skeptical about the mainstream 3 (non-historical ‘fringe’ linguistics 3)

Hi again, everybody!

I turn here to some specific examples of the development and establishment of ‘paradigms’ in mainstream linguistics and of their core notions, and of skeptical reactions to these.

Some (quasi-)postmodernist feminist sociolinguists (one is Penelope Gardner-Chloros) have appeared to dismiss analyses developed by male sociolinguists as artefacts of the authors’ backgrounds while themselves advancing alternative (feminist) analyses which are also assumption-laden and no better supported by the evidence. When I made this point (in moderate language) in a seminar discussion, I had a frosty response from some feminist colleagues – despite myself identifying as a feminist. (I grant, of course, that such reactions are by no means universal. A further issue here involves the fact that the very notion of feminism has various, sometimes opposed interpretations.)

In another vein: the anti-prescriptivist approach to sociolinguistic and dialectological variation, best exemplified by the pioneering work of William Labov, arose as a professional reaction to very widespread prescriptivist folk-linguistic attitudes (‘you shouldn’t use ain’t, it’s bad English’, etc.).. More recently, it has in turn been challenged by writers such as John Honey, a historian with some knowledge of linguistics. Honey has argued that the case (at least in social terms) for a considerable degree of prescriptivism (especially regarding accents) remains strong, and that the mainstream academic sociolinguistic program which involves the wholesale modification of attitudes to accent and usage differences (even though it appears to fit in well with current egalitarian notions on a broader front) is in fact unrealistic. Although Honey clearly overstates his case in places, some of his points appear at least arguable, notably where he suggests that Labov exaggerates the coherence of some texts delivered in non-standard usage and the contrasting lack of coherence in some passages couched in more standard language.

In addition, most currently fashionable mainstream theories involving the structural analysis of language data fail at many points, making numerous predictions which are not borne out by the data, or else avoiding this only at the cost of a degree of non-specificity or abstraction which precludes empirical testing (empirical emptiness). For instance, some syntacticians committed to a basic NP+VP (Noun Phrase + Verb Phrase) analysis of sentence structure appear to assume that their theory (often left undefended) is so secure as to ‘trump’ any disconfirming data. They therefore have to deal with languages such as Welsh, where the Subject NP normally separates the Verb from the Object NP (Verb-Subject-Object word order, as in gwelodd y dyn y ddraig = ‘the man saw the dragon’), by adopting contrived and sometimes empirically indemonstrable analyses of such sentences involving covert. underlying/abstract NP+VP ordering; or at least they struggle to analyse these structures.

Some ‘nativist’ general linguistic theories, notably those associated with Chomskyan linguistics, involve, very centrally, the theory of linguistic universals and Universal Grammar (UG). These notions refer to alleged deep/abstract cross-linguistic universal features, especially in grammar but also in phonology and other aspects of language, which supposedly arise from the genetically-inherited, species-specific and very largely species-uniform mental faculty which, as Chomskyans hold, humans possess.

In opposition, some linguists, notably Geoffrey Sampson, have argued that the linguistic evidence actually supports the contrary view that we acquire language through our general intelligence, that UG does not exist, and that general psychological considerations are relevant here rather than specifically linguistic ones (as mentioned earlier). On this account, such universal features of human language as do exist are generated either by physiological constraints (these may include ‘double articulation’, the construction of meaningful morphemes out of individually meaningless phonemes) or by general psychological constraints. For example, Sampson interprets the data involving the British ‘KE’ family (many of whom struggled with language all their lives) in a very different way from Steven Pinker and other Chomskyans, regarding the relevant FOXP2 chromosome-code mutation as generating below-average general intelligence and thus causing difficulties with language but with much else besides; he would deny that the members of KE are of normal intelligence in other respects.

Indeed, various linguists, relying especially upon typological data, have argued that the apparent diversity of languages reflects deep dissimilarities, and that UG does not exist. For instance, Nicholas Evans and Stephen Levinson, citing various other researchers and accessibly summarised by Christine Kenneally, present wide-ranging data arguing for this view, including phonological evidence suggesting that even the supposedly basic Consonant-Vowel core syllable structure is not universal. If these linguists are correct, only very general ‘design features’ such as double articulation distinguish human language from pre-human communication systems (if indeed these features are in fact altogether absent in the latter). Among the many other prominent linguists who have argued extensively against Chomskyan views of these issues are Roy Harris, Peter Matthews, Ian Robinson, and the group of linguists who produced the Anti-Chomsky Reader.

Some Chomskyans are apparently offended by these criticisms, as if their views were analogous to religious doctrines rather than representing scientific findings which (like any such findings) might possibly prove to be mistaken. For instance, Sampson draws attention to the fact that the prominent Chomskyan linguist Neil Smith commented on his own views in terms of distaste. Such a response is indicative of a stance which can hardly be deemed scientific or even rational. Indeed, Chomsky’s early work is sometimes treated almost as an incorrigible revelation of truth.

I am not suggesting here that anti-Chomskyan linguists are effectively blocked from furthering their careers by some kind of Chomskyan ‘cabal’. Indeed, in some communities of academic linguists, notably in the UK and Australasia, non-Chomskyan viewpoints actually predominate. The best example is probably ‘systemic’ linguistics, which is especially associated with M.A.K. Halliday. (It should also be noted that Chomsky’s own early ideas, while clearly derived in part from notions which were then current in the mainstream, were initially perceived as highly radical and encountered severe criticism.) The point is rather that linguists espousing views very different from their own are often, as it seems, treated by Chomskyan linguists as less than worthy ‘opponents’. (At one time, the one course in non-Chomskyan linguistics offered in Chomsky’s own department was labelled ‘The Bad Guys’ by students and staff.)

Neither am I arguing here that the Chomskyan approach is altogether mistaken; it might indeed prove in the end to be largely correct. In addition, the views of Chomsky and his followers do display some variety; and, as one would expect in a scientific enterprise, they have also changed considerably over the years. The issue is rather that of the attitudes of some practitioners of Chomskyan linguistics.

More next time!


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One Response to skeptical about the mainstream 3 (non-historical ‘fringe’ linguistics 3)

  1. Pacal says:

    I am not bothered by the fact that some linguists are human. It would be nice if everyone approached “opponents” with utter civility and reason and good manners. Well people sometimes don’t and linguists are human. That being the case it appears that “opponents” of Chomskyan linguists arn’t exactly being harrassed very much if at all.

    Besides the flaws in Chomsky’s theories have been known for quite sometime. The idea of a “Universal grammar” hard-wired in the brain is and remains esspecially vunerable. It is my understanding that recently Chomsky more or less has abandoned the idea.

    My personal opinion is these people should have it pointed out that their attitude is not helpful.

    As for “universal grammar”, I don’t believe grammar is “hard wired” in the brain instead I think “grammar{” is an “emergent” property of a complex brain. Which would mean that there will be similarities in “grammar” between different animals with sufficently complex brains. This bodes well for comunicating with ET.

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