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Title: Re: 18.197, Re: 18.45: An Intelligent Man's ...
Submitter: Noah Silbert
Description: 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:
Date Posted: 22-Jan-2007
Linguistic Field(s): Philosophy of Language
LL Issue: 18.229
Posted: 22-Jan-2007

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