Universal Grammar, meet the Black Swan

OK, so I’ve never been that big a fan of Chomskyan grammar: I just never quite understood what one would *do* with it. Besides, sitting around dissecting sentences like “The large gray man fell on the radio stand” just paled in comparsion to analyzing how people actually talk:

Oh I w’s settin’ at a table drinkin’
And – this Norwegian sailor come over
an’ kep’ givin’ me a bunch o’ junk
about I was sittin’ with his woman.
An’ everybody sittin’ at the table with me were my shipmates.
So I jus’ turn aroun’
an’ shoved `im,
an’ told `im, I said,
“Go away,
I don’t even wanna fool with ya.”
An’ nex’ thing I know I ‘m layin’ on the floor, blood all over me,
An’ a guy told me, says,
Don’t move your head.
Your throat’s cut.

(From a transcription of a tape in Labov Some Further Steps in Narrative Analysis)

I mean, really, what’s more interesting, playing Chomsky-style mind games, or looking at techniques folks use to simulate POV in spoken discourse?

That’s a rhetorical question.

Given this, I couldn’t help but smirk reading this recent New Yorker article that claims Chomsky’s theory may be threatened due to some idiosyncracies in an obscure Amazonian language:

From the article:

Everett’s most explosive claim, however, was that Pirahã displays no evidence of recursion, a linguistic operation that consists of inserting one phrase inside another of the same type, as when a speaker combines discrete thoughts (“the man is walking down the street,” “the man is wearing a top hat”) into a single sentence (“The man who is wearing a top hat is walking down the street”). Noam Chomsky, the influential linguistic theorist, has recently revised his theory of universal grammar, arguing that recursion is the cornerstone of all languages, and is possible because of a uniquely human cognitive ability.

The article goes on and frankly it looks not quite as bad all that for the cult of Noam. Despite the rigor, one black swan is not going to upset his applecart, at least according to Stephen Pinker, who’s quoted.

So TG or Mark VI or whatever it is now will survive.

And be just as boring as ever.

3 thoughts on “Universal Grammar, meet the Black Swan

  1. I just heard yesterday about this black swan concept (saw the book in Barnes & Noble). Intriguing idea — but I have no idea what to do with it.

  2. Hi Mike,

    You set Labov and Chomsky apart on the question of grammar alone? Of course, prescriptive views of language are “boring” and untenable but Chomsky’s theory of universal grammar is unaffected by Labov’s variability interests. Chomsky’s “innate language” theory works for all (it’s universal!) irrespective of how their environmental situation may shape their language production.


  3. Well, I think I was arguing the descriptive view of language presented by Chomsky was boring as well.

    I can say that because I dropped out of my PhD. program, and now as a lay person I realize the big question for me is it may be true, but so what?

    I’m arguing something much simpler than you are reacting to. I’m arguing that

    a) My life is short

    b) Why would I want to spend it on Chomsky when I have no interest in that aspect of language?

    I actually used to argue something much more complex 10 years ago, regarding how Chomsky’s grammar was perverted by a textual understanding of language initially derived by the pretend sentences so prevalent in the Philosophy of Language group.

    But I don’t need to argue that anymore. My point today is for other people Chomsky might be the really interesting aspect of language. For me it’s not.

    And life is short.

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