Outsiders' views of the value of linguistics

Suzanne Kemmer kemmer at rice.edu
Sun Oct 24 17:27:00 UTC 2010

Re: "The Human Language" documentary of the early 90s:

I have a different take from Alex Gross's on why the Searchinger video presents
the nativist story of language put out by generative linguistics.
Like Fritz, I don't think there were any particular political aims on the
part of Gene Searchinger, although the linguists featured obviously wanted to 
promote their views in bringing linguistics to the attention of the public.

Liz Bates told me back when the program came out that she was interviewed for it and
so were various other people she knew who did not take anything like a generative
perspective on language. In taped interviews they presented their own
views on how language is acquired via learning and generalization
of patterns, and massive amounts of experience, and on what the striking and crucial
cognitive capacities of humans that make language possible are: 

Not recursion, but the human  cognitive and social capacities involved in 
meaning construction, interaction, pattern 
generalization, plus a neural architecture of
great plasticity, involving massive numbers of potential neural connections that
then develop into actual connections by experience and that
allow (via repeated reactivation) massive amounts of memory for language patterns
and experiential patterns in general. 

But only the quotes of the generative linguists
made it into the program, probably because the filmmaker was looking for
a simple narrative to get across to the general public. From all the  interviews
he did, he discerned a viewpoint--probably the majority view
among  the names he got of people to interview-- that made a simple 
unified and instantly graspable story, and one that seemed 'sanctioned'
by the main stream of the field. So he left the rest out. 

I also remember in the program the pronouncement
by an east coast linguist close to Chomsky,
This was rendered with great emphasis and 
the air of  a major discovery. 

It was obvious to me that the general
public is never going to think about how we could possibly quantify language
to make a statement like that make any sense at all.  

Those who read his work, including the generative professors I studied with,
know that for Chomsky, all that counts as "Language" is the  "core" of language--
an ever-shrinking set of rules accounting for an ever-shrinking data set. 
What now remains of the core (in the papers co-authored with
Fitch and the recently exposed research cheat Hauser)
is what Chomsky terms "the Narrow Capacity  of Language"
--which basically equates to recursion. Everything that scholars outside this tradition,
linguists or not, have considered important to human language, including its function and operation
in  communication -- has no place in any of his theories. These aspects ("Broad
Capacity" stuff) are only mentioned in Chomsky's  "evolutionary" papers (aimed at
Cognitive Scientists)  to dismiss them as being unimportant to 
his concerns.

I don't think the psychologists and other non-linguists taking Chomsky as the reference point
for linguistics have ever understood just how bizarrely limited his view of what
'counts' as human language really is. That is, even  if they ever read more
than small parts of his papers, which are notoriously difficult to 
read. I venture to suggest than many only read the conclusions, skipping both the 'technical
junk' for linguists and all of  the qualifying and hedging that
you can find in Chomsky's work if you look for it. Many people seem to take such hedges
as just 'careful scientist'  rhetorical filler, not noticing how centrally these hedges affect whether
his theories even apply to what they are interested in about language. 

My view: The most prominent psychologist writing about language to Cognitive Scientists
and the general public, Steve Pinker, stuck to the Chomskyan line about innate structures for a long while,
explaining the story in the _Language Instinct_  essentially in the form of an early model of generative
linguistics, without all the 

but then had his spectacular blow-up with Chomsky when the latter in
 the Fitch and Hauser co-authored papers started talking about evolution and language
(a subject he had famously dismissed before, because  in his view "Language" 
didn't evolve. ) Pinker, in his reaction paper co-authored with Jackendoff,
said that Chomsky had done a big turnabout on that subject, but Chomsky
replied in another paper saying his view was consistent all along. 
No wonder psychologists in general couldn't follow all this. 

On Oct 24, 2010, at 1:06 AM, alex gross wrote:

>> The Gene Searchinger  films sets 'The Human Language' and 'The Writing Code' a\offer quite positive views of the value of linguistics and linguists.
> Thanks, Lise!  And best wishes to you, Fritz!
> It is scarcely surprising that Gene Searchinger's "The Human Language"
> presents "quite positive views of the value of linguistics and linguists."
> This film was never anything but an in-house endorsement of generative
> theories, most probably intended to shepherd students from other fields
> into linguistics and to reassure the general public that important work was
> being done.  You can read the review I wrote of this film when it first
> came out fifteen years ago at:
> http://language.home.sprynet.com/lingdex/emperor.htm
> where I also coupled it with a brief review of Stephen Pinker's book "The
> Language Instinct" that appeared around the same time.
> My further review of Pinker's book, also mentioning Searchinger's film, can
> be found at:
> http://language.home.sprynet.com/lingdex//bigbird.htm
> While writing these reviews I had some contact with the film's producers and gained the
> impression that they were full-fledged acolytes of the generative movement.
> Very best to everyone!
> alex
> ----- Original Message ----- From: "Lise Menn" <lise.menn at Colorado.EDU>
> To: "Frederick J Newmeyer" <fjn at u.washington.edu>
> Cc: <funknet at mailman.rice.edu>
> Sent: Sunday, October 24, 2010 12:23 AM
> Subject: Re: [FUNKNET] Outsiders' views of the value of linguistics
>> Fritz:
>> The Gene Searchinger  films sets 'The Human Language' and 'The  Writing Code' a\offer quite positive views of the value of linguistics  and linguists.  And 'The Linguists', of course.
>> Lise Menn
>>>> Today's Topics:
>>>> 1. Re: Outsiders' views of the value of linguistics (Craig Hancock)
>>>> 2. The view of mathematicians is quite negative (Yuri Tambovtsev)
>>>> 3. Re: Outsiders' views of the value of linguistics
>>>>    (Brian MacWhinney)
>>>> 4. Re: Outsiders' views of the value of linguistics (Mark P. Line)
>>>> 5. Re: Outsiders' views of the value of linguistics (Thomas E.  Payne)
>>>> 6. Re: Outsiders' views of the value of linguistics (Craig Hancock)
>>>> ----------------------------------------------------------------------

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