Monday, 10 November 2008

Challenging linguistic theory isn't funny enough

One of the good things about science, is that it always knows it might be wrong. According to Karl Popper, a theory should be considered scientific if and only if it is falsifiable. New evidence can and should displace a prevailing theory, until the point at which even newer evidence emerges.
Linguists, for example, used to believe that language was culturally determined, and then along came Chomsky who presented evidence that it was an innate, genetically determined faculty. To borrow an analogy from Steven Pinker, humans have a language ability in the same way that spiders have a web-spinning ability.
While most of the broadcast and print media (such as the Telegraph)were widely reporting a "a list of the most irritating cliches" this weekend, taken from a new book about the English language, the really interesting item for linguists and language afficionados was hidden away elsewhere. On Saturday morning's travel programme "Excess Baggage" on BBC Radio 4, linguist Dan Everett was talking about his experiences with the Piraha people of the Amazon. If Everett is right, and the Piraha language does indeed lack some of the universal innate features that Chomsky ascribed to all languages, then perhaps it's time to review the prevailing theories in the light of the evidence. In academic circles, the debate about Everett's work had been going on for several years. But "at the end of the day" it's simply not entertaining - too much like "rocket science" I suppose.

1 comment:

Karen said...

New Scientist had a podcast about Dan Everett's work 1-2 years ago. Maybe it's not funny, but I find it utterly fascinating (maybe I really am a sad geek?) I checked your links to jog my memory. I recall something about them not perceiving the future as being in front of us, in the linear perception of past, present, and future.

Another book that has (to me) new insights on language comes from Oliver Sacks: "Seeing Voices". It is 20 years old, but I enjoyed the thought-provoking story he had of his first encounter with Deaf culture and language, providing lots of history and research info throughout. I recommend it to all language geeks.