Chomsky in New Scientist

Chomsky interview in New Scientist

Submitted by Choccy on March 19, 2012

Latest issue of New Scientist has an interview with Noam Chomsky on, language, human nature, social media and politics, as well as a little photo gallery.

Excerpt here, the full thing is online, you need a login, but it's free.

"Why can everyone learn Portuguese? Are some aspects of our nature unknowable? Can you imagine Richard Nixon as a radical? Is Twitter a trivialiser? New Scientist takes a whistle-stop tour of our modern intellectual landscape in the company of Noam Chomsky

NS: Let's start with the idea that everyone connects you with from the 1950s and 60s - a "universal grammar" underlying all languages. How is that idea holding up in 2012?

Chomsky: It's virtually a truism. There are people who misunderstand the term but I can't deal with that. It's perfectly obvious that there is some genetic factor that distinguishes humans from other animals and that it is language-specific. The theory of that genetic component, whatever it turns out to be, is what is called universal grammar.

NS: But there are critics such as Daniel Everett, who says the language of the Amazonian people he worked with seems to challenge important aspects of universal grammar.

Chomsky: It can't be true. These people are genetically identical to all other humans with regard to language. They can learn Portuguese perfectly easily, just as Portuguese children do. So they have the same universal grammar the rest of us have. What Everett claims is that the resources of the language do not permit the use of the principles of universal grammar.

That's conceivable. You could imagine a language exactly like English except it doesn't have connectives like "and" that allow you to make longer expressions. An infant learning truncated English would have no idea about this: they would just pick it up as they would standard English. At some point, the child would discover the resources are so limited you can't say very much, but that doesn't say anything about universal grammar, or about language acquisition. Actually, I doubt very much that a language like that could exist."

Rest online for free for a week. Can post the rest if admins reckon THE MAN won't come a-knocking with a copyright claim.


Armchair Anarchist

12 years 1 month ago

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Submitted by Armchair Anarchist on March 20, 2012

NS: But there are critics such as Daniel Everett, who says the language of the Amazonian people he worked with seems to challenge important aspects of universal grammarMovie Camera.

Looks like you accidentally c&p'd the alt text for the video icon


12 years 1 month ago

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Submitted by Choccy on March 20, 2012

I did... as... A TRICK to catch people out. Armchair Anarchist WINS :)

PS fixed mistake, thanks for spotting ;)


12 years ago

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Submitted by Choccy on April 9, 2012

Interview with Daniel Everett in this week's Guardian Science podcast - he's the guy currently challenging Chomsky's universal grammar, who Chomsky briefly responds to in the above interview.

Everett's work does sound interesting, and I remember someone posted an article of his in a previous Chomsky thread (Knight's 'new Galileo' one), but his main claims about the Piraha language (that it lacks recursion etc) don't necessarily contradict UG or the concept of a 'language acquisition device'. I doubt Everett would deny that if you took a Piraha newborn and raised it in another country they'd end up aqcuiring the local language, as one would expect according to Chomsky. Is there more to it than that?

I haven't read Everett's Language as a cultural tool yet, but will do.


11 years 11 months ago

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Submitted by Choccy on May 15, 2012

I think it was Knotwho who was posting about Everett before.

I've just picked up Everett's new book, though more research is casting a shadow on Everett's work. Last week's Nature (vol 485, p155-156) mentions how the problem with Everett's work with the Piraha language is that he's pretty much the only person who's studied it so it's taken a while for other to assess his challenges to universal grammar.

A german linguist, Uli Sauerland, is claiming they DO have embedded elements to sentences, demonstrating recursion and thus the ability to build sentences more complex than Everett suggests. Sauerland: "they express attitudes, and what I think they use to do this is embedded sentences'. While others are saying that Everett's claim that Piraha have no colour or number terms, nor past tense, doesn't really affect UG at all.

Will be interesting to see if Chomsky responds more to Everett as he's getting quite a bit of coverage.