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Review of  Educating Eve: The Language Instinct Debate

Reviewer: Feargal Murphy
Book Title: Educating Eve: The Language Instinct Debate
Book Author: Geoffrey Sampson
Linguistic Field(s): Psycholinguistics
Issue Number: 9.734

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G. Sampson, (1997) Educating Eve: the language instinct debate, Cassell,
London, 184pp.

Reviewed by Feargal Murphy, University College Dublin.

The rise of Generative Linguistics in 60s gave a new lease of life to the
old Nature vs. Nurture debate. The behaviourist model of language was judged
a failure at explaining the process of language acquisition and a new theory
of language acquisition emerged. It was rooted in the philosophy of
Descartes in the 17th Century as well as Humboldt and, ultimately, Plato.
It came to be known as Linguistic Nativism or Rationalist Linguistics and is
most associated with Noam Chomsky. The central tenet of this theory is that
children are born with some kind of Language Acquisition Device already in
place in their brains which allows them to acquire the language of their
environment. Within linguistic nativism there has been some debate as to
whether this device provides merely general rules that allow for the
acquisition of language or whether it is a rich innate system that provides
a complete basis for language acquisition so that a child can acquire the
complexities of a language at a time when its general cognitive development
could not possibly cope with such complexity. The rationalist tradition
behind Linguistic Nativism has always been in contrast with Empiricism
which states that all ideas and knowledge (including knowledge of
language) come from experience obtained through the senses and that there
can be no innate knowledge. A view that goes back to the 17th
century and the writings of Locke, Berkeley and Hume and in the modern era
has also been associated with the philosophers of the Vienna Circle and Karl

_Educating Eve_ will certainly not determine the outcome of the nature vs.
nurture debate, nor will it, in my opinion, lead to any productive insight
into the debate. The book fails to understand the scope and import of the
nativist arguments and consequently falls short of presenting a genuine
criticism of it. As it stands the book will be applauded by those
who are already favourably disposed towards its conclusions and derided
by those who are not.

_Educating Eve_ (henceforth _EE_) argues against the writings of Chomsky, as
well as Pinker's 'The Language Instinct', Bickerton's 'Language and Species'
and Jackendoff's 'Patterns in the Mind'. These three books are essentially
aimed at the general rather than the specialist reader. The result of
targeting these three books is to make the arguments against nativism appear
weak and superficial.

The desire to rescue public opinion from the wrong path is a recurring theme
in the author's work. In his _Language and Liberty_, which also argued for
a non-nativist view of language, the main aim was to discourage people from
following left wing politics. The author's politics, unfortunately, emerge as
a strong force in this book. Given the importance of the nativism debate
I shall focus primarily on the more important linguistic issues, leaving
aside politics except when they cloud the issues surrounding nativism

The alternative to nativism that this book argues for is essentially a
version of Karl Popper's empiricism. According to this view the ability
to learn may be innate but there are no domain specific innate mechanisms
involved in learning. People learn the language of the community they belong
to in the same way that they learn anything else, by trial and error. They
'make original though fallible conjectures and test them against
objective reality' (p.137 - all quotes are from _EE_ unless
otherwise indicated). Eventually, using this method, each
individual comes to learn a language. What they learn are 'wholly cultural
constructs' (p.137), an E-language rather than an I-language, to use
Chomsky's terminology. Note that the conception of language in _EE_ is totally
different from those of Chomsky, Jackendoff, Bickerton or Pinker. For
these nativists, language cannot belong to a society rather than to the
individual. This issue is not actually addressed in the book. _EE_ merely
states that language is a cultural artifact
and not biological, but does not furnish any evidence for this claim.
The book also states Popper's belief that the mind is not amenable to
scientific theorising (p.138). I am unable to find any evidence in
the book to support this claim. However, if one assumes that the mind
is outside the domain of scientific inquiry then it simply becomes
impossible to engage in a debate about the merits of the specifics of
any nativist theory.

The first task this book undertakes is to demolish Chomsky's arguments for
nativism (only sourcing material up to 1991) and then to demolish the
'second wave' nativists - with Pinker foremost in the second wave.

The book utilises many arguments, some more noteworthy than others, and it
would be beyond the scope of this review to examine them all. I will look at
a few of the arguments, more or less at random.

The arguments against Chomsky centre on what Sampson perceives as the
basis of nativism:

1: Speed of acquisition
2: Age-dependence
3: Poverty of data
4: Convergence among grammars
5: Language Universals
6: Species-specificity

_EE_ claims the first argument (Speed of acquisition) is hollow as there is
no way of determining what exactly 'speed' could be in this area. However,
it seems uncontroversial enough that children acquire language faster than
adults and that they do so without the problems that adults encounter.
There is no attempt in the book to address the notion of whether different
languages are acquired at different speeds or whether different children
acquiring the same language do so in radically different sequences. This
would seem to be a distinct possibility if we do not have an innate
language specific faculty but rather rely on some generalised learning
mechanism. A look at the evidence regarding language acquisition
across languages would have helped make the case conclusive. The book
should have dealt more with data available in order to show that
only a non-nativist account of language acquisition could capture the
facts. Instead _EE_ relies on the notion that the Popperian account can
cope just as well as a nativist account and is closer to the 'common
sense' view of language. But this does not prove that a Popperian
account is right.

Chomsky's second argument (Age-dependence) is dismissed because, the book
states, humans can learn language at any age "if they see the task as
worthwhile" (p.36). However, the author does not describe any procedure for
assessing the worthwhileness of the task. Why a child would find it
worthwhile to learn a language when its needs are being met by
compliant adults responding to non-linguistic communication is not
addressed. If the early vocalisations of children are evidence of the
beginnings of language acquisition, then the child is deciding at a very
early age that language is 'worthwhile', at a stage when it seems difficult
to believe the child is weighing up any options to see what may or may not
be worthwhile. Following this logic we could extend the criterion of
"worthwhileness" to other 'learning' such as 'learning to walk' and
eliminate the innate component from that as well.

The book states that there are "plenty of cases on record of adults
mastering a second language to native-speaker standard apart from
accent" (p.36); I am not quite sure what it might mean to achieve
native-speaker standard apart from accent. What the book suggests
- without providing any crucial evidence -- is that
"learning as a general process is for biological reasons far more rapid
before puberty than after" (p.37). This is supposed to show that
age dependence is not proof of a critical period for language
acquisition using some innate language acquisition device -- a
critical period being one of the features that is characteristic
of innate behaviour. The age dependence, according to the book, falls out
from the slowing down of the learning process in general after puberty.
This, however, seems to contradict the other argument against age
dependence; that an adult can master a second language to native
speaker standard.The author also states that "Susan Curtiss herself
regarded Genie as refuting the strong version of Lenneberg's
claim, that natural language acquisition cannot occur after
puberty" (p.37). Susan Curtiss might want to respond to
that one herself. My understanding of her work on Genie is that Genie did
have language (that is, rule-governed creative linguistic behaviour) but was
not able to achieve anything close to native speaker competence while under
observation (Curtiss, p.204) even though it would indeed have been
'worthwhile' to do so. Furthermore her linguistic development did not follow
the same course as children acquiring language normally. This suggests that
Genie's ability to learn language was diminished due to her age but the
important point is that her cognitive development in other areas seemed
not to be so affected. It would also have been worthwhile for Chelsea to
have learned language, yet Chelsea did not achieve native speaker
standard (see Jackendoff's _Patterns in the Mind_).

The third argument presented by Chomsky for nativism, according to the book,
is poverty of data during acquisition. The arguments against Chomsky presented
in the book do not bear close scrutiny. According to the book, motherese
provides a "graded series of language lessons" (p.39) and is not at all
degenerate, as the poverty of data argument states. This is not
particularly new (the references cited by the author are from the early
70s). The fact is, however, that we really do not yet
know what role - if any - motherese plays in learning/acquiring a language.
But one thing worth noting is that there is no language teaching theory
that proposes that adults could be most effectively taught a second language
through being taught in motherese. It is also true that there do not yet
exist conclusive studies on the universality of motherese (although the wide
variety of language groups studied show a high degree of similarity). In
some cultures motherese seems to play less of a role and is different to the
motherese we see in the English speaking world. In fact motherese or child
directed speech seems not to make the task of learning/acquiring language
all that much easier but what it does is allow for a high degree of
socialisation. This can be seen in the fact that the simplification
of structure decreased greatly when the parent and child were no longer
in the presence of the observer but merely being taped. The motherese wa
s not for the benefit of the child only.

Of course, if language is not in any way innate we are left with the problem
of explaining how child directed speech is so perfectly a "graded series of
language lessons" for the infant, despite the fact that adults are not
taught how to give language lessons, perhaps empiricist would have to say
that the ability to give "a graded series of lessons" in language is innate.

The author states that a Popperian account of language learning would allow
for a child to determine the general principles from the input (as it would
for an adult who wants to learn a language). This is important as the nativist
account holds that the basic principles of language are innate and thus are
available for use in determining what is going on in the language input.
Individuals learning a language via a Popperian method would use their
learning abilities to work out the general principles from the input without
any of these principles being already available in the head. But what are we
to make of cases of *Specific Language Impairment* where the rate of
learning/acquisition a language seems different from other areas of
learning? The whole basis of a Popperian analysis is that language
acquisition is not different from any other domain where learning
occurs. Consequently, it predicts that there could be no difference
between the acquisition of language and learning in other cognitive
domains. This prediction runs counter to reported facts as clearly
presented in Yamada's 1990 book 'Laura: A Case Study for the Modularity of

In arguing against Chomsky, the author takes Chomsky's much used
example of English speaking children determining how to ask yes/no
questions. He is seeking to show that Chomsky is being dishonest in his
analysis by not verifying the data.

A child working out how to make a yes/no question in English has to work out
that if any verb is to be moved it has to be the verb in the main clause
and not just the first verb encountered in the sentence. To work this out,
a child has to distinguish between verbs and other words and also
between main verbs and auxiliary verbs as well as knowing the structure
of the phrases in the sentence. Then the child has to work out that
auxiliary verbs in the main clause can move to the beginning of the
sentence but that main verbs appear in the infinitive while a tensed
'do' occurs at the beginning of the sentence. Chomsky's point is that
children learn to make these distinctions and move the appropriate
verb from the appropriate position to form a yes/no question with great
ease. Both the author and Chomsky agree on the analysis of the rule
involved in forming a yes/no question but where they differ
is in their belief about the *exposure* of children to yes/no questions
where the main clause is not the first clause in the sentence but
rather a subordinate clause appears first, as in:

Is the man who is talking to Bill wearing gloves?

Chomsky's claim is that a child may not encounter such a question in the
language s/he hears before determining the rule of yes/no question
formation. _EE_ argues that such sentences are indeed present in the
language that children hear. What the book actually has to prove is that all
children hear this crucial form of yes/no question before they
determine the yes/no question formation rule. This is not shown but
instead it is argued that such structures are available to children who
read; but children who don't read learn language as well. Indeed it is
quite possible that children form the rule about yes/no question
formation before the ever learn to read. The author claims that he
shows that Chomsky is 'wildly mistaken' (p.42), he
paraphrases the situation as follows:

".. the man who is the world's leading living intellectual, according the
Cambridge University a second Plato is basing his radical reassessment of
human nature largely on the claim that a certain thing never happens; he
tells us that it strains his credulity to think that it might happen, but he
has never looked, and people who have looked find that it happens a lot."

The people who have looked are Sampson himself and Geoff Pullum (p.42) but
they have only checked sources of written language but as I have said this
ignores the fact that illiterate children can also speak. In fact, so
enamoured is the author with the written word that he argues that,
historically, hypotaxis emerges as literacy develops. Somehow the
organisation involved in writing leads to great leaps forward in
language. He does finally admit that there is no great research
on this topic but blames linguistics departments for this ("this is
not a popular topic of research in linguistics departments", p.75).
There is nothing to prevent the taping of the speakers
of modern pre-literate languages -if one can find any cultures that could be
classed as pre-literate without any qualifications - in order to test for
the occurrence of hypotaxis but the author doesn't seem to have u
ndertaken this task. The book doesn't opt fully for the idea that
there was little or no hypotaxis in the languages of ancient pre-literate
cultures as the author states, hedging his bets: "If there was little
or no hypotaxis in these languages" [the Hebrew of the old
testament etc.] "that is a real difference between them and more recent

For obvious reasons we can never answer the question of whether or not there
was hypotaxis in Hebrew before writing or indeed while writing was still a
fairly recent innovation. It is true that serious investigation into
parataxis and subordination in various languages has been carried out
and goes back over one hundred years. The book claims that "it
was a cliche of late nineteenth century linguistics that the
early stages of languages with a long recorded history showed
a development from what was called parataxis to hypotaxis"
(p.74). It cites great linguists like Karl Brugmann, Hermann Paul and Eduard
Hermann as support for the notion that languages go from a paratactic stage
to a hypotactic stage. But there are two problems with this. Firstly, not
all nineteenth century linguists would have been happy with the notion that
hypotaxis emerged as writing developed. Hermann Jacobi's 1897 work
'Composition und Nebensatz' concluded that "Maori, like early stages of PIE
may not have had contained a relative particle" in subordination (Lehmann,
p.60). So Jacobi is claiming that PIE did have subordination which is the
basis of hypotaxis for Brugmann, Paul and Hermann. Secondly, there is really
no reason to believe that nineteenth century linguists got everything right
in comparative and historical linguistics. The idea that hypotaxis emerged
from a previous stage must be seen alongside other ideas in nineteenth
century linguistics about the development of languages from primitive
systems to more complex systems.

The fourth argument the book looks at is Convergence among grammars - the
notion that people of varying levels of intelligence and exposure to
different language inputs, converge on the same grammar. The book claims
(p.46) that Chomsky has admitted that educated people may know their mother
tongue better. This does not fit in with an I-Language approach and so is
obviously not representative of Chomsky's theory of language. An I-Language
approach excludes the possibility of a mother tongue (an E-Language) that
people have mastered to varying degrees. For Chomsky such things as
English or Hungarian or Swahili do not exist in any meaningful way. This is
controversial, but the point is that for Chomsky there is no mother tongue
divorced from an individual's knowledge of it.

The second line of argument identified by Sampson is that people do not
actually converge on the same grammar as they give different grammatical
judgments in response to the same data. The book refers to Labov's work -
presented in Austerlitz (1974) - where respondents varied in their judgments
about the grammaticality of presented sentences. The really interesting
thing here is that the people taking the test understood the instructions -
oral and written - which they were given concerning the test. It is hard to
see how they could all have the same understanding of what was said to them
unless they had pretty much the same grammars. The language that was used in
their instructions would most likely have contained a variety of syntactic
constructions, but there are no reports of the people completing the test
remarking on the ungrammaticality of any of the instructions they were
given. It is easy to find people varying in groups and even as individuals
over time when you ask them to assess sentences such as:

'Every one of the boys didn't go there'.

The fact that individuals will differ in their judgment over time shows that
what is being tested is not the individual's competence because an adult's
competence does not vary - although their performance might. A large number
of factors determine whether an individual would judge a sentence like the
one given above as perfectly grammatical or borderline or totally
ungrammatical. But the fact that there is a variation in the reported
judgments does not in fact constitute an argument against convergence
among grammars it is not a test of grammars but rather a test of
performance. Intuitions about sentences involving
scope relations of quantifiers and negation vary because of the many factors
that bear on performance.

The book also contends (pp.107 - 137) that the existence of language
universals can be explained by the fact that a Popperian learning system
will automatically yield such universals. They are not the result of
the nature of the language faculty but instead derive from the
Popperian system of learning. Again, the author does not show that
a Popperian account is better than a nativist account at capturing
the facts. If the case against nativism is to be proven,
then those language universals that we can agree to exist must be explicable
either within a Popperian system *only* or at least they should be explained
better by a Popperian learning theory. The book does not do this.

The book targets Pinker's 'The Language Instinct'. Why Sampson decides to
devote so much effort to the book is somewhat puzzling. Pinker's book is
aimed at a fairly general audience and as such is not really a
worthwhile target. Among the arguments against Pinker we find the
assumption that surnames are actual words in individual languages.
This means that the existence of a person in England with 'sri' as
the first three letters in his surname means that 'sri' is a
possible initial consonant cluster in English (p.83).

The author also can't resist taking a pot-shot at what he imagines Pinker's
political views to be. The tone of his response to Pinker is one of
condescension which can be irritating and detracts from any points that
the author may be trying to make as well as being irrelevant to
the substantive issues. But the worst attack is saved for Bickerton.
The book seeks to portray him as an intellectual lightweight in a most
unappealing way (p .76):

"[Bickerton's] stuff must be a real hit with Green students on Hawaii".

It is surely not too much to expect that personal abuse would be kept out of
the realm of intellectual debate.

The book also takes on Jackendoff stating that Jackendoff writes well:
"Jackendoff is one of the best writers among the linguistic nativists"
(p.76), but not forgiving him for being a nativist. "If Jackendoff reaches
for the word 'instinct' so hastily in these cases, how can we trust
him to use the word judiciously where there are real questions
to be resolved" (p.79). The main issue picked up on in Jackendoff's
work relates to sign language. At one stage the author says
(arguing against Jackendoff's analysis of Universal Grammar):

"Jackendoff has shortly beforehand pointed out that one aspect of American
sign language grammar is not paralleled in any spoken language. The
sign-language equivalent of the third person pronouns (she, they, his)
consists of gesturing (with hand shapes and movements that depend on whether
the reference is singular, plural or possessive) to locations in the signing
space which have been assigned to successive topics of conversations. 'The
effect is that there are as many different third-person pronouns available
as there are discernible locations in the signing space'. No spoken language
has a pronoun system remotely like this, so how can it be part of our innate
knowledge." (p.78)

The author is missing the point here. Sign language expresses person,
number, gender and possession as spoken language does and not some
other features not found in spoken language. So the system the same as
spoken language. The use of pronouns in sign language is exactly the same
as the use of pronouns in spoken language and is based on universal grammar,
what is different is the modality. The availability of the signing space
means that a signer can introduce a greater number of pronouns into
the discourse as each pronoun can be allocated a
location in the signing space without leading to any confusion. This is the
same as the fact that I could use as many second person singular pronouns as
I wanted as long as I looked at the individual that I was addressing
with that pronoun. Looking at the person that I was referring to
with the pronoun is really the same as the signer using the sign space to
tag pronouns. This is not just true of second person pronouns.
I could be talking about, say, the members of a football team and refer to
each individual using a third person pronoun. I could be quite
clear in my own head who is being picked out each time, it would
just be confusing to the person I was talking to. This is because
there would be no way for them to distinguish the
referents of each of the pronouns. In sign language I can exploit the
possibility of the signing space by tagging each meaning of a
pronoun with a location in space so that the whole thing does not get
confusing. The potential in both oral and sign language is the same,
but sign can exploit the signing space in a way that
oral language cannot. The point is that the limitations are not imposed by
language but by the modality. What Jackendoff is saying is that the same
Universal Grammar underlies language no matter what the modality.

The last chapter in the book ('The Creative Mind') presents Sampson's view
of Popper. It is not without problems and the author devotes much time to
arguing that Popper didn't always mean what he said and that Sampson's
analysis of Popper is the best. However, the crucial lines in the chapter
for the purposes of nature vs. nurture are:

"Minds are not a topic open to scientific theorising." (p.139)


"The position adopted in this book is that conscious human minds are not
physical entities. Talking about minds is not a way of talking about
high-level aspects of brain functioning. Minds and bodies are different and
separate things which act on one another." (p.138)

For all those people who believe that minds are indeed a topic open to
scientific theorising this will render anything else the book has to say
suspect. Modern nativists (as well as most non-nativists) view the mind as
amenable to scientific theorising. For Chomsky there is no other possible
way to study the mind (Chomsky 1993, 1995). It is hard to see how a
significant debate can take place between two such opposite points of view.
The author is committed to the cause of a Popperian analysis of language
learning/acquisition but will never be able to convert a nativist to his way
of thinking until he can gain an understanding of the motivations for adopting
a nativist position or reconcile himself with the possibility that nativism
may be a stance that an intelligent person can adopt. The author seems to
imagine himself fighting a rear guard action against the hordes of
misguided nativists who, as he sees it, are close to winning the
hearts and minds of the masses. One important aspect of this book
is that it can be read as a means of testing how one feels about
linguistic nativism. Unfortunately for Sampson's crusade, it had
the effect of making me prefer the nativist analysis even more than before.

(more background information about the author, Geoffrey Sampson, and the
book 'Educating Eve' is available at:


R. Austerlitz (ed) (1974), The Scope of American Linguistics, Peter de
Ridder Press.
N. Chomsky (1993), "Naturalism and Dualism in the Study of Language",
International Journal of Philosophical Studies, 2 (2): 181 - 209.
N. Chomsky (1995), "Language and Nature", Mind, 104 (403): 1 -61.
S. Curtiss (1977), Genie: A Psycholinguistic Study of a Modern Day "Wild
Child", Academic Press.
P. Fletcher and B. MacWhinney (eds) (1995), The Handbook of Child Language,
W. P. Lehmann (1974), Proto-Indo-European Syntax, University of Texas Press.
G. Sampson (1979), Liberty and Language, OUP.
G. Sampson (1980), Schools of Linguistics, Hutchinson.
J. Yamada (1990), Laura: A Case for the Modularity of Language, MIT Press.

Feargal Murphy, Lecturer in the Department of Linguistics, University
College Dublin.