Bryan Appleyard » Blog Archive » Overthrowing Chomsky

by peterjukes

Everett has now emerged from the jungle — he is dean of arts at Bentley University in Mas­sachusetts — to produce a book whose importance is almost impossible to overstate. This is an intellectual cri de coeur and a profound celebration of human diversity. After reading it, you will — should — care as much about disappearing languages as you do about the clubbed seal or the ­harpooned whale. But, first, you need to know about Noam Chomsky.

Chomsky is to linguistics what Freud once was to psycho­analysis: he is the subject itself. But it was Freud’s fate to be overthrown, and that is what is now happening to Chomsky; after this book, it is hard to imagine how he will be resurrected. ­Irascible Chomsky now regards Everett as a charlatan.

This is an intellectual cri de coeur and a profound celebration of human diversity

The argument is about nature ­versus nurture. After the evils of Nazi naturism — the Jews, they said, were “naturally” inferior — intellectuals became nurturists, believing that people were made, and could be improved, by society. The ­pendulum started to swing back in the 1970s and 1980s with the arrival of evolutionary psychology and a new belief in the existence of “human nature”. The orthodoxy since then — propagated by EO Wilson, Steven Pinker and, pre-eminently, Chomsky — has been that we come into the world equipped with a battery of “instincts”, including language, derived from our Darwinian inheritance.

In the case of language, one big argument for this is the speed with which children learn to speak, picking up vocabulary and complex syntax in a few months. Chomsky said this was because we are born with a capacity for a universal grammar, and that, ultimately, all languages could be traced back to this biologically determined form.

Reasonable as this may sound, there is very little — Everett would say there is no — evidence for an inborn universal grammar. There is no “language instinct”, as Pinker calls it, because a language is learnt and an instinct, by definition, is not.

This book is an assembly of empirical evidence against Chomsky and Pinker. Children, for example, do not learn syntax as such, they learn words and sentences as units of meaning. This gives them a feeling for sentences, which becomes, in adult terms, syntax. Similarly, there is no universal ­grammar that can be detected beneath all the 7,000 languages in the world. The variety is as bewildering in languages as it is in forms of behaviour, because languages are tools of the culture from which they spring; they are, in a sense, the greatest works of art that humans have ever created.

Crucially, this means that human cultures can be opaque to each other. “Different languages and different cultures can,” Everett writes, “produce different thoughts.” Language is a cultural, not a biological, tool, precisely because it gives meaning to the world in which it is formed; it is not some pure Platonic entity that adapts itself to that world, it is a product of the world. So, to know why wives are called vaginas in Wari’, you need, as far as ­possible, to become a Wari’.

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