Magazine article The Wilson Quarterly

Linguists at War

Magazine article The Wilson Quarterly

Linguists at War

Article excerpt

THE SOURCE: "Angry Words" by Tom Bartlett. in The Chronicle Review. April 6. 2012.

NOAM CHOMSKY IS WELL KNOWN AS A left-wing public intellectual, but in the academic world he is renowned as the father of the foundational modern theory about human language.

Chomsky's theory of universal grammar, forged in the 1960s, has two central tenets: There is a single underlying structure for all human languages, and humans have this structural information hard-wired in their brains at birth. But many of Chomsky's arguments are elusively theoretical. So when he published a paper in 2002 that seemed to say that the distinctive feature of human communication is "recursion," a critic pounced.

A recursive language, explains Tom Bartlett, a senior writer at The Chronicle of Higher Education, allows for "additional phrases and clauses [to] be inserted into a sentence, complicating the meaning, in theory indefinitely." In a new book, Language: The Cultural Tool, linguist Daniel Everett argues that a language called Piraha (pronounced pee-da-HAN), spoken by some 250 people in a remote part of Brazil, proves Chomsky's theory wrong because the language lacks this crucial trait. Everett's book "is an attempt to deliver, if not a fatal blow, then at least a solid right cross to universal grammar," Bartlett reports.

But Everett, the dean of arts and sciences at Bentley University, also offers a broader critique of Chomsky's theory, arguing, as Bartlett puts it, "that the structure of language doesn't spring from the mind but is instead largely formed by culture. …

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