Phew. Right now there’s so much stuff to do studying-wise that I have a hard time finding any time to blog. Fortunately there are other people in the blogosphere who are posting as regularly and as reliable as a Swiss watch.
Edmund Blair Bolles, for example, has a nice post on Derek Bickerton’s autobiography “Bastard Tongues: A trailblazing linguist finds clues to our common humanity in the world’s lowliest languages.”
Bickerton, who is professor emeritus at the University of Hawaii, is well-known for his work on creoles and pidgins as well as on the evolution of language. I have to admit that when I started reading Bickerton’s book I thought It would be more about the biological evolution of language, but as it turns out, this will be the focus of his next book. Still, I hadn’t expected that there is almost no discussion of the evolution of language, and that there would be a more extensive bibliography instead of a small “suggested reading” section, so in this regard I’m a bit disappointed. But, leaving my personal biases and prejudices aside, all in all the book’s really fun to read and Bickerton has a energetic, decidedly anti-scholarly style with a lot of entertaining digressions and ramblings on various topics, garnered with witty humor, biting sarcasm, and a good bit of polemic statements.
Bickerton is a proponent of the necessity of children having Universal Grammar (UG) which enables them to learn language. This “bioprogram”, as Bickerton calls it, can be seen as the language-specific toolkit, or grammatical mental template a child brings to the task of acquiring a language. Bickerton argues that the existence of a language bioprogram is the only explanation for the fact that children exposed to agrammatical, rule-less pidgins still produce and create a full human language, a creole. These creoles have a fully intact grammatical system and possess grammatical rules that aren’t present in the native language of their parents, nor in the language the pidgin is based on. Therefore, these rules must have come from the “language bioprogram” of the child acting on the pidgin data.
EBB holds that Bickerton’s evidence for the existence for a UG is far more persuasive than Chomsky’s arguments. Bickerton even writes that philosopher John Searle once told him that his arguments even convinced Willard Van Orman Quine, one of the most important philosophers of the second half of the twentieth century and an outspoken behaviorist.
Chomsky’s main argument on the other hand is the so called “Poverty of Stimulus” argument, i.e. that the linguistic data a child receives is not sufficient to learn a language without the child possessing innate biases to structure, organize and attend to it in certain ways. There are, for example, some mistakes children never make:
Take the sentence:
Zombies are gruesome.
How do you derive the question form of this sentence from the declarative? One possible explanation is that you take the first auxiliary (such as “am”, “is”, “are”, “do”, “does”) in the sentence and put in front :
Are zombies gruesome?
The rule “to form a question move the first auxiliary verb in front of sentence” works perfectly well for a lot of sentences. However, there are sentences that disprove this rule:
The gruesome zombie that was chasing the man was losing speed.
If we applied the rule, we would get:
*was the gruesome zombie that chasing the man was losing speed?
Therefore, the rule is wrong. Now take a three-year-old child, who to this date, has heard abut 2.5 million sentences. As it seems, double auxiliary sentences like the one above, which could disprove the “move the auxiliary” rule, simply do not to appear in utterances directed to young children. Searching through a database of 100,000 sentences directed to children, Legate & Yang (2002) didn’t find a single instance of double auxiliary question. According to the most comprehensive counts, there is probably about one double auxiliary sentence in 3,000,000 sentences directed to a child (MacWhinney 2004).
What then, is the right rule? As it appears, if we think of a sentence as not only consisting of words, but of larger chunks called phrases, we can find a way to explain how to form questions of English. If we see the sentence “Zombies are gruesome” as consisting of a noun phrase (zombies) and a verb phrase (are nimble), the rule for forming a question would be the follwing: “move the auxiliary that follows the noun phrase to the front.”
In the example
“The gruesome zombie that was chasing the man was losing speed”
the noun phrase would be “The gruesome zombie that was chasing the man” and the verb phrase would be “was losing speed.” Applying our new rule, we would correctly get
“Was the gruesome zombie that was chasing the man losing speed?”
Now, given that children haven’t come across any examples that would refute the first rule, and indeed only have come into contact with sentences which would make it the more logical one, which of the two rules do they employ?
Crain & Nakayama (1987) designed a clever experiment to test this. They had children from age 3 on talk to a puppet of Jabba the Hutt, who was visiting from another planet and saw pictures of various things, like, for example, a cute dog sitting on a bench.
The children then had to “ask Jabba if the dog that is happy is sitting on the bench.”
Did the children use the sensible and logical “move first auxiliary” rule?. No. Not even the youngest children constructed questions like
*Is the dog that happy is sitting on the bench?
Chomsky’s argument is that children never use the first rule, but instead learn the second rule because the Universal Grammar they possess by nature of their genetic endowment
“includes a principle called structure dependence, which states that sentence formation operates around linear relations not among words but among chunkier units of phrases.” (Yang 2006: 22).
EBB also states that Bickerton’s proposal for a bioprogram is
"less dogmatic, forr it carries no implications on just how that universal grammar work” than that of Chomsky, but I’m not so sure. It may well be that Chomsky proposes
“a separate, syntactical module in the brain that generates its output to other areas.” (or in Chomskyan terminology a conceptual-intentional system, a sensori-motor /articulatory-pholological system and a syntactic system connected by interface rules),but at least judging from some of his writings, he isn’t really dogmatic about it. For example in his raging and polemic (2007) response to Margaret Bodens history of cognitive science “Mind as Machine”, he states that by Universal Grammar (UG) he means the
“genetic factor that played a role in my granddaughter's having reflexively identified some part of the data to which she was exposed as language-related, and then proceeding to acquire knowledge of a language, while her pet kitten (chimp, songbird, etc.), with exactly the same experience, can never even take the first step, let alone the following ones.”He also proposes that the Minimalist Programm basically
“is a research program, which can be undertaken whatever theory one favors, [emphasis mine - MP] seeking to determine to what extent the nature of language and its acquisition follows from more general principles.”Doesn’t really sound dogmatic to me, I must admit.
A similar argument can be found in his 2002 "The Architecture of Language". Here he also posits a very weak form of “innatism”:
"To say 'language is innate' is to express the belief that some crucial and relevant internal nature differentiates my granddaughter from rocks, bees, cats and chimpanzees. We want to find out what this internal nature is.[...]
Now a question that could be asked is whether whatever is innate about language is specific to the language faculty or whether it is just some combination of the other aspects of the mind. That is an empirical question and there is no reason to be dogmatic about it;[emphasis mine - MP] you look and you see. What we seem to find is that it is specific. There are properties of the language faculty, which are not found elsewhere, not only in the human mind, but in other biological organisms as far as we know.”
Of course, this is not to say that Chomsky’s influence on cognitive science and linguistics is always benign. He surely has seriously hindered many disciplines (e.g. language evolution) or phenomena (e.g. performance) in becoming areas of further research just by dismissing them as unimportant. Furthermore it is unfortunate that many linguistic departments unquestioningly adopt whatever Chomsky deems the best framework at the time, a development which he surely isn’t completely innocent of.
But I’m not sure why others approaches to language shouldn’t in principle be able to find some common ground with Chomskian generativism. Surely we don’t have to go so far as computer linguist Gerald Gazdar did in an interview with Ted Briscoe:
“EJB […] Why do think linguistics is in such a bad state?
GG I've no real idea. The field has clearly been damaged by the presence of a charismatic leader [Guess who…] who has led it badly. But that, by itself, isn't sufficient to explain the situation.
EJB Is it going to get better? Is it getting better now or do you think it's going to stay in the same state, or you just don't have an opinion because you have given up?
GG I see no reason to expect it to get better. There might be a temporary improvement when [Chomsky’s] death occurs. However, if the field is such that it can be taken over by a charismatic leader and be led by him for over forty years, then why shouldn't that happen again?
EJB So, to somebody coming into the field, offered a job in a linguistics department, what would you say?
GG Learn how to use a computer and change department."
Crain, S. & M. Nakayama (1987): Structure Dependency in grammar formation. Language 63: 522-43.
Legate, J.A. & Yang, C. (2002). Empirical reassessments of poverty of stimulus arguments. Linguistic Review, 151-162.
MacWhinney, B. (2004). A multiple process solution to the logical problem of language acquisition. Journal of Child Language 31: 883-914. Yang, Charles. 2006. The infinite Gift. How Children Learn and Unlearn the Languages of the world. New York et al.: Scribner.
Yang, Charles. 2006. The infinite Gift. How Children Learn and Unlearn the Languages of the world. New York et al.: Scribner.