LINGUIST List 4.394

Mon 24 May 1993

Disc: Genie, The Event

Editor for this issue: <>


  1. Vicki Fromkin, genie
  2. Ronnie Wilbur, 'The Event'

Message 1: genie

Date: Wed, 19 May 93 12:39 PDT
From: Vicki Fromkin <IYO1VAFUCLAMVS.bitnet>
Subject: genie

Susie Curtiss and I have had a number of inquiries, comments, suggestions since
the review of Russ Rymer's book GENIE was printed in the New York Times on
April 25th. We therefore thought that the LINGUIST NEW might be interested
in the letter we have just sent to the editor.


17 May 1993

The New York Times Book Review
229 West 43rd St
New York ,NY 10036

Dear Editor,

We feel we must respond to Natalie Angier's review of Russ
Rymer's book, Genie. An Abused Child's Flight from Silence, which
appeared in The New York Times Book Review section on April 25,
1993. The Angier review aids and abets the misrepresentation of
the facts regarding both personal and scientific aspects of the
Genie case and puts forward an anti-science philosophy which we
assume reflects the book she is reviewing. We spent many hours
with Russ Rymer after his articles about Genie in The New Yorker
and had hoped that the inaccuracies and misinformation which were
in the articles would have been corrected in the expanded book
version. It appears from Angier's review that this did not

While we cannot hold Angier responsible for Rymer's book, we
would have expected "a science reporter " to check the
(mis)information which she presents as fact, thereby preventing a
disservice to her readers, to science, and to Genie, herself. We
are two of the scientists who worked with Genie almost from the
very beginning of her 'emergence' from her isolation. One of us
wrote a book detailing Genie's linguistic and cognitive
development and discussing both the scientific and human aspects
of the case. We are probably as knowledgeable about this tragic
story as anyone, and are thus appalled by the inaccuracies in the
review which are too numerous to mention in this forum. We offer
but a few examples.

Angier writes that there was "bitter and often pathetic fighting
that erupted among" the scientists. The truth is that the
scientists who worked with Genie respected and liked each other,
never "publicly excoriated one another," and never "wrote
scathing accusations of malfeasance, neglect, and exploitation."
Speaking at least for the linguists, we worked together as a
team, and continue to hold each other in the highest regard as
colleagues and friends. Moreover, to our knowledge, none of us
"sued and countersued one another" .Angier should have checked to
see who were the suers and who the sue-ees. Nor is it the case
that Genie "is consigned to another sort of prison, a state
institution for retarded adults."; in fact Genie now lives in a
small board and care home with only two other women. A final
example of a most trivial inaccuracy of Rymer's is his contention
that "the publication of [Chomsky's] Syntactic Structures in 1957
is referred to among linguists as 'the Event'." This is repeated
by Angier despite the fact that a query to the LINGUIST E-MAIL
list after the review appeared, which asked if anyone had ever
heard of this reference, did not get a positive response from any
one of the 3,000 linguists throughout the world on the network.
We would also like to set the record straight regarding funding
support for the linguistic work on the case. We are very grateful
to the federal agencies (the National Science Foundation in
particular) that provided support for the linguistic research,
which we believe has contributed to our understanding of the
nature of human nature and its biological basis. .

Given the need for increased support for and interest in
science, it is indeed disappointing that someone in a position to
bridge the gap between science and the non-scientific community
would foster an antiscience attitude by harshly and
inaccurately characterizing the intent and conduct
 of the researchers and misrepresenting the research and its
findings. As only one of many examples, Angier perpetuates a
misrepresentation of a Chomskyan view of language
development regarding the importance of the linguistic
environment and the interaction of the language faculty with
other mental faculties Angier asks: "if grammar is inborn [as
Chomsky claims] why did Genie lack the skill as a result of
environmental deprivation?" We know of no 'Chomskyan' linguist
who does not understand and appreciate that normal language
development requires direct experience with language to 'trigger'
the inborn ability to acquire grammar. Nor do we know of any
linguist who denies the fact that language acquisition engages a
number of nonlinguistic cognitive abilities. . Moreover, the
results of Genie's language learning exhibit exactly the pattern
a 'Chomskyan' view of language development would predict. Grammar
(that part of our linguistic knowledge which linguists refer to
as syntax), based on neurological and cognitive mechanisms which
are maturationally constrained, will be the most vulnerable and
'unlearnable' aspect of language for someone beyond the 'critical
period' or appropriate developmental state. While Genie
accomplished what Angier considers "that most central and
magical achievement of language, using familiar words to say
things she had never heard anyone say", she developed little
grammar. This was one of the important findings of the study.

In an ongoing effort to avoid exploiting the human interest
aspects of the case and to protect Genie and her family's right
to privacy, the professionals involved in Genie's case purposely
kept it out of the public media for almost 20 years, despite
persistent interest and (at times potentially
lucrative) offers from the media to "tell the story" It is with
some considerable regret that we find this effort has been


Susan Curtiss
Professor of Linguistics

Victoria Fromkin
Professor of Linguistics
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Message 2: 'The Event'

Date: Thu, 13 May 93 07:26:33 ES'The Event'
From: Ronnie Wilbur <WILBURPURCCVM.bitnet>
Subject: 'The Event'

In the Spring-Summer 1993 alumni magazine, Rochester Review, in an
article on Elissa Newport's work on ASL acquisition and its implications
for language and mind, Kathy Quinn Thomas writes:

"It is difficult, then, for outsiders to fathom the philosophic bloodbath
that swamped the world of linguistics in 1957 with the appearance of
Noam Chomsky's doctoral dissertation *Syntactic Structures*. It was an
event that ever since has been known to linguists simply as The Event."

We have witnessed the birth of new linguistic mythology! Note 'ever since',
implying that many people have used this term over time, although it's not
clear what data she might have had to say that, other than inference from
whatever appeared in NYT (although I haven't checked with Elissa to see
if any discussion of this topic transpired during the interview leading
to the article.)
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