A question for Fritz

Dan I. Slobin slobin at berkeley.edu
Sun Oct 24 19:25:41 UTC 2010

Well, the Gene Searchinger story isn't quite that clear cut, since I 
did appear in the series and Gene and I had good discussions about 
language, thought, and culture.
As I recall, it was George Miller who put Gene onto the task and gave 
him the first list of people to contact.  And though Gene used some 
of my material, he juxtaposed me
with Jerry Fodor in a way that suggested a continuity that wasn't 
there.  But Gene was also interested in anthropology and neurology, 
leaving a rather muddled and spotty
collection of vignettes.  If you look at the list of people in the 
films, you'll certainly see a slant towards Chomsky et al, but other 
directions too:
Noam Chomsky, Frederick Newmeyer, Howard Lasnik, George Carlin, Lila 
Gleitman, George A. Miller, Mark Aronoff, Judith Klavans, Alvin 
Liberman, Lewis Thomas, Jeff Leer, Roy Byrd, Suzette Haden Elgin, 
Russell Baker, Dan I. Slobin, Stephen Jay Gould, Jerry Fodor, David 
McNeill, Michael Carter, Henry Kucera, Thomas Sebeok, Steven Pinker, 
Peter Sells, Kathryn Hirsh-Pasek, Roberta Golinkoff, Jill de 
Villiers, Susan Carey, Ellen Markman, John Lynch, Ursula Bellugi, 
Terence Langendoen, Michael Robinson, Bobby Dews, Deborah Tannen, 
Paul Ekman, Peter Marler, Ivan Sag, Philip Lieberman, Morris Halle, 
Peter Ladefoged, Sid Caesar, Kim Oller, Rebecca Eilers, Jane 
Robinson, Darlene Orr, Nomonde Ngubo, Mazisi Kunene

Dan Slobin

At 10:25 AM 10/24/2010, Brian MacWhinney wrote:
>By now, Fritz clearly has enough for his brief 
>commentary.   Everything mentioned on this issue so far is accurate, 
>according to my knowledge, but let me add a few more wrinkles.
>1.  Regarding cultural anthropology, I always teach my students in 
>Crosscultural Psychology that Linguistics had an enormous influence 
>on the development of both Structural Anthropology and the 
>subsequent Cognitive Anthropology.  The influence on structuralism 
>was through views such as Goodenough and others who likened kinship 
>systems to the distinctive feature systems of Prague School 
>phonology.  Systems of binary distinctions were at the heart of Herb 
>Simon's EPAM model of thinking and memory.  Both Jakobson and Simon 
>thought that the mind could be viewed as a digital computer and so 
>binary features were crucial.  Later, with the rise of 
>transformation generative grammar, the emphasis shifted to rules of 
>grammar as models for rules of culture.  The major flourishing of 
>this was in the 1970s, a bit later than the 1960s noted 
>earlier.  Personally, I thought this stuff was fascinating.   My 
>understanding is that the demise of this linguistics cum psychology 
>in cultural anthropology was due not to failures in linguistics, but 
>to the rise of deconstructivism in ethnography.
>2.  Alex is roughly right about Searchinger.  Gene spoke to me on 
>the phone about my interests and I explained that I focused on 
>language learning and emergence.  He said "thanks" but that this was 
>not what he was trying to develop in this series.  Liz Bates  and 
>Catherine Snow had the same experience.
>3.  The situation with regard to physics and biology is a bit 
>complex.  Often, people in those areas simply assume that Chomsky 
>speaks for linguistics and use his framework for testing of their 
>ideas about system functioning.  I often get such papers for review 
>and they do not show any lack of respect for linguistics, just a 
>tendency to not understand the range of variation of analyses within 
>linguistics. Often the analyses they offer in applying ideas from 
>genetic diffusion or statistical physics (Nicolaidis et al.) are 
>more compatible with these alternative views.
>4.  The major area that has been left undiscussed and which in my 
>mind is the potentially most important is computation.  Here, there 
>is the famous claim by IBM that every time they fire a linguist they 
>improve their grammar checker.  I guess that counts as lack of 
>respect.  On the other hand, the basic linkage of generative theory 
>to formal grammars back in the 1950s was a big deal.   In automata 
>theory classes and textbooks, students still learn about the Chomsky 
>hierarchy, although much recent work suggests that other 
>characterizations are more effective for resolving issues in grammar 
>induction.  More recently, the emphasis on data-mining of the web as 
>a bag of words seems to have hit a bit of a wall and researchers are 
>showing increasing interest in and respect for linguistic 
>analysis.  And there is the issue of computational resources for 
>endangered and under-documented languages.  Here, people like Lori 
>Levin and colleagues are finding that computational linguists 
>trained only in the use of HMM and SVM are unable to understand the 
>challenges of real linguistic structure.  So, there are important 
>areas here involving a beginning of interest in reintroducing linguistics.
>5.  Finally, I wish that I could refer to Conversation Analysis as a 
>part of linguistics.  I know that I can't really get away with this, 
>although personally I think it is a part.  In any case, I see a lot 
>of interest and respect for CA from areas as diverse as marketing, 
>sociology, politics, aphasiology, and so on.
>-- Brian MacWhinney

Dan I. Slobin, Professor Emeritus of Psychology and Linguistics, 
University of California, Berkeley
address:                                              email: 
slobin at berkeley.edu
2323 Rose St.                                   phone (home): 
Berkeley, CA 94708, 

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