Sunday, February 12, 2017

Some Exchanged Comments On Tom Wolfe's The Kingdom Of Language


Some exchanged thoughts today prompted by Tom Wolfe's The Kingdom Of Speech: 


An argument against language having evolved seems to be a version of irreducible complexity, that there's nothing close to being anything like it "below" us. 

Chomsky versus Everett.

Or is the question, as I loosely think it is, overly-binarized because however language precisely came to be, the capacity for it is within us but formed and informed by what is about us, so to speak.

Larry C:

Did you start from a web page?

In any case, seems like one of those specialist debates that lay people can only watch from the sidelines. As a kibitzer, though, I'd say:

- language seems constitutive of culture, in the human sense, and not therefor just an artifact of culture.

- whatever it is or however it works, if it isn't "within us" I'd like to know where else it might be.

- if language didn't evolve where did it come from? God? 


No I just finished reading Wolfe's The Kingdom Of Speech.

And as I'm now an expert in the origins of language, I resent your reference to me as kibitizer on the sidelines. 


I guess math is similar.  Something happened that made it possible but it seems more like a sudden awareness that it can be done with what evolved for other purposes.  But I think they have found families that hand down very specfic language defects.  


That's the argument Everett makes as recounted by Wolfe, this Amazonian tribe, Piraha, (sp) with no recursion in their language, shooting down the idea of a universal grammar, universal by definition brooking no exceptions. 


Wolfe says Everett says, if I get it, humans made language to communicate from an abundance of roughly analogous templates, bird and animal sounds, gestures, an artefact. 

Does language being a constituent of culture necessarily negate it as an artefact of culture? I'm not sure. But does it help to say it's a human artefact and not a cultural artefact?  

Larry C:

So who says anything other than what Everett says? Chomsky? Wolfe? I thought I remember reading that Wolfe does in fact think language appeared sui generis, like some gift of the gods -- is that right?

Anyway, what I (the kibitzer) said was that language was constitutive of culture, not a constituent of culture -- constituting something is quite different from being a constituent of that thing. And yes, to the extent that "human" (a species of primate) is distinct from "culture" (just a feature of this particular species, albeit a distinctive one) then I think it makes sense to distinguish a human artifact from a cultural one.

Larry C:

No, I only said or meant I'm a kibitzer, not you. You, as you say, are an expert. 


I'm in the self proclaimed experts hall of shame. 

I mean fame. 


Wolfe says Chomsky said something precisely contrary to what Everett said.

Past tense because Wolfe suggests they, Chomsky and Everett, seem to have moved off some, at least Chomsky for sure, the conflictual positions marked in the book. The conflict is that language use evolved, entailed by it being an innate, hard wired capacity, with a deep structure comprised in part by necessary verb subject agreement and embedded meaning, which is a function of language use being additive. The deep structure underlies all the surface differences in language that for Chomsky is/was superfluous to our understanding the essential nature and origin of language. Everett says the tribe he lived with and whose language he learned is a thesis breaking counter example: its members speak, according to Everett, in simple declarative statements with no abstractions, with only subject per utterance, hence no recursion. Wolfe agrees with Everett that language is made by humans over time and deeply affected by, informed by and reflective of what's around them: 17 words for snow against one.

The book takes off from a recent essay by Chomsky and a couple of acolytes that, via Wolfe, declares that for all that they wrote over the years, they're mystified by the origins of language; they're back to point one on the issue. For Wolfe, that's an amazing concession to the failure and futility of two generations of endless theorizing and asserting by the concessionaires/conceders/concessionarians. All those words, words, words as nothing, says Wolfe.

I got it that you had said "constitutive of" and not "a constituent of." I was just wondering out loud, sticking for a moment to the "cultural artefact" phrasing, whether that phrasing, which is Wolfe's, might suggest a kind of chicken/egg conundrum. 


The 17 words for snow (via Whorf?) is apparently false. 


It was my expert example trying to exemplify a point, not Wolfe's.

It sure stands to reason, though, that Eskimos, I mean Innuit, would have more words for snow than we do, Whorf being *generally* discredited, apparently, notwithstanding.

Larry C:

This too seems familiar -- haven't we touched on these issues at some point? 

Whatever, now I'm not getting the conflict, or maybe just not getting the idea, whatever it is. Would seem to me that language can be innate, hard-wired, etc., in some "deep structure" sense, but still be made by humans over time, etc., in the surface structure (so to speak) sense. This would be the only plausible explanation I can think of for why, on the one hand, humans are the only animals that exhibit language, and also why, on the other hand, there are a wide variety of human languages, each no doubt evolved to cope with what's around them, at least to some extent. Everett might have undermined the recursion theory of linguistic deep structure, but I'm not seeing how that undermines the idea of something innate that appeared with humans and not anywhere else.

And I don't get where a kibitzer like Wolfe gets off referring to the failure to date to explain the origins of language as "futility" -- what, he's got a better idea himself? Is the failure to unify gravity and quantum theory to date also a futility? The failure to explain the origin of life? Am I missing his point? 


Not sure re the prior touching on. 

I originally said I thought it the two theories were maybe excluding a middle, but that noted, I can't explain what the conflict Wolfe describes any better than I have as between an innie and outtie, so to say. Or maybe I'm explaining passably enough what Wolfe says but you just don't buy that he's describing as a conflict. As I say I don't know how to say it any better: one guy said it's inside us; the other guy said it's not inside us, it's something we made, evolution aside. 

Wolfe, a kibitzer who's read widely and deeply in this, so maybe he's more than just that without being academically specialized--some academics at least are impressed with his grasp of what he's talking about--starts by discussing Chomsky's own admission of failure. What animates Wolfe's pleasure at that is how he saw how magisterially, dismissively and imperiously Chomsky acted in both his presiding and rejecting counter theories such as Everett's, how he disdained field work, how his disciples ganged up to try to sabotage Everett, a former disciple, due to his, Everett's, 25,000 word essay took after Chomsky's theory/Ives to assert a counter hypothesis, how rocked the Chomskeyean academics were by a threat to their premises, and all that kind of thing. So what I see is is that for Wolfe the measure of the futility is the degree to which Chomsky by unlovely means tried to sabotage any attempt to come after his ultimately close minded certitudes.

Btw, Wolfe leaves off by noting how in effect Chomsky by his admission of failure rendered Everett something of a footnote, having swept aside his own very theories that Everett gained prominence in attacking.

Finally, I agree that it's not entirely clear, at least to me as well, to say we uniquely among species made language, that it's a human artefact but that that's entirely different from saying language is innately evolved in us. All I can think, even granting my expertise, is that the difference is between having said on one hand we're necessarily   language machines, that it comes pouring out of us, and that at core the machinery is the same for all of us--a "universal grammar" marked by certain inhering universal attributes, as opposed to saying no we're not, we, rather had the capacity to manufacture, as it were, over time uniquely sophisticated means of communication varying in distinctive ways and there is no necessary deep underlying commonality in language true for all humans everywhere, that what's important is observing the differences, getting out in the field to do that, and not positing sitting-in-one's-office meta language theories to the dismissive exclusion of all the observable differences. 

So I guess a question is whether there's a meaningful difference between saying deep structured language is innate in us universally whomever we are and saying we've had the capacity to make the different languages we have and that have altogether no underlying universality to them. 


P.S. Wolfe says that Chomsky's theory of recursiveness was for him and his acolytes the sine qua non of language's underlying deep structure and one of his greatest theoretical discoveries, which is why Everett's precise attack on recursiveness was so alarming.  

Larry C: (last word, for now)

Gmail lets you find anything, so it turns out you, Itzik, sent around a review of Wolfe's book by one Charles C. Mann, in the WSJ on Aug 26 last year ("Taking on Chomsky (and Darwin)"), which was highly critical. You called it a "gr8" review, and I agreed, though I guess neither of us had read the book reviewed at that point, and now you have me one better -- but I'll quote myself nevertheless:

"A gr8 review indeed. Here's another, but it doesn't do as good a job of exposing the stupidity of Wolfe's conclusion. 

Now, I generally like Tom Wolfe and consider the political Chomsky a paranoid wacko, but this notion that "Man, man unaided, created language" has a laughably boot-strap absurdity about it that I'd think a six year old could see through. What was "man" before he or she created language? Not-man? An animal? But then it wasn't man that created language. Or, if man was man before language, then speech isn't "a sheerly dividing line [between man and animal] as abrupt and immovable as a cliff". Saying that speech is what separates man from animals is as silly as saying its long neck is what separates giraffes from animals. Language is at the basis of culture, true, and that in turn has been a great aid in human survival and proliferation, but it doesn't endow the human animal with some god-like immunity from the ever-present forces of nature that Darwin and Wallace identified."

That aside though, I agree that the two theories, as you present them, seem to exclude a third or middle if you prefer, which is that language is both innate in its core -- whether you regard that "core" as some kind of "deep structure" or simply as some sort of species-based "capacity" -- and man-made in all its superficial, but nonetheless translatable, variety. Disputes over technical/scientific/academic issues beyond that can be of interest in themselves, and more so when egos, celebrities, and reputations are involved, but it looks to me like Wolfe has let them sidetrack him into quasi-theological quicksand.

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