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Speech II: Tom Wolfe vs. Noam Chomsky

Wednesday, 17 August, 2016

Tom Wolfe’s new book, The Kingdom of Speech, looks at the work of four major figures in the history of evolution and language: Charles Darwin, Alfred Russel Wallace, Noam Chomsky and Daniel Everett. A 15-page excerpt appeared in the August issue of Harper’s Magazine titled “The Origins of Speech: In the beginning was Chomsky” and it focused on rise of Chomsky and Everett’s challenge to Chomskyism within the world of linguistics. The story begins in 1957, when Chomsky was 28. He wrote a book “with the opaque title” Syntactic Structures that turned the world of linguistics “upside down,” writes Wolfe. Snippet:

Language was not something you learned. You were born with a built-in “language organ.” It is functioning the moment you come into the world, just the way your heart and your kidneys are already pumping and filtering and excreting away.

To Chomsky, it didn’t matter what a child’s first language was. Whatever it was, every child’s language organ could use the “deep structure, ” “universal grammar, ” and “language acquisition device” he was born with to express what he had to say, no matter whether it came out of his mouth in English or Urdu or Nagamese. That was why — as Chomsky said repeatedly — children started speaking so early in life… and so correctly in terms of grammar. They were born with the language organ in place and the power ON. By the age of two, usually, they could speak in whole sentences and generate completely original ones. The “organ”… the “deep structure”… the “universal grammar’… the “device” — as Chomsky explained it, the system was physical, empirical, organic, biological. The power of the language organ sent the universal grammar coursing through the deep structure’s lingual ducts to provide nutrition for the LAD, which everybody in the field now knew referred to the “language acquisition device” Chomsky had discovered.

Harpers Along with Chomsky’s linguistics, Tom Wolfe devotes a great deal of space to Chomsky’s politics, which have grown increasingly bizarre over the years, to the point where he ascribes almost all evils in the world to the USA. Despite, or possibly because of, such derangement, he remains a darling of the left-liberal media and nothing he says, no matter how absurd, is taken seriously by his credulous disciples.

Then, OOOF!

Typically Wolfe, the capital letters are introduced to make a big point and the biggest one concerns a 13,000-word article that appeared the August–October 2005 issue of Current Anthropology entitled “Cultural Constraints on Grammar and Cognition in Pirahã” by Daniel Everett. Pirahã is a language spoken by several hundred members of a hunter-gatherer tribe in the vast Amazon basin and it does not contain any recursion, which is central to Chomsky’s theories, and “it was the Pirahã’s own distinctive culture, their unique ways of living, that shaped the language — not any ‘language organ,’ not any ‘universal grammar’ or ‘deep structure’ or ‘language acquisition device’ that Chomsky said all languages had in common,” declares Wolfe.

Piraha

The Pirahã sentence ‘There is a paca there’ uses just two words: káixihíxao-xaagá, meaning, paca exist there

Tom Wolfe is very enjoyable on the academic skulduggery used by the Chomskyians to denigrate Everett’s work and destroy his career, and one is left with the impression that the professorial class is filled with characters similar to the consigliere and caporegime of the Mafia. Filled with loathing for Chomskyism, Wolfe concludes thus:

“In three decades nobody had turned up any hard evidence to support Chomsky’s conviction that every person is born with an innate, gene-driven power of speech with the motor running. But so what? Chomsky had made the most ambitious attempt since Aristotle’s in 350 B.C. to explain what exactly language is. And no one else in human history had come even close. It was dazzling in its own flailing way — this age old, unending, utter, ultimate, universal display of ignorance concerning man’s most important single gift.”

OOOF!


Comments (1)

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  1. Henry Barth says:

    John 1:1
    In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.