Linguistics ‘Hall Of Shame’ 3

Hi again, everybody! ‘Hall Of Shame’ continues!

3 RONALD ENGLEFIELD (and others)

Ronald Englefield (1891-1975) was an English poet and philosopher. His major work,
Language and Thought, remains unpublished, though extracts appeared in the journal Trivium and this material is commented upon (often supportively) by other authors such as G. A. Wells and D. R. Oppenheimer. While Englefield’s specifically linguistic ideas have not met with wide acceptance, his criticism of religion and philosophy, published posthumously, was relatively well received.

Englefield was overtly critical of mainstream thought on language; he objected to the general pretentiousness and loose thinking which he found in much philosophical and linguistic work on the subject, and was especially critical of the effect on thinking of the use of words – in linguistics, literary criticism, religious studies and other philosophical domains – where they allegedly have no clear referent. Like Amorey Gethin (see my earlier comments), he went so far as to regard linguistics as a ‘bogus science’. However, Englefield’s skewed understanding of the writings of linguists (see below for an example) reduces the strength of his own claims.

On the origins of language, Englefield followed eighteenth-century Enlightenment thinkers such as Étienne Bonnot de Condillac, who argued that language evolved naturally from gestures. Englefield ‘explains’ how an animal little more intelligent than modern apes could ‘progress’ from a natural gesture language to invent a spoken and later a written language.

Some of Englefield’s views on these matters were opposed to those of other writers marginal to the mainstream such as Philip Ballard, who seem to believe (quite wrongly) that the grammar and other structural aspects of one’s first language are learned by explicit instruction (some of these writers, at least, appear to have been distracted by awareness of the teaching of STANDARD grammar to native speakers of non-standard dialects). In contrast, Englefield (though possibly confused in a broadly similar way; see below) argues that even modern humans can communicate WITHOUT the benefit of grammar.

Specifically, Englefield joined Wells and others in critiquing the linguistic ‘paradigms’ associated with Noam Chomsky. While Chomskyan thought does invite skeptical comment (again, see my earlier discussion), some of these critics of Chomsky are confused on some quite basic issues. For example: Englefield suggests (with Wells) that – if Chomsky’s view of the matter is correct – adult native speakers of a language who do not command the grammar of the relevant standard variety have either somehow FAILED to develop (pre-birth) the tendency to acquire grammar which Chomsky believes humans inherit, or HAVE acquired grammar but have then ‘lost’ or suppressed it. Wells and Englefield seem to have misunderstood what Chomsky means when he says that all normal human infants have access to a Universal Grammar (UG) enabling them to acquire the syntax and other aspects of their native languages very rapidly. The term grammar here (as elsewhere in linguistics) does NOT refer only to standard/formal grammar as taught in schools and socially endorsed as ‘good usage’ (etc.); it also includes the grammar of informal and indeed of non-standard usage as used naturally by many native speakers of each language. Native speakers who systematically produce non-standard forms have simply acquired a DIFFERENT grammar. The idea that non-standard or informal usage somehow LACKS grammar, while widespread among non-linguists, is folk-linguistic and does not stand up under careful examination; and Chomskyan linguists fully accept this.

The acquisition of the SPECIFIC grammars of individual languages (spoken or signed) clearly requires exposure to suitable data (as does the acquisition of their respective phonologies); not even a ‘hard-line’ Chomskyan would dispute this. However, some non-linguists (including some skeptics) assume that humans actually inherit some of the specifics of their parents’ or ancestors’ particular languages. Even a few scholars in relevant disciplines have adopted this stance, notably J.R.R. Tolkien, who was expert in philology (descriptive historical linguistics) but not in modern theoretical linguistics. Tolkien apparently believed, for instance, that he himself had acquired older varieties of English formerly used in his own home area (where his family had long resided) more readily than would students from other areas. No positive evidence of such effects exists, and, if they were genuine, they would in fact be difficult to explain in scientific terms. Children clearly inherit a language-learning propensity (specific, as asserted by Chomsky, or more general); but they obviously learn the individual languages, accents etc. used by their early carers and in their communities, and if they have no contact with their biological parents they know nothing of the languages used by them.

On Englefield specifically, see F.R.H. Englefield, Critique of Pure Verbiage: Essays on Abuses of Language in Literary, Religious and Philosophical Writings (G.A. Wells and D.R. Oppenheimer, eds) (La Salle, IL, 1990), and Language: Its Origin and Relation to Thought (Wilton, CT, 1977).


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3 Responses to Linguistics ‘Hall Of Shame’ 3

  1. Goran Hammarstrom says:

    Dear Mark,. You may have had to quote Chomsky but generally one just wastes one’s time mentioning him. I criticised him in the short monograph1971 The problem of nonsense linguistics. and in a paper in Phonetica in 1973. After this date I have stopped reading him. He is giving up his theories one after another. So it is no use bothering about them. The early ideas were the most dangerous: fantasies called deepstructures that had to be transformed to become the correct forms he had started from. This nonsense does no longer exist but is it not a shame that half of the world’s linguists were deceived? is linguistics a weak science after all? Goeran

  2. Carl Fink says:

    I’d love to see a reference on Tolkien’s belief in literal genetic inheritance of language.

    • marknewbrook says:

      Thanks!  See:Verlyn Flieger, A Question of Time: J. R. R. Tolkien’s Road to Faerie (Kent, OH, 1997), p. 4. 


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