This blog is the direct result of an article by Tom Bartlett in the May 12, 2012 issue of the Chronicle of Higher Education. The article reports on a “debate” pitting Chomsky (“the discipline’s long-reigning king”) against Dan Everett (“the former missionary” and “true-blooded Chomskyan” whose belief in God and Chomsky “had melted away”). Everett’s claim is that Pirahã (an indigenous language spoken in Brazil) fails to display recursion and that this conclusively demonstrates that Chomsky’s conception of Universal Grammar (in which recursion is the defining property) is wrong. Despite the fevered prose (Chomsky coverage is almost always breathless) it was pretty clear to me that given Everett’s reported views there could be no “debate” for the simple reason that Everett’s apparent understanding of ‘Universal Grammar’ had nothing to do with Chomsky’s (I contributed some comments on the website of the article to this effect under ‘nhornste’). The “debate” was based on a misunderstanding and so a simple equivocation. The article was apparently widely read and so a success for the Chronicle, (a Chomsky take-down always makes for “good press”) but it had virtually no substance.
It did, however, have a consequence. The “debate” led me to appreciate how little linguistic outsiders (and even practitioners) know about the foundations and results of the Generative Enterprise initiated by Chomsky in the mid 1950s. This blog is an attempt to rectify this. It will partly be a labor of hate; aimed squarely at the myriad distortions and misunderstandings about the generative enterprise initiated by Chomsky in the mid 1950s. There is a common view, expressed in the Chronicle article, that Chomsky’s basic views about the nature of Universal Grammar are hard to pin down and that he is evasive (and maybe slightly dishonest) when asked to specify what he means by Universal Grammar (henceforth I’ll stick to the shorter ‘UG’ for ‘Universal Grammar’). This is poodle poop!
The basic idea is simple and has not changed: Just as fish are built to swim and birds to fly humans are build to talk. Call the faculty responsible for this ability ‘the Faculty of Language,’ (FL for short). The aim of the generative enterprise is to describe the fine structure of FL. The name we give to the proposed structure is ‘Universal Grammar’; ‘universal’ because it is intended to describe the capacity that all humans have and ‘grammar’ because grammars are compact ways of describing the words, morphemes, phrases, and sentences of a language. Over the years Chomsky and colleagues have made various proposals concerning the structure of UG. It is not a daring hypothesis to propose that natural language grammars are recursive (it follows from the easily observed fact that there is no real upper bound on the size of a sentence) and so UG must allow for recursive grammars. The interesting question is not whether there is recursion but the specific nature of the recursion that natural language grammars have. Studying the properties of natural language grammars should, we hope, shed light on how UG is constructed. So what’s UG? It is the general recipe in FL that humans have to build grammars of natural languages. What features does it have? Well, that is, as they say, an empirical question which this blog will discuss. But reader be warned: as the central object of study within Chomskyan linguistics is the structure of UG and as the field is very active the details of the description change, or at least may appear to change to the untutored eye. I personally think that many of the central findings are pretty secure and that later theories have been conservative in that they have preserved the findings of earlier theories. We intend to discuss some of this in the future.
The perspicuous reader will have noted the ‘we’ in the last sentence. I am one of many that will be writing here. David Pesetsky is a co-conspirator. I have asked several others to contribute as well. The contributors disagree on many issues. However we all believe that there are no major empirical discoveries that have invalidated the Generative approach in linguistics initiated by Chomsky, no serious methodological failings concerning the practice of linguists and no conceptual incoherence in the leading assumptions upon which this practice is founded. The details are all up for grabs. The basic perspective has more than proven its worth.
Before ending some may be wondering about the equivocation that vitiated the “debate” in the Chronicle. Well it’s this: Chomsky’s claim is that the distinctive characteristic of UG is that it contains recursion. This is the defining property of FL, which, recall, is the human capacity to acquire language. This does not imply that every human language grammar deploys recursion. It does imply that every human can learn a grammar that is recursive. The Pirahã may not deploy recursion when speaking Pirahã (though I should add here that Everett’s claim is likely false (c.f. Pirahã Exceptionality: A Reassessment in Language 2009:355-204) but Pirahã children have no trouble learning Brazilian Portuguese (an undisputedly recursive language) and so there is no evidence that their UGs are any different from anyone else’s. Everett (and the Chronicle) interpreted UG to mean that every language must have recursive structures, while what Chomsky means is that recursion is a property of FL. Whether Pirahã has recursion or not (and to repeat, it looks like it does) has no bearing on whether Pirahã speakers’ UGs have it or not. This was the equivocation and this is why the “debate” was pointless.