Defending The Keep

I’ve just run across an interesting and illustrative story about academic heresy. It’s by a dissident researcher who took on the high priest of linguistics, Noam Chomsky, and describes the storm of opprobrium that followed.

In brief: a central tenet of Chomsky’s model is that a particular feature — recursion — is universal to all human language. This is to say that it is a manifestation of our linguistic “hardware”, upon which the “software” of different languages runs.

The article explains what is meant by lingustic recursion:

Recursion is common in English and many other languages. For example, put the noun ‘truck’ and the noun ‘driver’ inside a single noun, and you get ‘truck-driver’. Put a sentence inside another sentence and you get ‘John said that he did not do it,’ where ‘he did not do it’ is a sentence inside the larger sentence, ‘John said that…’ Or, much more fun, ‘Oysters that oysters eat themselves eat oysters,’ which can also come out as ‘Oysters oysters eat eat oysters.’

Chomsky’s opinion that recursion was indeed a human universal became an uncontroversial orthodoxy among linguists. In 2005, however, along came one Daniel Everett, who published a counterexample: the isolated Amazonian language Pirahã, which does not use recursion. A single counterexample always being fatal to any claim of universality, the paper was a mortal threat to the Chomskian model. This was, for many, intolerable, and Professor Everett came under heavy fire.

This was, says Everett, due not only to the theoretical implications of his paper, but also to the lofty status of Noam Chomsky himself:

There is another reason why people seem to have an emotional stake in this otherwise obscure academic dust-up. Thousands know Chomsky not because of his linguistic work but because of his political writings. For some, his intellectual authority on politics is believed to derive ultimately from his brilliance in inventing a theory in linguistics that is intellectually on a par with Albert Einstein’s theory of relativity. These folks are put off by criticism of his linguistics, I believe, because this could undermine in some way his ‘genius’ label, so important to their idolisation of him as a political figure. My criticisms of Chomsky are seen by some as analogous to those of some junior physicist at an obscure college saying that he or she had falsified Einstein’s theories.

Another reason for negative reactions to criticism of Chomsky is what I refer to occasionally as ‘Ivy-league bias’. Imitation is a stronger force in cultures than innovation. Everything goes more easily if we imitate rather than innovate – so we buy our clothes at the same department stores and eat out at the same chain restaurants. And when we imitate people – wearing their jerseys, singing their music, repeating their ideas – we are doing what most cultures do, copying people with prestige and status. For example, reporters rarely innovate when covering science, that is, they rarely come to their own opinion about difficult material. Rather, they establish a set of ‘go-to’ experts to cite. And those sets are populated largely by Ivy-league professors. There is nothing wrong with that. I simply point out that it is common. It saves one from the excruciating work of original thought.

But Chomsky is no Einstein. And linguistics is not physics. Unlike Einstein, for example, Chomsky has been forced to retract at one time or another just about every major proposal he has made up to his current research, which he calls ‘Minimalism’. Concepts that helped make him famous, such as ‘deep structure’ and ‘surface structure’, were thrown out years ago. And unlike physics, there is no significant mathematics or clear way to disprove Chomsky’s broader claims – part of the reason for the current controversy.

I’m no linguist, and so have nothing to contribute to the academic debate here. As I said above, though, the story is an interesting and illustrative one (illustrative of “motte-and-bailey” arguments, the prestige of academic clerisies and orthodoxies, and much else besides), and well worth your time. Read it here.

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  1. JK says

    Well yeah I realize of course but …

    Posted January 27, 2017 at 3:29 pm | Permalink
  2. Eric says

    If you’re interested in a more entertaining approach to the same subject, consider Tom Wolfe’s The Kingdom of Speech.

    Posted January 27, 2017 at 3:40 pm | Permalink
  3. Malcolm says

    Yes, The Kingdom of Speech discusses Everett’s work, and is referred to several times in the linked article.

    Posted January 27, 2017 at 4:15 pm | Permalink
  4. Daniel Everett wrote: “Nevertheless, my reaction to most of the reviews of Wolfe’s work is that they ‘doth protest too much, methinks.'”

    The auxiliary verb here should be “do,” not “doth.” That charlatan Everett is therefore wrong on every other point he makes about language, and he is – if I may speak recursively – a dog-damned furthermucker, too.

    And if he should turn out to be right about anything, it would only be obvious stuff, anyway.

    Jeffery Hodges

    * * *

    Posted January 27, 2017 at 5:24 pm | Permalink
  5. Malcolm says


    Absolutely right.

    (bangs gavel)

    Next case!

    Posted January 27, 2017 at 5:29 pm | Permalink
  6. Whitewall says

    It seems the gods of the Ivy League and academia in general can’t tolerate doubt and will not allow that doubt to become truth. For in this world of theirs, certain things are simply true because the believers say so. Anything else, especially if provable, simply can not be allowed to be true. Those who discover inconvenient truth must be attacked and silenced.

    Posted January 28, 2017 at 9:08 am | Permalink