Tag: linguistics

IPA: the alphabet, not the ale

Monday, 25 March, 2019
  • For hipsters, the abbreviation IPA means India Pale Ale, a trendy beer flavour that oozes hops.
  • For linguists, the abbreviation IPA means International Phonetic Alphabet, a system of phonetic notation based on the Latin alphabet.

Back in June 2015, Halle Neyens explained how it works in a Language Base Camp post titled “Linguistics for Language Learners: What is the IPA?“, and the post was accompanied by an excellent infographic showing where the sounds English speakers use are produced in the mouth and throat.

IPA

Note: Language Base Camp is a community-based hub where language learners and language lovers “connect and help each other along the path of self-directed language learning.”


Speech II: Tom Wolfe vs. Noam Chomsky

Wednesday, 17 August, 2016 1 Comment

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!


Speech I: Oliver Kamm vs. Tom Wolfe

Tuesday, 16 August, 2016 0 Comments

The Kingdom of Speech is published by Jonathan Cape but might as well have been issued by the Jehovah’s Witnesses, whose tracts at least have the merit of being funnier.” So writes Oliver Kamm in a devastating put-down of the latest book by Tom Wolfe. Along with being the author of Accidence Will Happen: The Non-Pedantic Guide to English Usage, Kamm is a leader writer and columnist for The Times and it was in that newspaper on Saturday that he took Wolfe to the reviewing woodshed.

The Kingdom of Speech Tom Wolfe argues that speech, not evolution, sets humans apart from animals and is responsible for all of our great achievements. He targets Charles Darwin and Noam Chomsky in The Kingdom of Speech when arguing that there is no evolutionary explanation for language, particularly abstract language. Kamm differs, however: “Wolfe’s theory that words are a memory aid — a mnemonic system — likewise falls apart on a moment’s reflection. Words like cat and dog and run and jump might help us to remember things in the world, but what about words like not and very and whether and however?”

Readers who purchase The Kingdom of Speech in the hope of acquiring an invigorating clarification of the big ideas at the heart of the debate about morphology, syntax, phonetics and semantics will be misled, claims Kamm, who shows no mercy in his critique:

“It’s a celebration of ignorance: a vain, sneering and calumnious piece of fluff in which Wolfe misunderstands his subject and misrepresents leading thinkers, notably Darwin and the linguist Noam Chomsky. It’s not even stylishly written. What I learnt from it is that a crotchety celebrity of vaulting hubris and small mind doesn’t feel constrained by canons of evidence and accuracy.”

Tomorrow, here, Wolfe attacks Chomsky.