English varieties (was: Word Order)

Anna Zofia Skarzynska ania at gnomic.freeserve.co.uk
Wed Apr 6 19:05:50 EDT 2005

----- Original Message ----- 
From: <minnow at belfry.org.uk>
To: <dwj at suberic.net>
Sent: Wednesday, April 06, 2005 10:29 PM
Subject: Re: English varieties (was: Word Order)

> In <42542DAF.3040206 at kindness.demon.co.uk>, Colin Fine wrote:
> >Well, I said I was being provocative, didn't I!
> T'chah, Colin!  when did that ever get you out of the squabble?  :-)
> >I think I've been inadvertently rumbled: I am a committed Pinkerite. I'm 
> >aware that he's not popular in many academic circles (as indeed is true 
> >of his hero Chomsky), but I find The Language Instinct a very clear and 
> >readable account of what I believe to be a very useful - and 
> >distressingly unfamiliar - approach to how language works, and so I lend 
> >recommend it and lend my copy round abundantly.
> If I find a book that is popular with all academics, I'll remember to
> avoid it -- anything that is universally acknowledged nearly always
> turns out later to be just another phlogiston.

Evidently Pinker is not universally acknowledged, so it's safe for you to read it. Trust me. It's worth it.

I'm wondering how you and
> Pinker think language is acquired if not by being taught, to be honest:
> the teaching may taking the form of talking to the infant, and it seems
> to be the case that infants never spoken to don't learn speech, but why
> is talking to an infant not "teaching" it?

Neither Pinker nor Colin (nor myself) are saying that children spontaneously acquire language without human contact. What Pinker does say is that humans appear to have a language instinct (Pinker's term)- meaning that when they acquire language (usually as children) they do not ONLY do so by repetition, but they have an innate ability to process what they hear, extrapolate rules and use them. A child would never hear 'he bited me'- this is an example of a child working out a rule and applying it, with perfect logic though erroneously. Nobody tells a 2 year old 'To form a past tense in English you add the ending -ed to a verb'. They work it out without being taught and clearly not by repetition. 
Occasionally there are occurrences of adults growing up without language- there is a fascinating section about such adults in Pinker's first book; they were deaf people who grew up in communities where no-one could use sign language, so they had no means of verbal communication.
Studies on people with language disorders (such as various forms of aphasia) also illuminate the whole process.

While I'm at it, I will also reply to Robyn's post:

(quote) Okay, this is why you think I don't understand the issues. I think 
Pinker is almost entirely wrong in the way he theorises language 
aquisition. I know he's popular, but there are lots of experts on 
language who don't agree with him, for various reasons. There's a lot of 
debate about the nature of language; I think Pinker is almost 
intellectually dishonest because he very rarerly acknowledges that there 
is room for debate in what he is saying.(/quote)

My understanding (such as it is) of the nature of language is not purely Pinker-derived. I found, however, that his theories of language acquisition are very compelling and he does describe the research methods used in some detail, giving ample room for assessment of them and of the conclusions reached. I do realize that you can have a compelling theory which does not stand up to scrutiny. In Words and Rules he describes in detail one of Chomsky's theories concerning vowel shifts in English past tense forms- it had me quite convinced that this must be The Truth- before demolishing it quite efficiently. 

Perhaps the attraction of Pinker's stuff is that he understands two absolutely fundamental things about study of the nature of language:
1. Spelling/writing is irrelevant; illiterate people (such as adults who for whatever reason never learnt to read and write, and children) have language too, and it's no less sophisticated than yours or mine. When we learn language as children we are illiterate; this has a lot of fairly obvious implications, one of them being...
2. Language is not words on a page; it is what is spoken aloud, the sounds being made. Writing is merely a convention. 

I might add that these insights came to me before I read any Pinker! 

Anyway, to wrap up, whether you agree with his conclusions or not, it's very stimulating reading. The part about deaf people is fascinating (in Lang. Inst.); the section on default rules (with comparisons with German and other languages- in Words and Rules) just riveting. 

And on a rather irreverent note, I think Pinker is the long lost twin of Lawrence Llewelyn-Bowen. Long lost in the 1980s somewhere! That hair!


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