further comments on child language acquisition, ‘skeptical linguistics, chomsky

These comments are taken from the ongoing exchange between Goran H & me re my Hall Of Shame 12. I am re-posting them as new posts because they are not really relevant to Hall Of Shame 12 and might thus be missed.

I do not see how Goran H 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.


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13 Responses to further comments on child language acquisition, ‘skeptical linguistics, chomsky

  1. Goran Hammarstrom says:

    Child language and the number of sentences
    I am only convinced that a child needs many hours to learn a small amount of language but I cannot prove it. One knows that a baby only knows a small number of words and a few constructions at different points in time. One even knows the number. One could show that the baby needs hundreds of hours of being exposed to speech before having learnt much.. Unfortunately it would not help my view to investigate this relationship because one cannot know if the child bothers about learning all the time it is exposed to speech,
    About the number of sentences I have always said that everything that occurs in the situation of communication must be studied in linguistics. If one repeats something too many times, it is no longer speech. Saying that a segment of speech can be repeated any number of times, when it cannot, is in my view nonsense linguistics.
    I won’t continue for the moments but we need a deeper discussion about strange, nonsensensical and skeptical. You have many comments about the topic which interests you but you need one single term with a clear definition and I have not either defined the term for one of my favourite topics, nonsense linguistics. Goeran.

  2. marknewbrook says:

    I have said my piece about child language acquisition; I don’t think Goran has said anything to alter my view and I don’t know how he judges whether the time taken to learn a first language is to be deemed short or long (I assume from a) his general stance on Chomskyan linguistics and b) his dissent from Chomsky’s view that first languages are acquired remarkably quickly that he rejects the Chomskyan argument I mentioned last time).

    I agree that everything (or everything linguistic in nature, at any rate) that occurs in communication should be studied in linguistics. But I don’t see how this relates to Goran’s next point, and I don’t agree at all that oral sequences which involve the repetition of sub-sequences do not count as speech (although they might be unlikely to occur in practice). (In any case, repeated nesting does not always involve exact repetition.) Maybe some of my own views (especially where I agree with Chomsky) count as ‘nonsense linguistics’ for Goran. That is fair enough – although of course I would not agree with him in this respect as he has (so far) said nothing that might persuade me that he is right. Even if the Chomskyan view on these issues should be judged mistaken, I do not think it is so blatantly mistaken as to count as nonsense.

    I don’t agree at all that I need a single term (if this is what Goran mea\ns) to cover strange linguistics, skeptical linguistics and nonsense[ical] linguistics (not my own term but, I think, wholly intelligible). Strange linguistics I define (in my book) as ‘non-mainstream’ ideas about language, very largely proposed by writers who are not themselves professional linguists. Nonsense] linguistics clearly involves extreme cases of strange linguistics, those which are too absurd to be taken seriously. (What Goran is identifying as nonsense linguistics in this present context is the work of mainstream linguists and thus would be unusual even as merely strange linguistics; I myself explicitly excluded such material from my book, except a) where it is relevant to the work of non-linguists and b) where I report on skeptical critiques of such work (the work of Chomsky, etc) either by other professional linguists or by amateurs. But Goran is fully entitled to judge that Chomskyan linguistics etc, despite its professional provenance, is not merely strange but in fact nonsense – although I myself would not go THAT far.) Skeptical linguistics is criticism of strange linguistics, including nonsense[ical] linguistics; it is parallel with skeptical discourse in other domains. I think that all this is already clear.

    Although I fail to understand Goran at various points here and disagree with him at others, I want to emphasise that I fully respect his views taken overall and agree with him on the need to expose fallacies and flaws in mainstream as well as non-mainstream linguistics. One general point that emerges from this exchange is how different the perspectives of two mainstream (and both non-Chomskyan) linguists can be.

    • Goran Hammarstrom says:

      Dear Mark,
      Thanks for your viewpoints. I do not think that they need further discussion.
      I would like to try to define nonsense linguistics, one of my special interests. In all kinds of accounts there are occasional incorrect details that I wish to consider here as more or less minor: trivial factual errors, conclusions which do not follow from the premises, various kinds of mistakes, lapses etc. Nonsensical linguistic ac- counts contain, however, errors that are more substantial because they refer to fundamentals or principles in an odd way. What such ideas refer to is either not factual or not obvious (evident, self-evi- dent). (Obvious ideas must be accepted in scientific discussions although there is no way of showing that they are correct.) Two example of nonsense: (1) To say that a sentence can be infinitely long is nonsensical because it is factually incorrect, One cannot show a speaker who never stops uttering a sentence. (2)To say that a baby’s learning its language, ii. e. acquiring and learning to use phonemes, morphemes, lexemes, syntagmemes and intona- tions from being exposed to them, must be slow and difficult is obviously correct to me but not to you, Mark. If one of us cannot persuade the other to change his opinion, we will continue to have different opinions of what is obvious in this case. Each of us can think that the other has a nonsensical idea..
      It may be problematic to distinguish nonsense ideas from odd ideas dealt with in skeptical linguistics. In order to distinguish I will try to suggest that nonsense ideas cannot lead anywhere but, while being incorrect, some odd ideas may contain parts that can be amended and become acceptable. Also rejecting such ideas may inspire a linguist to understand some problem better.
      The first three examples in my short monograph which you, Mark, have discussed in your recent book on pages 216 – 217 and 241 are very clearly nonsensical The first of the authors I quote states among other things that birds, except the raven, and humans can sing but in addition humans can speak. This is explained by the fact that humans have arms but no wings..The second author starts his argumentation as follows: “It has been shown that the sun has a strong influence on the creation of vowels in the dif- ferent languages […].” The third author establishes relationships between the speech sounds, the points of the compass and the passages of migratory birds. The ideas of these authors cannot lead anywhere. My fourth example of nonsense linguistics is Chom- sky – Halle, The sound pattern of English. Here the authors start from actual forms, change them in an unprincipled way into under- lying forms and use transformations to get back the actual forms. This is meant to be a description of English phonology but it has nothing to do with what the speakers know and how they use their language. These fantasies cannot lead to anything and few are interested in them today.
      Nonsense linguistics is incorrect in such a way,that it does not be- long to linguistics although it can be best described by linguists.. Other scientists such as psychologists, sociologists and philoso- phers would be able to discuss characteristic details of this topic with greater expertise than linguists,
      Next time the definition of skeptical linguistics,

  3. marknewbrook says:

    Thanks again to Goran for his comments!

    I am awaiting Goran’s comments on skeptical linguistics.

    Re nonsense linguistics: I agree with what Goran says, and this is close to my own definition. (Of course there is a cline: mainstream, marginally mainstream/maverick/odd, shallow fringe [mostly amateur from here on], deep fringe/nonsense; the boundaries are not sharp and scholars may disagree on where particular cases should be located.) But I disagree with Goran’s suggestion that nonsense linguistics does not belong to linguistics. As per the name given to it by Goran, it is still linguistics (albeit of a very odd/dubious kind).

    Of course other disciplines are often relevant to cases of nonsense linguistics, as Goran says at the end of his piece; but this is so in linguistics generally (as indeed in all domains).

    Goran’s examples of nonsense linguistics in the paper cited are very good and repay attention (see my book for brief comments).

    Goran’s examples of nonsense linguistics mentioned here are more problematic:

    (1) Infinitely long sentences: to me, this notion is NOT nonsensical on Goran’s stated grounds because I deny that it is factually incorrect. Naturally these sentences do not occur in practice, but this is for NON-linguistic reasons (chiefly the human life-span). Note that grammatically unremarkable sentences too long to say, write out or read can readily be generated and printed by a computer. But I think that Goran and I are working with different notions of what a language is and/or of how to assess what is or is not part of a language.

    (2) As said before, I don’t know how one can judge that child language acquisition is slow or fast if there is no basis for comparison and no unequivocal reason for surprise either way; so I can’t agree with either Chomsky or Goran here. But I don’t think Goran’s view is nonsense; that’s too strong. Maybe Goran thinks MY (undecided) view is nonsense; I disagree but that’s OK.


    • Goran Hammarstrom says:

      I am working on further definitions but let me get your two points out of the way:
      (1) We have clearly different views on the field of linguistics. I have always thought that anything that has anything to do with one’s production and understanding of spoken and written texts must be included in linguistics and nothing else, If a speaker cannot continue a sentence for ever, it is an error from my viewpoint to include in linguistic considerations the idea which I must believe means that he can. The basic problem is that I cannot accept your view of linguistics because I find that it is too limited…
      (2) It is obvious to me that a child learns its language slowly. It is obvious to you that there is no acceptable knowledge about this problem. No further discussion is possible.

  4. marknewbrook says:

    (1) As I suspected, Goran & I do differ on the field of linguistics. For me, indefinitely/infinitely long but otherwise unremarkable sentences, and other structures which fail to occur for non-linguistic reasons only, are definitely parts of the relevant languages. (IN THIS SPECIFIC RESPECT I agree with Chomsky against Goran; I know of critics of Chomsky who would agree here with me and others who would agree with Goran.)

    It seems to me that it is Goran’s view of linguistics which is the more limited here, not mine, because I include phenomena which he excludes; hence I do not understand Goran’s comment that my view is ‘too limited’. If this is explained I will comment; maybe I am misunderstanding Goran’s statement here. (It might be the case, here or more generally, either that a more limited view would be better or a less limited view; but at present each of us judges the other’s view to be the more limited, so we cannot take the point further.)

    (2) Goran’s summary seems correct, except that I can see the possibility of decisive evidence emerging (e.g. evidence that without a dramatically powerful language acquisition ‘module’ the rest of our psychological apparatus would indeed, as Chomsky claims, be inadequate for the process of learning a 1st language). If I am presented with such evidence I will modify my view.

    • Goran Hammarstrom says:

      No. You do not understand me. You and Chomsky are limited and wrong. We have an object of study the process of communicaring by language and everything that makes it possible. One cannot take away things or add things like saying some conditions of the process do not count. It is part of the description that all segments have a definite length. I have been an academic linguist foe 72 years and I have seen wrong understanding of the topic matter before. In 1940 spoken language could not be studied. In the 1950s I used Gleason’s textbook,Tthere only discrete things belonged to linguistics. I do not think researchers in natural sciences are so dumb. Goeran

  5. marknewbrook says:

    There is no need for dogmatism here, still less rancour. I accept that I still do not understand what Goran means here by ‘ limited’. But, regardless of which of our notions of linguistics is to be considered the more limited, I currently stand by my own view, including the specific position that a grammatical sentence can be indefinitely long. Nothing that Goran has said persuades me that I am mistaken in these respects (I find most of his latest statements unclear, in any case).

    Goran and I clearly differ more deeply than I had realised. This itself is interesting – and it should not mean that we cannot discuss our differences in a civil manner, learn from each other, or join in critiquing ideas which we agree are fallacious. But even if we are very far apart indeed on a given issue, I object to bald and dogmatic statements such as ‘You are wrong’, which are surely out of place in this context. I value my friendship with Goran; but I decline to continue this discussion unless it can be carried on in a better spirit and with a more restrained and polite tone.


    • Goran Hammarstrom says:

      I will continue the main part of our discussion and comment on in- correct, doubtful, nonsensical, strange, weird and sceptical – skep- tical:
      (1) Minor incorrectness refers here to things such as typos, vari- ous lapses of tongue or pen and even unimportant wrong conclu- sions or factual errors. They do not concern principles or funda- mentals.
      (2) Scepticism refers to the fact that one may see the content of a text (spoken or written) as doubtful. It may result in an interesting discussion with arguments in favour of or against the content.
      (3) (Major) incorrectness refers to a content with important errors. It may be counter-factual, obviously wrong or contain other impor- tant errors of thought. It has to be rejected.
      (4) Nonsense refers to a content that is so weird that one cannot discuss it in a rational way. The weird aspects may, however, be discussed in interesting ways.
      You have written your new book Strange Linguistics in your capa- city of a “skeptical linguist”. I cannot see that you have defined the two crucial terms “strange” and “skeptical” so I assume that they mean what they seem to mean. I find that “strange” is unproble= matic although I might prefer “weird” because its scope is more limited and its meaning is more negative. I find, however “skeptical” problematic. One would expect that the content of the cases you discuss in your book would be doubtful (category 2 above) but that is not the case. You hardly find anything doubtful anywhere. How- ever on page 30 you consider hyper-diffusionist claims to be “‘frin- ge’ or dubious”. I even disagree with your opinion here because I find that these claims are just incorrect (category 3) or perhaps nonsensical (category 4). I believe that none of your examples can be considered with scepticism (category 2) because there is no doubt about them. However, I have no objection if you do not mention scepticism but only “strange” or “weird” when you define “skeptical”. On the other hand, to use the term “skeptical” in rela- tion to cases that do not involve any scepticism is far from ideal.
      I would like to add that the field of skeptical linguistics is outside linguistics although it can be best studied by linguists.
      You have not yet said much about your examples seen as philo-sophical, psychological and sociological problems. Next time I will make some comments on these aspects. Goeran

  6. marknewbrook says:

    I don’t think there is really much of an issue here; the notions (‘skeptical linguistics’, etc) appear to me to be clear enough for the purposes at hand (they are working notions, not concepts requiring ultra-precise definitions, and they obviously involve clines). And I see no need to alter my usage or my stances, or to develop new terms. But I will make a few comments:

    ‘Skeptical’, as I have remarked previously, is NOT the same as ‘sceptical’. This distinction is routinely made in the skeptical world and makes clear sense. As I define it in my book, skeptical linguistics outlines, explains and critiques non-standard ideas about human language which are proposed and promoted by writers who (mostly) are not themselves professional linguists and have only a limited knowledge of the discipline or indeed none. These writers are ‘revisionists’; they seek to replace established mainstream scholarly ideas regarding language (whether or not they themselves are aware of these ideas) with alternative ideas. Those linguists who are aware of such non-mainstream work and publish on it are mostly, but not all, involved in the world ‘skeptical’ movement. This is the community of privately-organized intellectual groups in various countries which engage in the critical examination of ‘fringe’ claims, such as UK Skeptics in the UK. Skepticism is not to be confused with scepticism in general. (Skeptical linguistics is parallel with skeptical scholarship in other domains, such as skeptical astronomy, as practiced by Phil Plait etc.)

    Strange linguistics, again as defined in my book, appears to me to be a good cover-term for the SUBJECT MATTER of skeptical linguistics (parallel with Plait’s ‘bad astronomy’, etc): non-standard ideas about human language which are proposed and promoted by writers who (mostly) are not themselves professional linguists (a key point). This subject matter ranges from the merely dubious to the truly bizarre; this latter is what Goran calls ‘nonsense linguistics’. (As I say in my Preface: The material covered here varies considerably. Some of the ideas discussed are much less ‘strange’ than others; some, indeed, merely represent the ‘different’ thinking of sincere and intelligent but sometimes inadequately informed non-linguists, dealing as best they can with language matters (for various reasons). But many of the ideas presented in this book really do qualify as ‘strange’ linguistics; some might even be labelled [‘fringe’ linguistics or even] ‘bad linguistics’. Even if sincerely promoted, ideas of these latter kinds are almost certainly (if not obviously) mistaken, often indeed culpably misinformed; and in some cases they are potentially harmful.) Of course, there are no sharp divisions along this range; it is a cline or continuum. I see no point in trying to classify such cases definitively; it is usually enough to give a rough indication of where on the cline an idea lies. And the basic approach of skeptical linguists applies right across the range.

    It is thus entirely possible to direct skeptical attention (in our sense) at material which would not usually attract sceptical attention – for example because it is CLEARLY absurd, for instance Goran’s three cases of amateur ‘nonsense linguistics’. In saying ‘to use the term “skeptical” in relation to cases that do not involve any scepticism is far from ideal’, Goran thus appears to me to be using the term ‘skeptical’ in a different manner from the way we skeptics use it, perhaps as almost equivalent to ‘sceptical’. (Note that I do not use the term ‘sceptical’ in this context.)

    Obviously, I reject Goran’s view that skeptical linguistics is not part of linguistics. Strange linguistics is weak amateur linguistics involving specific non-mainstream claims, and skeptical linguistics is linguistically-informed criticism of same and is thus plainly part of linguistics.


    • Goran Hammarstrom says:

      We are probably coming to the end of this long discussion.
      I can’t see that it is possible not to distinguish two very different things. When you discuss in your blog more general problems, this is skeptical, One can use arguments pro and con. The book deals with totally different things. These things are absurd. They can be described but one can’t discuss pros and cons about the content. You call both skeptikal. Then you would at least get skeptical a and skeptical b. I prefer skeptical and nonsensical.
      If I apply this to your book, the only thing I think should be changed is to delete skeptical in the title. It would have no effect on the content .
      The other tings I argue in favour of are not much more than terminological. I prefer “weird” to “strange” because it is more restricted and more negative, I wish to put skeptical linguistics outside linguistics because linguistics can’t contain absurdities about language. I do not believe that a chemist would accept alchemy as part of chemistry. Skeptical linguistics is an odd term but I can’t imagine a good term.

  7. marknewbrook says:

    I agree that this discussion is running out. At the points where Goran & I disagree, we are going to continue to disagree. And in some respects we are, it seems, struggling even to understand each other.

    I cannot identify the ‘two very different things’ to which Goran refers when he says ‘I can’t see that it is possible not to distinguish two very different things’. There is no intention for my blog to cover topics of a different kind from those discussed in my book; some of them ARE in the book, others were excluded from the book but NOT because of their subject-matter or mode of presentation. This is why I call both bodies of material ‘skeptical’ (I regard skepticism [with a K] as a valid approach to all such topics). It looks as if Goran sees a clear division here where I see no division, or at most a cline between shallow-fringe and deep-fringe/nonsense. But even this distinction along a cline is NOT reflected in the distribution of topics between blog and book. So in the end I really do not understand what Goran is saying.

    I regard the use of the term ‘skeptical’ in my title as important, because it indicates my involvement in the world skeptical movement. It COULD be omitted as Goran suggests, but then the fact that my book is part of the skeptical tradition (as well as of mainstream linguistics) would be obscured at this crucial point.

    I regard the term ‘weird’ as too informal and TOO negative (suggestive of prejudice); in this context, I PREFER ‘strange’.

    I continue to disagree deeply with Goran’s view that skeptical linguistics is outside linguistics. As I said, strange/nonsense linguistics is itself, in my view, part of linguistics, albeit a weak/misguided largely amateur part; for me, there is no principle that linguistics cannot ‘contain absurdities about language’. Skeptical linguistics, which is mostly mainstream, is criticism of strange linguistics, and it too is in my view very clearly part of linguistics. (In the same way, a skeptical chemist, while of course not ENDORSING alchemy or regarding it as part of MAINSTREAM chemistry, would DISCUSS alchemy, or more probably non-mainstream chemical theories/claims of more recent origin. Again, compare Phil Plait’s skeptical astronomy.) My own notion of linguistics (shared with my fellow skeptical linguists) clearly includes much material excluded from the discipline by Goran.

    ‘Skeptical linguistics’ seems to me to be a good description of what I do in my book and of the work of other skeptical linguists (Jacques Guy, Sarah Thomason, etc).


    For my book Strange Linguistics, see:
    Copies are available through me at the author’s 50% discount, for EU 26.40 including postage to anywhere outside Germany. Please let me know if you’d like one, suggest means of payment (Paypal is possible) and provide your preferred postal address.

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