Wednesday, May 09, 2012

Convincing Arguments

I remember learning Chomskian arguments for universal grammar and finding them baffling, other than the big idea that there's something hard-wired about acquiring language in humans versus any other species.  Who knew that EO Wilson had the same interpretation at that time.  Further, it is interesting that Wilson thinks this complexity helped Chomsky intimidate critics, something most people don't think happens among objective, truth-seeking scientists .   This is Chomsky's summary of his argument on universal grammar is from Wilson's Social Conquest of Earth:
[Chomsky] To summarize, we have been led to the following conclusions, on the assumption that the trace of a zero-level category must be properly governed.
  1. VP is α-marked by I. 
  2. Only lexical categories are L-markers, so that VP is not L-marked by I. 
  3. α-government is restricted to sisterhood without the qualification (35).
  4. Only the terminus of an X0-chain can α-mark or Case-mark. 
  5. Head-to-head movement forms an A-chain. 
  6. SPEC-head agreement and chains involve the same indexing.
  7. Chain coindexing holds of the links of an extended chain. 
  8. There is no accidental coindexing of I. 
  9. I-V coindexing is a form of head-head agreement; if it is restricted to aspectual verbs, then base-generated structures of the form (174) count as adjuunction structures. 
  10. Possibly, a verb does not properly govern its α-marketd complement. 

 [Wilson] Scholars struggled to understand what appeared to be a profound new insight into the workings of the brain (I was one of them, in the 1970s).  Deep grammar or universal grammar, as it was variously called, was a favorite topic of befudddled salonistes and college seminars. For a long time, Chomsky succeeded because, if for no other reason, he seldom suffered the indignity of being understood.


Mercury said...

Noam Chomsky’s authority in the field of linguistics isn’t as sacrosanct as it used to be.

Daniel Everett thinks he may have found at least one exception to Chomsky’s universal grammar theory.
Here’s a very interesting and extensive article from 2007 that includes a good deal of eye-rolling regarding Chomsky:

and here’s a note from March 2 of this year that mentions what Everett's been up to more recently:

Eric Falkenstein said...

Wilson makes the point that Chomsky's argument is not nearly as strong as it used to be.

Mercury said...

I haven’t read Wilson’s book (sounds interesting) but it seems plausible to me that language BEGAN as a human technology (what Everett thinks is the case now) and then became innate (what Chomsky thinks is the case now) over most human populations. If this is true (meaning that they’re both right within a limited context) it would make sense that an exception to Chomsky’s rule would be found in a population that has been isolated from larger populations for many thousands of years. And this of course begs the question as to whether or not human evolution stopped dead in it’s tracks ~50k years ago (good luck proposing a PhD thesis along those lines). Perhaps Chomsky grasps this and now refuses to discuss Everett’s work as a result.