language at sprynet.com
Sat May 5 04:35:02 UTC 2007
I was grateful to learn from Esa Itkonen of John Colopinto's article in the
April 16 issue of _The New Yorker_ and to read the discussion on Funknet
that followed his message. And I'm of course even more grateful to Dan
Everett for what made this article and discussion possible--his many decades
of research among the Piraha.
I also found charming the brief discussion between Esa and Dan as to who had
first disputed generative theories. I've been disputing them in public since
1987 and even longer privately, but I can scarcely claim primacy in this
field, since the last four decades have seen no shortage of criticism and
even ridicule directed at these theories. One of their most qualified
disputants has consistently been Chomsky's definitive bibliographer E.F.
Konrad Koerner, perhaps the primary authority on the history of linguistics.
Other international scholars who have voiced their doubts have included
Larry Trask, Maurice Gross, Yuen Ren Chao, I.A. Richards, and George
Steiner. A more detailed--but still far from complete--list of such doubters
among linguists and other language scholars can be found on my website at:
But as truly remarkable as Dan's achievement undoubtedly is, it seems to me
that the matter of the Piraha is only the least of grounds for demonstrating
that Chomsky's theories have always been incorrect.
Overlooked through all these decades has been the unavoidable truth that the
primary purpose of language has never been communication. Rather, that
purpose has been and remains even today to persuade ourselves against all
opposing odds that we understand the world and what is happening around us.
To make ourselves believe that we know what we are talking about, when quite
often we do not. And to reassure ourselves that our knowledge must be valid
because others agree with us, when of course they may be just as ignorant as
we are. And finally that we have the right to ignore, abuse, and even punish
those who disagree with us. It is our attempt to protect ourselves from
recognizing this primary purpose that has launched the countless perversions
of language we find around us, including religions, nationalisms, and
assorted theories of reality, perhaps even including "science" during some
of its stages.
How convenient to suppose that all the words, sayings, ideas, melodies and
designs we have been exposed to and diligently studied are the only ones we
need to bother with.
Amidst this conflagration of ignorance there has always been one area of
learning that could have helped us to emerge from the cave and behold
something resembling light. It ought to have disabused us of our fantasies
and provided the antidote to their excesses. It is of course the study of
languages, what we call linguistics.
But the final proof that we prefer those fantasies to rigorous knowledge is
that even linguistics has failed us. It too, instead of truly studying
language, has merely fallen into the trap implicit in its primary purpose.
So much so that many professional linguists also imagine that they know what
they are talking about and claim the right to ignore, abuse, or punish those
who disagree with them.
Had it been otherwise, we might today enjoy a truly liberating linguistics
instead of the limiting linguistics we experience all around us.
I find the question of whether it will take 20 or 40 years for Chomskyan
theories to die out beside the point. Like so much of our study today, it is
rooted in fixed numbers and assumes that all other factors will remain
equal, when they may not remain equal at all. I can envision a number of
circumstances that could dramatically reduce either number. For instance:
1) The growing perceived failure of most branches of Strong AI, "mainstream
linguistics" among them through its close association with MT. Since Chomsky
imagines that language is a "switchbox" that can readily leap from one
language to another, and since at least some researchers imagine language is
nothing more than computer code, it should come as no surprise to anyone
that MT has always been an integral part of Strong AI, whose fate appears
ever more dubious. The Japanese recognized this when they bestowed the Kyoto
Award on Chomsky and John McCarthy, the father of Strong AI, on the same
platform in the same year.
2) Times and trends change, sometimes even for good reasons. Since some
innermost cult members now seem to be changing their minds, what is to stop
others from following? Colopinto tells us that even Pinter is among these.
Could he yet proclaim himself a Whorfian and recant the nine fierce
anti-Whorfian pages in his 1994 book? Might he even stop dismissing his
opponents as mere "language mavens" when he realizes that the
Cambridge-on-Charles crew have been the real language mavens all along?
3. Colopinto's piece may well be followed by other coverage of linguistics
by the press, radio, and TV. When Chomskyans studied Orwell's works, they
learned not only how to detect propaganda but how to create it, enabling
them to monopolize most discussions of language in popular media over
several decades. That monopoly may now be at an end.
4) When Americans learn the full cost borne by tax-payers to support
generative/MT work through the decades, a sudden disinclination to continue
such research could intervene. Seven years ago one journalist described MT
alone as having "burned through billions of dollars,"
5) The ultimate translation blunder, whether in diplomacy, medicine, or
technology, is simply waiting in the wings to happen. MT and mainstream
linguistics are likely to play a central role in bringing about this
translation Katrina. At the very least the Beijing Olympics will heighten
awareness of the cultural (and not generative) basis for many confused
translations. Chinglish and its cousins in other languages will not be
totally eliminated in time for the games, and journalists are already having
a field day providing examples. At some point some authority will need to
point out that Chinglish arises not from bad translation alone but from
culturally based interpretations of reality residing in the Chinese
language. Also, I happened to watch the opening procession of the Pan-Asian
Games in Beijing on TV, when nations entered the arena not in any alphabetic
order but according to the stroke number of Chinese characters, so that
based on the 2-stroke character ma3 ("horse," used as a phonetic) the
Maldive Islands team marched in first. This means the procession in 2008 is
likely to be led by Mali, Madagascar, or the Maldives, surely providing
Westerners with insights into the truly foreign nature of many languages.
Finally, a note on "recursion." How convenient for mainstreamers to imagine
that recursion fails to occur only in a tongue spoken by 350 natives in
Brazil. But what if we were to suddenly discover that recursion as such is
also missing from that family of languages used by more native speakers than
any other on earth, by one-point-three _billion_ people? My Chinese is no
longer as strong as it once was, but I distinctly remember that sentences in
our language such as:
"The man who met the girl with the sensuous smile was absent-minded."
would be routinely switched over in Chinese to something like:
"The man met the girl.
The girl had a sensuous smile.
The man was absent-minded."
This is simply a fact of life about Chinese and cannot be denied. What I
fear most, based on bitter past experience in dealing with mainstreamers, is
that the response to this simple statement will take the form not only of
_total denial_ but will indulge in petty personal abuse aimed in my
direction. It will illegitimately be claimed that the Chinese version is
nonetheless a perfect form of recursion (which I am allegedly too ignorant
to recognize), even though it is open to various misinterpretations not
present in the English version. In Steve Long's clever summation,
recursiveness is merely a "parlour trick" and has "little to do with the
basic nature of language."
And as Prof. Everett clearly states:
"People believe they've actually studied a language when they have given it
a Chomskyan formalism. And... may have given us absolutely no insight
whatsoever into that language as a foreign language."
Ultimately there is no real substitute for going to a country, learning its
language the hard way, and even proceeding to various stages of "going
native." This is something I have done in at least four different countries
over the decades and is clearly also something Dan Everett has done to an
even higher degree. Those who have not experienced this process will simply
miss out on all manner of language realities and are likely to have also
missed some of the satiric and ironic elements in this message. Perhaps
Larry Trask, a linguist trained as a chemist and hence a real scientist, has
said it all best:
"This stuff is so much half-baked twaddle, more akin to a religious movement
than to a scholarly enterprise. I am confident that our successors will look
back on UG as a huge waste of time."
all the best to all!
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