Linguistics ‘Hall of Shame’ 12

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


Claims regarding the actual production of language by children in their first few months of life have always emerged as suspect or worse on analysis (this includes David Oates’ special claims regarding ‘Reverse Speech’ as allegedly produced by infants). In contrast, some self-proclaimed psychics sidestep the evidence involving actual speech and assert that they can communicate TELEPATHICALLY with babies. The skeptical psychologists Chris French and Krissy Wilson tested the ‘powers’ of one such person, David Ogilvy, the ‘baby-whisperer’, in 2007. Ogilvy also took on the James Randi Challenge. In both cases he failed to demonstrate any abilities in this area.

There are other claims regarding mysterious linguistic material involving older children. One such case involved triplets who abbreviated and modified English words when communicating with each other and at one stage intoned their utterances as if using a language with phonemic tone such as Chinese.

Cases are also reported of teenaged and older couples developing ‘secret languages’ – although– like other ‘languages’ invented/concocted by non-linguists – these often consist very largely of novel vocabulary items and are unremarkable in phonological and grammatical terms. One such case involved a teenaged lesbian couple in Melbourne, Australia in the 1990s; one of the women instructed the other in satanic ideas and an accompanying private vocabulary.

There are cases of groups of deaf children apparently inventing new (but wholly orthodox) signed languages.

For introductory (but of course largely unrefereed comments) on special linguistic behaviour of twins or other very small groups, see; on the (often generally similar) idiosyncratic linguistic behaviour of individual speakers, see

More next time!


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5 Responses to Linguistics ‘Hall of Shame’ 12

  1. Goran Hammarstrom says:

    When I see the word child language, i think of Chomsky’s idea that a child learns its language quickly and easily. It is, however, easy to see that this learning is slow and difficult. One can compare with an adult who learns more quickly the words and the constructions of a foreign languae. (See my more detailed comments on page 105 of The problem of nonsense linguistics.) Chomsky’s nonsense should be considered to be part of Skeptical linguistcs, which I believe should rather be called Nonsense linguistics or something else. Goeran Hammarstroem

    • marknewbrook says:

      Thanks for this, as ever, Goran

      I agree that it is not clear that (as Chomskyans claim) children learn their first languages ‘quickly and easily’ (except by comparison with most aduilts learning a second language). But surely it is not clear that they learn them slowly and with difficulty either. As Geoff Sampson points out somewhere (in agreeing with Goran & me on the initial point), we have no basis for comparison, i.e. we know of no other language-using species who might acquire their (similar?) languages more or less readily than Homo sapiens does. Given this fact, the only way to arrive at such judgments with confidence would be to show that there are clear reasons (psychological, etc) why humans should not learn their first languages as quickly and easily as they actually do, and that the facts on this front are thus genuinely surprising. I do not think that this has been achieved. Essentially, the Chomskyan view of this appears to be merely part of that only-partly-rational belief system.

      I myself seem to have coined the term ‘skeptical linguistics’, but in any case it could NOT usefully be used to include Chomskyan linguistics or any other kind of linguistics deemed dubious or worse. If Chomskyan linguistics really is as ‘bad’ as Goran holds (and I obviously accept that it has many basic faults), it should perhaps be classified as ‘fringe’ linguistics, ‘nonsense linguistics’, or similar. This is not skeptical linguistics but the kind of material which skeptical linguistics CRITIQUES. See Chapter 12 of my book for mainstream and non-mainstream critiques of mainstream linguistics (including a summary of some of Goran’s own cogent mainstream critiques of Chomskyan linguistics).

      Mark N


      • Goran Hammarstrom says:

        Dear Mark, Thanks for your comments on child language. I am absolutely convinced that a child learns its language slowly and with difficulty, which is not a real argument. But I have better arguments about Chomsky’s nonsense. For instance, the number of sentences in a language is not infinite as he believes. If one multiplies a finite number of words by a finite number of construc-tions, the result is a finite number.
        I have been interested in nonsense linguistics since about 1945 but I have only published the paper you know. If you call your field of interest strange linguistiics, I can be inside your field.. But if you call it skeptical linguistics I am outside because one is not skeptical about nonsense. Goeran

  2. marknewbrook says:

    I do not see how Goran comes to the view that a child learns its language slowly and with difficulty; as I said, inter-species comparison is not available, and as far as I can see no decisive reasons have been offered for being surprised either at how quickly or at how slowly first languages are learned (Chomskyans adduce ‘degenerate data’, implying that children do not receive enough specific information about their soon-to-be first language, but this claim has itself been disputed).

    Of course, my own work is NOT itself ‘strange linguistics’ (‘fringe linguistics’, etc); it is ‘skeptical linguistics’ (skeptical comment on strange linguistics). Obviously I have an INTEREST in ‘strange linguistics’; otherwise I would probably not publish on it. But it is important to distinguish between critical/skeptical discussion and the material at which this discussion is directed.

    This use of the term ‘skeptical’ (American in origin, hence the spelling) is distinct from the more general use of the term ‘sceptical’ (nowadays usually so spelled in the UK and Australasia). The more general term WOULD seem to exclude comment upon ideas which the writer was convinced were ‘nonsense’. (One is reminded of Berkeley’s dialogues between Hylas and Philonous, where the latter character denies that he is sceptical about the existence of matter because he is already altogether convinced that matter does not exist and that the idea of matter is absurd.) But other critics (skeptics) might not agree that the ideas in question in a given case (e.g. Chomskyan linguistics) were so clearly absurd as to be described as ‘nonsense’. And, even if they did agree, this would not exclude those ideas from specifically skeptical comment. Indeed, a high percentage of skeptical writing (on linguistics and more generally) deals with ‘extreme fringe’ ideas which do clearly appear (to the writers in question, at least) to be ‘nonsense’.

    I myself agree with Chomsky’s view that there is an infinite number of sentences in each language. I do not think that Goran’s argument against this holds up For example, a series of tokens of one construction, or tokens of a series of constructions, can be ‘nested’ or ‘embedded’ indefinitely within each other, as in the poem This Is The House That Jack Built. Not only the constructions but (with suitable word-choice) many of the nouns, verbs etc can be repeated an indefinite number of times. The restrictions on sentence-length involve short-term memory, not strictly linguistic factors, and where the nesting/embedding is at the end of the sentence even memory is not necessarily a factor.

  3. John Cowan says:

    I haven’t read Perry Gilmore’s book about idioglossia, but her paper about her five-year-old son, his Kenyan friend of the same age, and their Swahili-derived private language, is freely available and quite remarkable.

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