Bill Long 4/13/07
A Heated, but Largely Irrelevant, Debate
Over the last forty-five years you could not go anywhere in the field of linguistics without coming upon the formidable presence and intellect of Noam Chomsky. A professor at MIT since his doctoral days at Harvard in the mid-1950s, Chomsky rocketed to the forefront of linguistic theory in the late 1950s by exposing the weakness of B.F. Skinner's behaviorist assumptions about personal speech and conduct and substituting his own naturalistic ones. Though it is hazardous to try to summarize the views of someone you don't fully understand, I can say that one of his significant contributions was his commitment to a universal grammar--that is, a sort of programmed, Kantian-like system we had in our brains that allows us to recognize and participate in the linguistic exercise we call communication. But, a universal grammar is more than that; it is an innate knowledge of the basic grammatical structure common to all human languages. In Chomsky's theory, we all have it; that is what makes us human and differentiates us from the lower orders.
Because of of what one might call this "faith" in the universal grammar, one rarely needs to leave the laboratory to enter into the mucky and dirty world of "primitive" societies. You just need to study the ways that the language is spoken or written and try to fit it into the complex rules of the universal grammar which Chomsky developed. An audio or videotape will suffice to collect data from "obscure languages."
A Different Approach to Language
The most recent (April 16) New Yorker has a lengthy article in which it probes the linguistic work of Professor Dan Everett, who has studied the Piraha people of the Amazonian rain forest of NW Brazil. Everett converted to Evangelical Christianity in the late 1970s, and with his newly-found faith and some intensive training in the Summer Institute of Linguistics, Everett began a 25-year on and off relationship with these people. I think he must have gone to the Piraha with his wife Keren under the auspices of Wycliffe Bible Translators, but the NY article says nothing about this group--I wonder why the omission.... Only a group as committed as Wycliffe to the biblical principle of bringing the Word of God to every linguistic group in the world would have inspired Everett and his wife to make this commitment. Well, as luck or fate would have it, he discarded Christian faith in the late 1990s but still was fascinated by the Piraha, and has published many articles and a few books on them.
His central observation about the Piraha is that they are practical thinkers, with no concept of a past, with no ability to count beyond two, or with no idea of what Chomsky called the concept of "recursion." "Recursion" is a linguistic term that allows one to add subordinate clauses to amplify an idea or to put two or three ideas together in the same sentence [i.e., "the man is walking down the street" and "the man is wearing a top hat" is combined, by recursion, into "the man who is wearing a top hat is walking down the street."] Chomsky argues that recursion is an essential part of universal grammar, though Everett denies that it exists in the Piraha language.
Well, you can see how the brouhaha is brewing. Everett thus argues that language is not so much a structure in the human brain as something that is shaped by our experience of living, by the culture in which we find ourselves. Everett argues, based on the Piraha experience, that babies are bathed in language from birth, and that parents and others expend great energy teaching children how to say words and put them into sentences. This process takes many years.
Haven't We Seen This Debate Before?
Though the language each side uses is pellucid at best, it appears to this reader that Chomsky and Everett are just arguing over a kind of problem that recurs in most areas of the social sciences--are the forces shaping us more a result of nature or nurture? Educational theorists, psychologists, theologians, philosophers and others all deal with this problem, though with slightly different terminology and interests. For example, when the theologian debates the "problem" of free will vs. determinism, s/he is simply stating the issue in the language of faith rather than language-learning.
Thus, even though I am fascinated by learning about other cultures and the possiblity that culture shapes our linguistic inheritance rather than some kind of "universal grammar," I think the debate partakes of an aridity that the engaging style of author John Colapinto couldn't hide. It is by its very nature a debate that is insoluble and one that is probably more shaped in its conclusions by external factors (such as an amorphous "spirit of the age") than by the result of "scientific" work. And the two termini or poles around which the debate has to circle are whether linguistic structure is embedded in the mind (a sort of Platonic view) or whether it is shaped primarily by unique individual or group experience (a more Aristotelian perspective). I propose a more excellent way.
Languages as Snapshots of the Human Experience
My approach to language/linguistics is indebted to my approach to the picture of Jesus in the Gospels. Scholars of previous generations were obsessed with the idea of writing a "life of Jesus" from the Gospels, but they were confronted with the problem of how you write one life when you have four mutually inconsistent accounts. I, along with others, suggested that what we really have in the Gospels is not an attempt to write one life but four different takes on one life. That is, each of the canonical Gospels is, as it were, a snapshot of Jesus from a different "angle." We learn about Jesus best if we know the angle at which the picture was shot and learn to appreciate the resulting collage of images we see.
Why not have a similar approach to the study of language? Rather than arguing fruitlessly about whether or not we have a "universal grammar" in us (many professors of college students would say they would be content if their students had a rudimentary acquaintance with one grammar), why not look at each language that is studied as an "angled" approach to reality? This approach would both encourage the most patient study of the languages as well as an appreciation of the cultures that produced the languages. If we can look at each language as a separate "take" on reality, we can then have some basis for comparison and enrichment of our own tongue. It encourages detailed study of the language of another country as well as the broader world in which that culture developed.
This approach is much more of a humanistic than "scientific" enterprise. But, in my judgment, science is well suited for a major makeover in our postmodern world. That, however, is the subject of another essay or two. For now, just remember, language is an angled view of the world. We are privileged if we can catch a few of the curves...