Status hierarchies can exist anywhere where humans interact, but they don’t necessarily exist anywhere either (or perhaps nearly so).

  75. John Emerson once wrote somewhere a very eloquent description of what happened (in his view) when analytic philosophy took over American philosophy. He analogized it as an extinction event, where after the extinction the surviving species would speciate to fill the newly available niches. Perhaps the same process happened in linguistics.

    I think that the most recent machine learning algorithms that generate text have decisively refuted Chomsky’s main arguments. The current algorithms are (in a certain sense) incredibly stupid. The models are purely probabilistic, learn only from positive examples, and don’t make any attempt to learn the language’s grammar. Instead they randomly generate the text, letter-by-letter. They have a finite amount of internal state, and are incapable of recursion. And yet the text they generate is recognizably grammatical English — gibberish, but as grammatical as “Green ideas sleep furiously”.

  76. Lyle Squash says:

    Once I understood that Chomsky simply doesn’t understand the post-structuralists (Foucault, Lacan, Derrida, etc—not perfect beings but thinkers with brilliant grains of truth to contribute), I realized that he…is just not a very smart person. “Charlatan, ” he says…this is clearly an issue of projection. He is a very simplistic thinker with a very organized mind. But fundamentally not able to cope with nuance. Unfortunately, reality consists of nuance. Top-down systematizing is a moldy oldy way of thinking about how stuff works, and he remains stuck in it. Content = progressive, form = conservative. You cannot hope to be an effective acitivist when your understanding of reality dismisses nuance.

  77. Red Allover says:

    According to communications theorist Marshall McLuhan, Chomsky’s error was that he did not understand that
    “Language is environment, not programming.”

    Chomsky’s idea that speech is thought externalized goes back at least to Hobbes, that is, the Descartes dawn of bourgeois philosophy–whose self centered model is demanded as the economic model of capitalism–where each atomistic individual is a sovereign intellect–making rational choices. It is a subjective, unscientific view.

    Lev Vygotsky is the antidote to Chomsky’s trans-cultural, and apparently trans-physical innate language ability.
    His long study of children’s behavior indicated that language is in reality not innate but rather acquired by the child from the people around him.

  78. language is in reality not innate but rather acquired by the child from the people around him.

    That statement surely slides between two different meanings of “language.”

  79. “Top-down systematizing is a moldy oldy way of thinking about how stuff works, and he remains stuck in it.”

    “Moldy oldy” is a rather ridiculous sneer, which begs the question by presupposing that the mere passage of time inevitably brings intellectual progress. Some of the greatest triumphs of science have been achieved through top-down systematizing (the theory of gravity, for instance); bottom-up systematizing can be very useful too of course, but that’s at least equally old. I can’t think of any particularly shiny new way of thinking about how stuff works that can claim remotely comparable successes; do you have one in mind?

  80. Wolfe’s science is laughable but his book might provoke a popularisation of the debates around language origins which is a good thing.

    For example see the piece in the ‘Chronicle of Higher Education’:

    ‘The Chomsky Puzzle, Piecing together a celebrity scientist’ By Tom Bartlett

  81. per incuriam says:

    At any rate, Wolfe’s political hostility towards Chomsky should not matter in our evaluation of his book about Chomskian linguistics; his arguments should be criticized on their own. What’s right right and what’s wrong wrong, regardless of the reason why it’s being stated

    Sure, for those who wish to “evaluate” the book (why?), but for anyone thinking of actually reading the thing as nature intended Eskandar’s comment is highly relevant.

    In terms of the Chomsky debate, Wolfe’s USP is that he’s an interested-yet-disinterested outsider, with no baggage from the academic infighting and therefore – unlike just about everyone else you hear on the subject – with no axe to grind.

    But now it seems that he does in fact have an axe to grind. So his views are of little interest since an open mind was the one thing they had going for them.

  82. I agree, he has an axe to grind; furthermore he’s a complete idiot about Darwin, and his book is probably worthless in terms of reading for information (and I have no desire to read it myself). But I’m glad he wrote it if it makes Chomsky less of an idol in our culture.

  83. “This is physics-envy, as simple physical theory like Newtonian mechanics do indeed have explanatory adequacy.”

    But Newton didn’t explain where the gravity comes from. The “gravitational constant”, determining how strong two bodies of specific mass attract, is simply a “magic number” that has to be measured.

    No explanation why there are no bodies somewhere that repel.

    Actually, we don’t know even now. OK, energy bends the time-space continuum (which might be no continuum after all). But why? And why that much?

    All science is, in a way, butterfly collecting, done in a clever way.

  84. @Daniel N.: There is, in fact, a very cogent explanation for why gravitation is universally attractive, whereas, say, electromagnetism is not. It also explains why the residual strong interaction between nucleons is universally attractive and independent of whether the particles involved are protons are nucleons. It has to do with the spin of the particles that mediate the interactions; odd-spin mediators give rise to repulsive forces between like-sign particles, while even-spin mediators produce universally attractive interactions.

  85. Come to think of it, the rule against biological wheels and axles is a special case of the square-cube law. Macroscopic organisms, unless they are flat, must have internal circulation of some sort, as their volume grows faster than their surface area, and it is not possible to have parts that can rotate an indefinite number of times with respect to the rest of the organism, as there is no way for the internal circulation to reach the wheels. The exception would be an organism that as a whole is an axle with one or more wheels permanently attached to it, and it is probably just contingent that there are no such organisms. Spherical organisms that move by rolling do exist, notably the various tumbleweeds: they are a degenerate case of the hypothetical wheel-and-axle organism.

  86. @John Cowan: In The Plainiverse, A. K. Dewdney discusses mechanisms by which two-dimensional organisms could overcome the topological problems associated with two-dimensional organisms. He shows how a creature could avoid being split apart by its digestive tract, and the same mechanism could overcome the toplogical problems with biological wheels and axles in three dimensions. It doesn’t look like something that would be likely to evolve though (although we know that evolution can produce a lot of exceedingly unlikely looking structures already).

    Sadly, as I Googled to get the spelling of his book’s title, I discovered that Dewdney was (and many still be) a 9/11 truther.

  87. J.W. Brewer says:

    Re Dewdney, “Canadian mathematician, computer scientist, author, filmmaker, and conspiracy theorist” (Wikipedia summary description) might be a lot to all fit on a business card, but it would be worth it.

  88. Phillip Pullman’s fantasy trilogy, His Dark Materials, imagines a wheeled species called the mulefa. They had a symbiotic relationship with wheel-trees, whose circular seed-pods they incorporate on their limbs at puberty.

    Having taken a closer look at Wolfe’s book, I have to say it’s bad. There’s a lot to criticize about Chomskian linguistics, but this is not the criticism we deserve.

  89. a wheeled species called the mulefa.

    Singular zalif, apparently! Anybody know the morphological rules that bring about that result?

  90. Wild guess: Start with a bantu-like prefix system — mu- doesn’t need to be the straight plural of the za- class, it can be a collective for instance, or -a can be a collective marker. Then lowering of i conditioned by -a — not strange at all 🙂

  91. Works for me!

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