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.