Arie Verhagen Arie.Verhagen at let.LeidenUniv.nl
Tue Apr 24 20:52:13 UTC 2007

With all due respect, also for Chomsky and his important contributions to the field (where 
would syntax be without him?) - let me address at least one of the misunderstandings in 
Jagdish Jain's response to Dan Everett and Steve Long.

Surely the concept of 'discrete infinity' (perhaps not the term) as characteristic of human 
language has been around long before Chomsky. It is present, for example, in pre-
Chomskyan structuralism such as Martinet's (1949) notion of "double articulation" 
("articulation" equals discreteness), and Hockett's (1958) equivalent "duality of 
patterning" (a somewhat less felicitous phrase). These are about a finite, in fact very 
limited, set of phonemes mapping onto a basically unlimited number of signals, actually 
already a lexicon of in principle unlimited length (there being no non-arbitrary boundary 
to the number of phonemes in a word). Chomsky could have said something like: 
"Hockett is right that language provides finite means for non-finite ends, but he is wrong 
in restricting it to phonology and lexicon; in fact the same applies (again), independently, 
in syntax, taking a finite set of words into an infinite number of messages." - it would 
certainly have been a major contribution. Instead, he said something like "People have 
not appreciated that language uses finite means for non-finite ends, and it is syntax that 
is the source of this very special property." It may have driven the message home more 
forcefully than a more moderate and nuanced way of putting it, but it has also laid the 
foundation for a lot of confusion and misunderstandings since then.

As to other things, such as different applications and notions of recursion - well, I hope 
we will have a chance to discuss these in an open-minded and respectful way, in the 
conference at the end of the week as well as on the list.

--Arie Verhagen

Message from Jagdish Jain <jjain at sfsu.edu>
24 Apr 2007, 12:03
Subject: [FUNKNET] PirahN

> Dear Funknet members,
> A response to Dan Everett's comments on my e-mail note of April 23,
> 2007
> I am happy to read that Dan Everett recognizes that the PirahaN 
> people are cognitively modern human beings. ("We all are, yes." -
> Dan Everett)
> Dan Everett says that discrete infinity is "not a Chomskyan principle. Just a fact
> about combinatory principles that has been around for ever." The phrase " discrete
> infinity" is Chomsky's. It is true that the notion of "combinatory principles" had
> existed in all forms of linguistics, for example, in Immediate-Constituent Analysis of
> structural linguistics. But the idea that you can generate an infinite number of
> linguistic expressions by using a finite number of linguistic elements was Chomsky's
> major contribution. [...]

Arie Verhagen
Opleiding Nederlands/LUCL
P.N. van Eyckhof 1
2311 BV Leiden

tel. +31 (0)71 527-4152

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