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LINGUIST List 18.229

Mon Jan 22 2007

Disc: Re: 18.22997: An Intelligent Man's Answer ...

Editor for this issue: Ann Sawyer <sawyerlinguistlist.org>

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        1.    Alexander Gross, Re: 18.22997: An Intelligent Man's Answer...
        2.    Noah Silbert, Re: 18.22997: An Intelligent Man's Answer ...

Message 1: Re: 18.197: An Intelligent Man's Answer...
Date: 21-Jan-2007
From: Alexander Gross <languagesprynet.com>
Subject: Re: 18.197: An Intelligent Man's Answer...

Grounding Linguistics in Two Major Modalities 

Although I've been reading works on linguistics for almost sixty years,
this is the first time during fifty of those years that I have once again
begun to feel slightly optimistic about the future of our field. I found
Alex Kravchenko's two recent contributions here most welcome, as well as
recent messages pointing both to Dalrymple's article and to Codrescu's NPR

May I offer what may be my own latest contribution to this trend, if indeed
it be one. It is something I just completed as part of a recently received
commission and represents my best attempt so far to bring together and
synthesize the three major passions of my life: Linguistics, Theatre, and
Translation. You'll find it at:


This URL should take you to the portion of the piece dealing with
Linguistics, but some of you might also want to scroll backwards and see
the sections on theatre and translation as well. It seems to me that
linguistics today is so airy and disembodied from most real language
phenomena that it can only profit from additional grounding in two such
powerful and coequal linguistic modalities as translation and theatre.
Further evidence for this statement can be found in the text and references
of the article itself.

I find it hard to imagine how some of our colleagues may be reacting to
this recent spate of criticism, and I can't help wondering if some of those
who are not steadfastly ignoring it may not be, after five decades in the
arms of Van Winkle's Narcolepsy, coming abruptly awake and rubbing their
eyes in utter disbelief, as they mutter: ''You mean, it's not just grammar
after all...?''

In any case, I look forward to whatever your comments and criticisms may
prove to be.

All the best to linguists everywhere!



Andrei Codrescu: The Human Art of Translation, NPR, December 14, 2006,
audible online at:

Theodore Dalrymple, The Gift of Language, City Journal, Autumn, 2006,
available online at:

Linguistic Field(s): Cognitive Science
                            Computational Linguistics
                            General Linguistics
                            History of Linguistics

Message 2: Re: 18.197: An Intelligent Man's Answer ...
Date: 19-Jan-2007
From: Noah Silbert <noahpoahyahoo.com>
Subject: Re: 18.197: An Intelligent Man's Answer ...

Alexander Kravchenko responds to 'An Intelligent Man's Answer to Linguistic 
Truisms' by writing that ''...I back Dalrymple on every count and find
Pinker 'guilty as charged'.'' Dalrymple may well make some good points, and
Pinker has certainly made some bad ones, but it is absurd to suggest that
Dalrymple is right ''on every count.''

Let's take perhaps the most obvious example of Dalrymple misrepresenting
Pinker's, and Linguistics', position. Dalrymple writes that ''[i]t is
utterly implausible to suggest that imitation of parents (or other social
contacts) has nothing whatever to do with the acquisition of language. I
hesitate to mention so obvious a consideration, but Chinese parents tend to
have Chinese-speaking children, and Portuguese parents Portuguese-speaking

It has been a while since I read The Language Instinct, but if I remember
correctly, Pinker never claims that imitation has nothing whatever to do
with acquisition. I certainly haven't heard it from any regular Joe
linguist, either.

Dalrymple, and by extension, Kravchenko, fails to maintain an elementary
logical distinction here, that between necessary and sufficient conditions.
Pinker's (and others') claim is that imitation is not sufficient for
language acquisition. Dalrymple is representing Pinker's position as a
claim that imitation is not necessary for language acquisition. The two are
not equivalent.

Obviously, even the most fervent generativists understand that ''Chinese
parents tend to have Chinese-speaking children, and Portuguese parents
Portuguese-speaking ones.'' They also understand that Chinese and
Portuguese have quite a lot in common 'underneath' their many obvious

Perhaps Kravchenko was forgetting about this silly straw-man argument when
he expressed his agreement with Dalrymple. Kravchenko rightly focuses on
the issue of 'equality' between languages, as this is probably the most
interesting issue addressed in Dalrymple's article. Many linguists go to
great lengths to insist that no one language is any more complex, or any
better, than another. Dalrymple and Kravchenko disagree.

There is, perhaps, a real issue here, though standard linguistics,
Dalrymple, and Kravchenko are all (understandably) reluctant to face it
head on. In order to claim that language A is better than Language B, one
must define what, exactly, better means. If this is, in fact, a real issue,
then the exceedingly difficult work of defining and measuring the relative
complexity or 'quality' of different languages should be undertaken.

Kravchenko doesn't offer any substantive explanation for his dismissal of
the linguistic equality 'myth' other than to quote Dalrymple. Dalrymple
seems to address the problem, but in doing so he conflates eloquence and
linguistic competence. This is based on either a misunderstanding or a
deliberate misrepresentation of Linguistics, as is the imitation foofaraw
discussed above.

For what it's worth, David Foster Wallace wrote a much better essay
(published in the April, 2001, issue of Harper's) that deals with some of
these issues in a much more entertaining and well-informed manner than does
Dalrymple. The essay can be read (as of 1/19/07, anyway) at:


Linguistic Field(s): Philosophy of Language

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