Saturday, November 11, 2006

logjam at teotihuacan exit

Cleaning out an old set of links I ran across a link to Tim Mason's "Could Chomsky be wrong?" which still went to this excellent resource though indirectly. This was exactly what I needed. One thing I like about Tim Mason is that he pointed out some things that I heartily agree with and yet thought I was the only one saying. For example, right in the first paragraph:

"If you trawl the net, you will find that the majority of material on language acquisition - whether of a first or a second language - is strongly Nativist and often simply takes it for granted that Chomsky and Fodor have, between them, swept away all possibility of opposition. In the English-speaking world - the French, for example, are far more skeptical - the Universal Grammar or the language module rules supreme."

It may be that it only seemed this way, but my memory of graduate school (1986) and the reading I did for years afterward was that Chomsky and his followers had indeed erased the blackboard of all opposition, and yet, something about what Chomsky said never sat well with me. Maybe it was this: How could someone from Boston say that there are universal rules of driving, for example, which we access genetically, which tell us basic ways to behave in situations? Of course, Chomsky may have never used the driving/traffic analogy as others did, but the principle is the same. The fear of accidents or death may be instinctual/genetic, but all else is cultural/behavioral and subject to change- and if you don't believe that, skip Boston and go straight to Mexico City.

Back to Mason: I am very grateful for his still being there after all these years, and also just collecting, laying out, and linking to people with enough nerve to go after the basic tenets of Chomskyism- which to me is where the problem is. Most of the people in the field of linguistics are quite smart- and know a lot about many languages- which makes these conversations very interesting and enlightening, even if, as I believe, they are barking up the wrong tree, so to speak. Mason has the extra advantage of fluency in French, which apparently helps him be confident that ours are not the only voices in the wilderness. He also to his credit is very rational about the whole thing. Something about Chomsky's nature has seemed to make all philosophical challenges, over the years, into personal ones- misinterpreted by him and his supporters, this way, tenfold. But this is entirely unnecessary, since we're trying to get at the roots of human behavior, not Chomsky's behavior. It could be related to fact that Linguistics itself is still a small field- (who has time to think about this stuff?) or the feeling that any suggestion that language is not genetic is like turning Milgram's machine a notch higher.

Perusing this site and all its links will have to wait until I have a little more time; however, I can say this now. Language is a collective behavior of people in a community, much like a traffic jam or a crowd of pedestrians, and though it is quite obvious that the behavior of people in these crowds and communities follows rules and principles, there is no earthly reason that the language, or any crowd, should have natural inborn restrictions itself. That is why I suspect that just about every conceivable language pattern can be found somewhere; every possible rule or universal that one could conjure is broken somewhere, and universalists have failed to find any meaningful consistent universals in world languages that aren't directly tied either to the physical systems we use to produce language, or to the semantic setup we seek to map words onto. As I say this in the blog, I'm a little tenuous--what do I know?--yet I feel, from watching people, that they will truly do anything they can get away with- and language is one place where they truly have very little to lose (unlike I-94 at 7:30 am) - in language, the worst that can happen is that someone won't understand you, and that happens to the best of us even when we're trying to follow the collective rules. But in this situation, looking at the vast sum of human actions, and looking for things that people can't or won't do, is like looking on a university campus for places that people can't or won't go. Or like driving in Mexico City- just because it's the Street of the Dead, doesn't mean people will actually stop at red lights. Does it?

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At 2:04 AM, Anonymous Tim Mason said...


Thanks for the nice remarks. Actually, I haven't updated the Chomsky page for some time; most of the links still seem to work. On Knight, you might want to check out his book : here's my review.

I see you are having problems with plagiarism. I've found it useful to send my students to a short guide put out by the University of Ottawa. It tackles the question in a positive way, and offers students guidance in how to avoid accusations of cheating.

Best wishes

Tim Mason

At 9:51 PM, Blogger tom said...

Dear Tim,

Thanks for the comment! The link for the Univ. of Ottawa plagiarism book is here (pdf) - not sure what happened there or how to fix it. But I'm building a resource library for ESL teachers who struggle with it, and appreciate the help.

On Chomsky, I find it interesting that one man could basically back an entire field into a corner- a kind of ongoing loop whereby, by virtue of always arguing on his terms, our psychic tires are stuck in theoretical mud. Time to move on- quick, before another Linguistics program bites the dust.



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