The post on Scientific American’s article on Chomsky has prompted some suggestions for further reading. Here’s a summary.
Kevin Gregg recommends Evans, N. & Levinson, S.C. (2009) The myth of language universals: language diversity and its importance for cognitive science. Behavioral & Brain Sciences 32:429-492.
The main article makes an argument that I don’t think stacks up (more importantly, neither does Gregg) but it’s well presented and it’s followed by “Open Peer Commentary”, where a very wide selection of scholars , including Baker, Bevett, Christiansen and Chater, Croft, Adele Golberg, Habour, Nevins, and Pinker & Jakendoff respond. Very highly recommended.
Scott Thornbury confesses that his enthusiasm for Everett’s awful book has dwindled. (See here for the post on his A to Z blog where he cites Everett. A lively discussion followed.) He now recommends Christiansen and Chater (2016) Creating Language: Integrating Evolution, Acquisition and Processing. MIT. A review on the Phys.org website says:
Because children learn language quickly and easily, many theorists have believed this means there are specialized brain mechanisms specific to language acquisition. This has led them to ask how the brain has changed to accommodate language. Christiansen and Chater flip the question around, asking, “Why is language so well suited to being learned by the brain?” Taking a cultural evolution approach, they conclude language is easy for us to learn and use because language, like a living organism, has evolved in a symbiotic relationship with humans. Language has adapted to what our brains can do, rather than the other way around.
“We view language as piggy-backing on older pre-linguistic abilities,” Christiansen says. “Results from my lab indicate that there’s likely to be some biological differences in how people are able to process sequences of information and ‘chunk’ that information together into larger units. These differences interact with variation in linguistic experience and give rise to individual differences in language processing. The importance of experience is further underscored by the many studies showing that there’s a strong correlation between the number and variety of words that children hear and their language abilities. It can make a huge difference.”
Phil Chappel points us to a web site called The Conversation where a mum with a Ph.D. begs to differ with Chomsky’s UG theory, based partly on her experiences with her baby. She cites Vivian Evan’s book The Lnguage Myth (which is almost as bad as Everett’s), goes on to cite “the growing body of research on infant and mother communication” and then claims that “babies need joyful, responsive human company”. The article illustrates the danger of not appreciating the strictly-defined domain of Chomsky’s theory, namely language competence. That babies need human company is a fine example of a motherhood statement, but it has nothing to do with the POS argument or UG theory.
More seriousy, Phil Chappell recommends Lee, N., Mikesell, L., Joaquin, A. D. L., Mates, A. W., & Schumann, J. H. (2009). The interactional instinct: The evolution and acquisition of language. Oxford University Press. You can download a pdf file of Lee & Schmann’s presentation of the book at this web site. They say:
In this presentation, we outline a perspective on language acquisition based on evolutionary biology and neurobiology. We argue that language is a cultural artifact that emerges as a complex adaptive system from the verbal interaction among humans. We see the ubiquity of language acquisition among children generation after generation as the product of an interactional instinct that, as Tomasello indicates, is based on an innate drive communicate with and become like conspecifics.
The “cultural artifact” line is common to thise working on emergentist models. Note the reference to Tomasello who figures in so much of the lit. these days, including the book Scott mentions.
Ms. Westerlund invites “those with an open mind and more importantly, critical mind” (sic) to read an article by Tom Wolfe about Darwin and Chomsky (which is partly aimed at promoting his new book on Chomsky) in Harper’s magazine.
I don’t know whether Ms. Westerlund is implying that only those who possess an open critical mind will apreciate Wolfe’s argument, or that only they will recognise it for the blustering tosh that it is. I personallly think that just about anybody will quickly conclude that Wolfe has no idea what he’s talking about. What’s intersting is that Wolfe relies on the aforementioned Daniel Everett, he of the Pirahã study, to argue the case against Chomsky for him. Wolfe likes Everett becuase he’s a real macho man, a man who poses for the front jacket of his book up to his neck in water in a dangerous river while a Pirahã fisherman sits safely in his boat. Unlike the nasty, arrogant, desk-bound cissy Noam Chomsky, Daniel is a proper linguist who thinks fieldwork is essential, and “winds up in primitive places, emerging from the tall grass zipping his pants up”.
But, according to Wolfe, Everett is not just a proper macho man, he’s a brilliant academic. Everett’s fieldwork, Wolfe assures us, revealed that the Pirahã language lacked recursion, thus refuting Chomsky’s claims for the universality of his UG. Of course, Everett’s work did no such thing. Lots of linguists have since replied to Everett’s claim, pointing out that the Pirahã language indeed had recursion (e.g., “I want the same hammock you just showed me”) and that “recursion” is not that central to Chomsky’s theory anyway.
Robert Taylor offers “some interesting research about sounds for common ideas being the same across languages (roughly 2/3rds)” The link takes you to an article about the study, not the study itself, which is published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, and is written by Morten H. Christiansen – Scott’s man turns up yet again! Christiansen and colleagues argue that basic concepts, like body parts and familial relationships, and the sounds that people around the world turn to in describing them have a robust statistical relationship.
Finally, let me recommend an article from one of favorite web sites, the Stanford Encyclopedia of philosophy. The article, Innateness and Language gives an interesting discussion of some of the arguments for and against Chomsky’s theory,