skeptical about the mainstream 4 (non-historical ‘fringe’ linguistics 4)

Hi again, everybody! Thanks for points made. I’m going to be away quite a bit during September (mainly for the UK-wide Heritage Open Days scheme: many historic properties which are not usually open are specially opened up, and many which normally charge admission are open for nothing). I may thus be delayed in posting or in responding to comments.

I’ll continue, starting with some further comments on Chomskyan linguistics.

It must be noted that some critics of Chomsky are confused on some quite basic issues. G.A. Wells – who does make some cogent points about, for instance, the unpredictability of English derivational morphology and the consequences of this for Chomskyan notions – seems to misinterpret Chomsky’s descriptivist notion of grammaticality (which is largely shared with all contemporary linguists) as prescriptivist in character or at least as relating only to standard grammar. Wells even suggests that Chomsky believes that there are ‘no rules for incorrect speech’. In a somewhat similar vein, the ‘anti-linguist’ Ronald Englefield argues that people can communicate without the benefit of any ‘formal’ grammar, and suggests (as does 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 in many communities, 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 in the West Midlands of England (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.

Anthony Gordon denies that features of human language which genuinely are universally shared across languages are either inherited as Chomksyans believe or grounded in general psychological functions as Sampson argues. He himself holds, somewhat implausibly, that all such features are instead derived from experience.

A number of writers on the margins of linguistics and some genuinely mainstream scholars have proposed fairly major revisions to the basic common assumptions behind linguistic theory involving UG or other, still more basic features of human language. One such author is Terrence Deacon. Deacon argues (not altogether unconvincingly but not decisively) that the reference of words is the defining central feature of human language, rather than syntax as proposed by Chomsky (and very many other linguists, including many anti-Chomskyans). However, the apparent absence of syntax and the presence of reference (even if only to general types of object/situation) in animal communication systems suggest that this view is at least overstated. Paul Monk has somewhat similar views regarding the origins of language.

The mathematician and polymath John L. Casti has directed his criticism of linguistics especially at Chomskyan ideas, rehearsing many of the points made above. Other non-linguists who have criticised contemporary linguistics include S. Takdir Alisjahbana and the followers of Charlton Laird (both especially on applied linguistics) and Paul Goodman (on the alleged – and allegedly unhelpful – obsession of linguists with ‘code’, that is, linguistic form, as opposed to the messages expressed in the ‘code’). Some points made by these authors appear overstated, and some may even involve misreading of the work of linguists; but these works do serve to offer ideas from intelligent alternative perspectives and warrant more attention from linguists than they typically receive.

Some linguistically-informed philosophers have critiqued the ideas of linguists from the perspective of their own discipline. Two such thinkers are G.A. Wells, who addresses Chomskyan linguistics in his work on the dangers of the interpretation of words as ‘magical’ (see also above), and Roland Barthes, who offers critical (but largely positive) discussions of twentieth-century mainstream ‘Saussurian’ linguistics.

As noted earlier in the context of unconvincing accounts of the structures of relatively ‘unusual’ languages such as Welsh, some mainstream explanations of grammatical phenomena do invite skeptical attention; and this problem also arises in cases where sociolinguistic issues, especially those involving what has been labelled ‘political correctness’, are at stake. For instance, there is a desire not to ‘disrespect’ the speakers of creole languages – languages descended from ‘pidgin’ languages used for communication between groups lacking a common language, often originally in colonial contexts including the slave trade. There is an associated tendency to re-analyse features of these languages as syntactically different from the features of the source languages from which they are ultimately derived (as indeed is much creole vocabulary). These source languages are often those of the former colonisers. Sometimes these re-analyses are clearly justified; but there are problematic cases. One such vocabulary item is tiek or tek, derived from English take and employed in constructions in some English-based creoles (used in the Caribbean and in originally Caribbean communities in the UK) such as Tek rieza blied kot it aaf. This sentence obviously corresponds with English Take a razor blade [and] cut it off, and has the same meaning. However, some linguists re-interpret tek as a preposition, and gloss the creole sentences in question in terms such as ‘Cut it off with a razor blade’. There seems to be no strictly linguistic reason to adopt this grammatical analysis in preference to interpreting tek as still being a verb similar in function to English take, especially given that if tek really were a preposition one would also expect alternative orderings such as Kot it aaf tek rieza blied – which do not seem to occur. It appears possible that the structural links between English and contemporary English-based creoles are being downplayed for political reasons.

Next time I’ll turn to less persuasive criticisms of mainstream linguistics made by non-mainstream thinkers who believe that they know enough linguistics to attempt this exercise.


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